While Arizona State rebuilds this season, the University of Arizona will contend for another NCAA basketball championship.
At least that was Texas coach Rick Barnes’ half-kidding assessment Monday, after he heard UA coach Lute Olson mention his four returning starters and compare freshman recruit Chase Budinger to Sean Elliott.
“In coach-speak, he’s got four starters back and a freshman that reminds him of Sean Elliott. . . . I think he’s basically telling you he’s going to win a national championship,” Barnes said at a press conference to raise awareness for the first Basketball Hall of Fame Challenge at US Airways Center on Dec. 2.
“Easy for him to say,” Olson said.
Arizona will play Illinois, and Texas will play Gonzaga in a doubleheader that will stand as a fundraiser for the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., of which Olson is a member.
Arizona returns Pac-10 all-freshman wing Marcus Williams, three-year starting point guard starter Mustafa Shakur and two other starters along with Budinger, a 6-foot-7 wing player who was the co-MVP of the McDonald’s High School All-America game with 6-10 Texas recruit Kevin Durant.
“The whole thing is, you have to be really, really good, but you also have to be really lucky,” Olson said.
“Everything has to fall right. But I like this team. There is good team chemistry.”
While talent is seldom an issue for Olson, fortune has not swung with the Wildcats recently.
Arizona lost to Duke in the 2001 NCAA title game when guard Gilbert Arenas suffered an incapacitating back injury.
In 2005, it failed to hold a 15-point lead with four minutes remaining and an eight-point lead with 81 seconds left in an 90-89 overtime loss to Illinois at the Midwest region finals in Chicago.
Illinois’ five starters in that game are all now on NBA rosters.
Olson said he thinks about that game “not more than once or twice a day,” a line he apparently uses often.
“They say you forget your wins but not your losses. I’ve forgotten a lot of wins. I’ve never forgotten a loss. That one hurt,” he said.
While the stakes are not nearly as high this time, Olson said he is looking forward to playing Illinois in a more favorable setting.
“We’d rather play here than in Chicago,” said Olson, who said that he has scheduled a return game in Chicago. Budinger averaged 34 points and 11 rebounds at La Costa Canyon High in Encinitas, Calif., last season but will have to win his starting spot on the court, Olson said.
“He’s ahead of any of the freshmen we’ve brought in,” Olson said.
“He reminds me of Sean Elliott but does not have that knee problem that restricted Sean’s defensive ability, more than anything.
“He has a chance to be as good as anyone we’ve had. He’s a team guy. He is a competitor, like Sean. He’s a great teammate. A great passer.”
Elliott is UA’s career scoring leader and was an All-American before playing for two NBA championship teams in San Antonio.