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Tag:Kevin O'Neill
Posted on: April 2, 2008 7:00 pm
 

A Day at the Press Conference

Arizona fans were relieved to see Lute Olson back at the helm and as the face of the Wildcats once again. Although he didn't go into much discussion or detail to clear the air about his leave of absence, it appears as though it was justified and the length of it had a lot to do with not wanting to disrupt the team and affect the players halfway through the PAC-10 schedule. Kudos on that, Lute. In his press conference Lute Olson appeared and acted younger than he has since marrying Christine. I for one, believe that he is now ready to take this Arizona program back to where it was 7 years ago, to the top of the Nation and a pre-season favorite for a National Title. That is of course if Jerryd Bayless and Chase Budinger both return, but that's another topic entirely.

But before we can jump ahead to the future and anticipation, there is something else that came out of this press conference. The public announcement that Kevin O'Neill will not return as an assistant coach for Arizona, and thus closing the door of a black mark on Arizona's program since Olson took the helm back in 1983. Kevin O'Neill was accepted with open arms and great expectations to shore up the defense as an assistant coach. In a season that had more drama, bumps and bruises, and uncertainties than any year in recent memory, Kevin O'Neill failed to even do what he came in to do: shore up the defense. The defense was just as half-hearted as ever, and time after time Arizona failed to get the stop when they really needed one.

Within 24 hours of the press conference the Arizona message board is aflurry with people celebrating the dismissal of Kevin O'Neill. Two guys have even started a fund raiser to help pay for his salary if KO fails to land another job somewhere else. Frankly, these die-hard fans have every reason to celebrate. In accordance with Arizona standards, this season can be considered a black mark on Arizona's program. The standards are simple: Beat ASU, beat UCLA, win 20 games, win the conference, and at the very least get to the Sweet 16. By those standards, Arizona had a lot of failures: They were swept not only by UCLA, but an inferior team in ASU, they barely made the tournament and were quickly ushered out, and most importantly  for the first time in 21 years the Wildcats failed to win 20 games.

With that kind of failure, fans want someone to blame, and it's always going to be the head coach, or in this case the interim coach. Being an interim coach doesn't give you a free pass or an exemption from liability. Kevin O'Neill constantly failed this year, and not even because he was being held to Lute's standards or coaching style. While yes, the slow down game plan was an aggrivating change in and of itself, it was more than that. O'Neill failed to coach the team to their strengths (which was to get out and run). He failed to use the bench the way he could have. No there were no starters or real scoring threats (outside of potential in Horne and Johnson), but each player brought something to the table that O'Neill missed out on. O'Neill failed to use his timeouts properly, constantly not having enough at the end of the game. He failed to draw up successful final-shot plays to give Arizona the win. Most importantly he failed to accept the blame as his own.

With that kind of horrendous coaching resume' for this year, it's no wonder than Arizona fans are glad to see the blame being placed, and being placed by the real Arizona coach onto the interim. The firing of O'Neill gives Arizona fans an sense of justice, and provides appeasement for a bismal season filled with controversy and aggrivation. In several months or years when fans look back on this year it will be forever known as the "Dark year of Kevin O'Neill." It wasn't Lute's team, and it won't be marked as much by Olson's leave of absence, his divorce, or the health issues, but by the failures of Kevin O'Neill. And for an Arizona fan, I'm perfectly happy with the blame and the pain being placed squarely on his shoulders.

As far as that fund for KO, I'll make a trip to Nogales and buy a box of chiclets to donate to the cause.

Posted on: March 6, 2008 3:39 pm
 

The Silver Lining

The season isn't over. And that's great news if you're an Arizona Wildcat fan because Arizona has had a timultuous season to say the least. They have had more ups and downs than a Six Flags Theme Park throughout the year. Going back to when Ivan Radenovic, Mustafa Shakur, and Markus Williams all cleared out, Arizona fans have been anticipating the excitement that was supposed to be this season. They had Chase Budinger and Jordan Hill returning looking to improve off of good years. Jawann McClellan and Kirk Walters were both supposed to be up to full health again In addition they had the #5 recruiting class,  which included Arizona native guard Jerryd Bayless. Most importantly Arizona had hired Kevin O'Neill as an assistant coach to be a defensive specialist. The intent was that he would shore up the gaps in Arizona's defense and make them tougher mentally. They've come a long way since then. What was believed to be a Top 25 team has stumble, sputtered, and struggled through the year, especially with the rigors of the PAC-10 conference.

