Interim University of Arizona basketball coach Kevin O’Neill was stopped at a red light recently when he heard a man yelling at him from the sidewalk.
It was 6 a.m.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” the man screamed. “Why don’t you play a zone?”
O’Neill shook his head, smiled and drove off.
It would be inaccurate to say college basketball is a religion in Tucson.
Most worshippers aren’t as ardent about their faith as fans are about the Wildcats.
O’Neill first learned of that devotion in the late 1980s, when he was an assistant under Lute Olson. But it didn’t really hit him until he replaced Olson as head coach last fall.
That’s when the e-mails started to pour in. Every day. Morning, noon and night. O’Neill hasn’t kept track, but he’s sure they number in the thousands.
“They’re pretty typical,” O’Neill said. “When you win things are hunky-dory. If you lose, they aren’t.”
The Wildcats are winning but not like they once did, and that has fans on edge.
They crave a return to the days when Arizona was dominating the Pac-10, Olson was stalking the sidelines and top high school recruits thought Tucson was a direct route to the NBA.
O’Neill would love that, too. But he knows better.
“It’s going to be very, very difficult, if not impossible to duplicate the greatness Lute had here for a long time,” O’Neill said.
“Let’s face it. It’s not 1988 anymore.”
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Arizona’s program has slipped to the point it’s no longer one of college basketball’s jewels.
It still has its good name — much like the Michigan football program — but the results don’t match the reputation.
The erosion was inevitable.
Olson has set an unrealizable standard: Twenty-three straight NCAA tournament berths, four Final Four appearances and 11 Pac-10 titles.
Eventually, that run was going to come to an end.
“You just can’t count on that kind of dominance forever,” former Arizona State coach Bill Frieder said.
Arizona will not fall off the college basketball map. The Wildcats are bringing in the nation’s fifth-ranked recruiting class this fall — including point guard Brandon Jennings, the Naismith High School player of the year. If either Chase Budinger or Jerryd Bayless stay in school another year, the Wildcats will be one of the favorites in the Pac-10.
But there’s no question Arizona is on the downturn, and there are three specific reasons why:
• Poor recruiting:
Simply put, the Wildcats don’t have as much talent as they once did.
One example: The backup point guard on the 1997 national championship team was Jason Terry, who’s in his ninth season in the NBA.
Arizona’s third guard this year is Daniel Dillon. He played 82 minutes in the two games against ASU and had four points.
Another example: Olson was able to redshirt 6-foot-10 center Sean Rooks as a freshman in 1988. Rooks not only would have started as a freshman this year, he would have been the Wildcats’ best big man.
“The one thing we don’t have is great depth,” O’Neill said.
That’s because Olson uncharacteristically whiffed on his 2004 and 2005 recruiting classes. Arizona’s senior class this year consists of Bret Brielmaier, Dillon, Jawann McClellan and Kirk Walters, none of them impact players. The junior class: Fendi Onobun and Mohammed Tangara.
It’s true that Arizona has lost players early to the NBA — Marcus Williams left after his sophomore season — but in the glory days the Wildcats would always have a strong bench to turn to. That hasn’t been the case the last couple of years.
• Olson’s future:
Both Frieder and McClellan believe Olson is coming back next season, but that doesn’t guarantee success or stability.
Olson is 73 years old. He can only coach for so long. Then there’s the fact that O’Neill, already designated as Olson’s successor, likely will bolt the program if Olson does return.
While O’Neill denies that there’s a rift between the two coaches, one source said O’Neill isn’t thrilled that Olson has been talking to players privately the past few weeks.
“I just hope it doesn’t end on a bad note,” McClellan said.
• The strength of the Pac-10:
Ten years ago, the conference had two upper-tier programs — Arizona and Stanford — and a UCLA team that was up and down under Steve Lavin.
But look at the Pac-10 now: UCLA and Stanford are top-10 clubs.
Washington State, USC and Oregon made the NCAA tournament last year.
O’Neill recalled visiting McKale Center in 2004 while a coach with the Toronto Raptors and watching the Wildcats beat the Bruins, 107-83, in Ben Howland’s first season as UCLA’s coach.
“Times have changed,” O’Neill said.
So have the coaches.
From Howland to ASU’s Herb Sendek to Washington State’s Tony Bennett and Washington’s Lorenzo Romar, the coaching in the Pac-10 is far more accomplished than it was a decade ago.
“There was a run after (John) Wooden where Lute just took over,” Frieder said. “But now you have Ben Howland at UCLA and he’s not going to allow that to happen.”
An announcement about Olson’s future could come as early as next week.
But Wildcats fans who believe he’s going to restore the program to its previous heights are deluding themselves.
“The days of dominating the Pac-10 are gone,” O’Neill said.
They won’t like hearing that in Tucson.
But it’s the truth.