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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Olson to return

    Kevin O’Neill has spent the season as the caretaker of the UA men’s basketball program. Now the owner is coming home.

    The UA announced yesterday that head coach Lute Olson would return to his post in April, after taking a season-long leave of absence.

    Olson said in a press release that his leave was necessitated “”by a medical condition that was not life-threatening, but serious enough to require time away from my coaching responsibilities.””

    However, in a Nov. 4 release Olson had said, “”It isn’t a health scare but rather a personal matter that needs my undivided attention.””

    In the meantime Olson has filed for divorce from his wife, Christine, and the Wildcats have played through an up-and-down season that has left them in danger of missing the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 24 years, a streak that covers all but Olson’s first season at the UA.

    “”I am very eager to be back doing what I love, which is coaching this team,””

    Olson said in the statement. “”I appreciate everyone’s support during this period and want to thank Kevin O’Neill for the great job he’s done in my absence.””

    Added UA athletic director Jim Livengood, “”We are delighted that Lute will be rejoining the program. He is one of the true legends of collegiate coaching, and his return is something that I know will be embraced by everyone who cares about our basketball program.””

    Olson and Livengood were not available for further comment, although Livengood will hold a press conference this morning.

    Olson’s return, which O’Neill expects to officially happen when the season ends, puts the interim head coach’s future with the program in doubt.

    O’Neill had been named Olson’s successor-in-waiting on Dec. 18, but O’Neill said yesterday he will do what he always does in evaluating his options and making decisions after the season.

    National reports have questioned whether the duo can co-exist, as Olson favors a free-flowing offense while O’Neill likes to run more set plays. Also, Olson mixes in some zone defense while O’Neill plays a strictly man-to-man scheme.

    But O’Neill said he does not expect that to be an issue, as he was brought in to be Olson’s de facto defensive coordinator.

    “”Basically I’ve just coached the team in his absence,”” O’Neill said. “”With him being a head coach he’ll coach the team. I just like basketball, and I want to be in a good situation, as good a situation as I can be competitive-wise. So I don’t have an ego that makes it so I have to be a head coach. I don’t see that as being any problem whatsoever.””

    UA forward Chase Budinger agreed, saying both coaches would complement each other because they have so much knowledge of the game.

    “”Them two together could really make a difference on the team just because their views are different,”” he said. “”But if they could really connect as one, both offensively and defensively those two could take a team, take it all the way.””

    Forward Bret Brielmaier added, “”I think they both bring an interesting aspect to the game, different mentalities that I think can really benefit the team.””

    The announcement came two days before Arizona’s Pacific 10 Conference tournament opener tomorrow against Oregon State, a game the Wildcats likely need to win to keep their NCAA Tournament hopes alive.

    Arizona’s no stranger to dealing with off-the-court issues while having to focus on games.

    The Wildcats have already played through Olson’s Nov. 4 announcement that he would take a leave of absence, a Dec. 6 announcement that he would extend it for the rest of the year and the Dec. 18 proclamation of O’Neill as Olson’s successor.

    O’Neill compared his situation of coming on board as the lead man, hours before the team’s first exhibition game, to jumping on a milk truck going 60 mph with everything in motion.

    “”There’s been a lot of moving parts on our situation all year long,”” O’Neill said.

    Budinger said he’s disappointed Olson was not able to coach this year, the circumstances of which McClellan said he’s “”pretty sure”” have affected the entire team.

    “”Especially the freshmen, they were coming in, they were expecting to play for one coach, and he hasn’t really been around,”” McClellan said. “”And then another coach comes in, it’s probably difficult in their eyes. We’ve adjusted to it just fine. I think we’re lucky to be sitting where we’re at.””

    Now as some of the questions lingering around the Olson situation have started to be answered, the team still has to deal with opening the playoff portion of its season in mere days.

    Budinger said it shouldn’t be a distraction because it will only affect next season, but McClellan admitted the timing isn’t ideal.

    “”Unfortunately it had to come at a time like this, but we know what we have to do,”” McClellan said. “”We have to get ready for Oregon State.””

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