Earlier this season, Arizona basketball players were discussing the sensitive issue of shoe styles when the talks suddenly broke down.
“Some people wanted to wear all black on the road,” wing Chase Budinger said. “But white people don’t look good in black shoes. We look slower.”
So Budinger and Bret Brielmaier became the key reasons why Arizona wears white shoes for every game this season.
It wasn’t because they managed to force their wishes on everybody else. It was just because, under interim head coach Kevin O’Neill, everyone had to agree on the same thing.
No longer can some players wear off colors or go with sparkles unless they all do it.
“It’s everything or nothing,” forward Fendi Onobun said.
It’s a simple rule but a significant one to O’Neill, who also forbids his players from wearing headbands.
It’s all about eradicating individualism.
“I’m just a real big believer in everybody being part of the team,” O’Neill said. “I mean, why should one guy be wearing psychedelic shoes and two headbands? The best way to stand out on your team is to play well. I just think let’s make it about basketball.”
So if a guy with little or no hair is concerned about sweat dripping into his eyes, O’Neill isn’t buying it.
While these two rules are firm, O’Neill insists he really isn’t making the Wildcats’ lives radically different than they were before.
“I’ve had very few rules,” O’Neill said. “My rules are, like, be on time and don’t be a jerk. Share the ball with your teammates, and play hard on defense. Those are simple rules.”
Even if they are subtle at times, Budinger said the rules do make a difference.
“I think that it makes basketball more businesslike for us,” Budinger said. “We do love playing the game of basketball, but it’s also kind of our job and we’ve got to go out every game and just make it our living.”
There’s a few other things, though they’re not really rules so much as a philosophical outlook. O’Neill gets upset if a player adversely affects his academics or adopts a prima donna attitude that fails to respect the school.
“There are great students, great achievers, great athletes here,” O’Neill said. “Look at the number of Olympic swimmers they’ve had in our swimming program. Look at the number of baseball players who go pro, the number of gymnasts who are All-American. Our guys should not underestimate the accomplishments of others in the athletic department.”
On the court, most of the changes O’Neill has brought since he took over for Lute Olson on Nov. 4 are fairly well-documented. The frequent timeouts, the varying rotations, the increased offensive sets and the constant man-to-man defense.
There are more subtle differences, too. O’Neill will wear business suits during games, while Olson prefers the khaki pants-blazer look.
While Olson got his message across with glares, not swears, O’Neill uses an intense combination of body and verbal language to make himself clear.
At the same time, O’Neill will frequently embrace his players.
“He’ll yell or cuss but he lets it go,” Onobun said. “He’s a very emotional coach, but he’s very loving. He has your back.”
Onobun should know. Nobody on the team has probably tested O’Neill more this season, due to a recent string of tardiness.
But once Onobun started showing up on time, all was fine. That wasn’t always the case with players who ran into trouble before.
The rest of O’Neill’s changes are mostly to increase focus. Never one to waste time in actions or words, O’Neill doesn’t let his players do so, either.
He shows scouting films during team meals, has keys to victory listed on placemats, and has hotel rooms arranged with U-shaped “war room” seating for strategy meetings.
Aside from those details, UA staff members said, the hands-on O’Neill does not ask for much.
Before games, he doesn’t even have an elaborate or superstitious routine.
“He’s a low-maintenance guy,” said Ryan Hennick, UA’s basketball program coordinator.
KO’s new rules
Comparing Arizona coach Lute Olson with interim coach Kevin O’Neill:
Olson Ritual O’Neill
Run and gun OFFENSE Grind it out
Save ’em TIMEOUTS Use ’em
Sometimes ZONE DEFENSE Never
Consistent ROTATION Strategic
On the bench T.O. HUDDLES On the court
Classic GAMEDAY LOOK Wall Street
Body LANGUAGE Words
OK, to an extent PLAYER INDIVIDUALISM Never
Yes HEADBANDS No
Popcorn PREGAME TREAT Diet Pepsi
Yes DOGHOUSE No