The biggest blow is arguably the season-long leave of absence taken by Lute Olson which started just the day before Arizona's second exhibition game, against Team Georgia, and merely one week before tip-off of their non-conference schedule. Arizona players and fans alike were still optimistic about their season, despite not having their Hall of Fame coach at the helm, since O'Neill was a proven coach with NBA and college experience. O'Neill came under scrutiny quickly as he failed to lead Arizona past visiting Virginia, but the complaints were choked back. When Arizona failed to convert the game winning play, O'Neill was the one blamed. Despite his coaching performances, questionable decision making, and "Bozo the Clown" hair, Jim Livengood named O'Neill to be the successor when Olson does exit stage left for the final time. The debate about Lute's "heir" began and will continue until long after he is gone.

Despite not having Lute Olson leading the team, Arizona players showed a lot of grit. They played on, and they played hard. Arizona was 9-3, and ranked 17th in the nation, when they travelled to play Memphis. That's when the injuries started its route through the roster. During pre-game warm-ups Jerryd Bayless blew out his knee and would miss the next four games. Forward reserve, Bret Brielmaier, also found himself sidelined with a sprained shoulder, but he has only played one game since then. During the span of Bayless' absence Arizona lost three of their four games, with their one win coming at home against hapless Oregon State. 

Things were looking up when Bayless returned. Arizona started to cruise, they won five of their next seven games, including four straight. Their two losses were against Stanford (by 4), and UCLA (by 22). The 22 point loss was the begining of another doward spiral. Before the next game it was declared that Nic Wise would be out with knee problems for several weeks. Arizona is a meager 2-5 since Wise went out. They have shown signs of life, however, playing UCLA, Stanford to the last possession, and ASU to the final minute. They also tacked on a win over #17. Washington State.

Adversity is a part of every team, and Arizona has had more than their fair share so far this year.  But, Arizona's adversities have led them to where they are right now: squarely on the bubble with a chance to lock an NCAA Tournament birth. They are 17-12 overall, 7-9 in conference, and 6-6 in their last 12. They have amassed this record despite the adversities while facing the #1 Strength of Schedule, and holding a Top 25 ranking. If the NCAA Committee were to meet today and set the Tournament, chances are Arizona would be left out or be given entrance by the skin of their teeth. It would be a disappointing season filled with "what-ifs"... "What if Lute were coaching?" "What if Bayless or Wise hadn't been injured?" "What if O'Neill weren't a hack?" The list goes on. Some Arizona fans go from loving the team and O'Neill to hating them. Which means that in the 114 days Greg Hansen has jumped off the Arizona band wagon and back again at least 75 times.

Fortunately the season isn't over, Arizona has a chance to prove themselves yet again. This week they will travel to face the Oregon schools with a lot on the line. A loss to either team means that Arizona is firmly on the bubble and is at the mercy of the PAC-10 tournament performance. A sweep secures them. The great news? Arizona is expected to have Nic Wise and Bret Brielmaier back. Both have had full contact practices this week and are looking primed to go. Arizona is 15-5 this season when healthy, and that bodes well for their confidence. Arizona could be the "surprise" team now that they are back and healthy again. They have the capability of playing with anyone at anytime. I, for one, can't wait to see what happens. So, all you nay-sayers out there, back off! They've got a ton of talent, and they're finally healthy and are hungry to prove they are worthy to play in Tucson wearing navy and cardinal! Don't start your NIT road trip plans. They'll be dancing come March.

 
 
 
 
The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of CBS Sports or CBSSports.com