TUCSON •-The 23-year streak of NCAA tournament appearances is still intact, but Lute Olson knows that alone doesn’t cut it anymore.
He created the expectations, after all, putting the University of Arizona in the Final Four four times over 14 years. That kind of success makes first-weekend NCAA tournament exits in three of the past four seasons look like disappointments.
That kind of success also makes 28-point home-court losses, such as the one UA suffered to North Carolina last season, unacceptable. Or two-game sweeps by teams such as Washington State and USC.
It also can suggest that maybe a drastic move, such as replacing longtime aide Jim Rosborough with former NBA and college head coach Kevin O’Neill, was needed to shake some life into his proud program.
“People get totally spoiled,” Olson said before he took a leave of absence earlier this month. “They think it’s easy, that all you do is put a team out there and you win. I bet there wouldn’t be a whole lot of schools out there complaining about 23 consecutive tournaments.
“The more successful a program becomes the more criticism you’re going to face.”
But it wasn’t just the outside expectations that were not met during last season’s roller coaster ride, which plunged out of control down the stretch, then crashed when the Wildcats played listlessly in a Pac-10 tournament loss to Oregon and were quickly dispatched from the NCAA tournament by Purdue.
They also let themselves down.
“Last year we had a very talented team and never played up to the expectations of ourselves or the coaching staff,” senior forward Bret Brielmaier said. “Losing to Purdue, in retrospect, was a good thing. It was kind of an eye-opening experience.”
Now, O’Neill is back after an 18-year absence to make sure those eyes stay open. At 6 a.m. for conditioning drills, at 3 p.m. for a workout or at 7 p.m. for an evening walk-through.
The Wildcats also have a potential All-American in forward Chase Budinger, who is expected to defer less now that he’s a sophomore and now that ex-teammates Mustafa Shakur and Marcus Williams are gone.
They expect to have better health from seniors Jawann McClellan (knee) and Kirk Walters (mono), who slogged their way through last season.
Then there’s guard Jerryd Bayless, the Phoenix St. Mary’s graduate who’s constantly compared to Mike Bibby, who is expected to take the ball immediately.
Yet, thanks in part to last season’s tepid finish, the Wildcats are not considered Final Four contenders this season. They are not even expected to finish among the Pac-10’s top three teams.
Even if the Wildcats are better than the 20-11 team of a year ago, their record might not be. The Pac-10 appears as strong as ever, with UCLA, Washington State and, in some circles, even Oregon and Stanford considered ahead of Arizona. In addition, the Wildcats’ nonconference schedule, while diluted slightly, is still intimidating, with Kansas, Texas A&M, Illinois, UNLV, Memphis and Houston in the way.
“Is that smart? I don’t know,” Olson said of his scheduling. “But my feeling has always been that you have to play good people, and you need to get better as you go.”
On the floor, it will be up to the savvy Brielmaier, the personable McClellan and the mega-talented Budinger to make sure it happens. Those three may be the leadership core of a team that, once again, is strongest on the perimeter.
UA has several appealing options in the backcourt, with one putting Bayless at the point and McClellan at the two. Another has Bayless at the two and the slimmed-down Nic Wise at the point, with McClellan moving to one of the forward spots.
Either way, Bayless figures to be on the floor often, a prolific scorer with a driven personality.
“He’s a great competitor and he’s a tough kid, an emotional kid who needs to be controlled,” Olson said. “But I think he’s a very bright young guy and I think that will take care of itself. I’d certainly prefer that than somebody who’s passive.”
For now, of course, all this is theory. UA is a bunch of talented, mostly young guys attempting to mold a tougher, better team than it put together the past two seasons.
The Wildcats know it, too. So while the usual preseason thoughts about being No. 1 or going far in the NCAA tournament still exist, there is no bragging coming out of McKale Center these days, just understated internal expectations.
“Obviously, you want to come out and win the Pac-10 tournament and then go make a run in the (NCAA) tournament,” Brielmaier said. “Possibly make a Final Four and see what happens from there. Maybe a national championship.”
A deep NCAA tournament run would also satisfy the outside expectations.
For a change.