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October 23, 2007

Adding O'Neill should benefit Arizona

Rivals.com has selected the top 25 storylines for the 2007-08 college basketball season and will be releasing articles daily, counting down from No. 25 to No. 1. The No. 14 storyline revolves around Arizona hiring big-name assistant Kevin O'Neill and adding another great recruiting class in hopes of fixing its defensive problems and recent postseason disappointments.

Arizona signed two five-star prospects from the class of 2007, but assistant Josh Pastner said it feels more like three. Pastner compares adding longtime college and NBA coach Kevin O'Neill to the staff to landing another elite prospect.

"I look at it like adding a five-star recruit," Pastner said. "Kevin has so much great experience. Not only has he worked under Coach (Lute) Olson, but he's been under Jeff Van Gundy and Rick Carlisle. Just in the five months I've worked with him, the amount of knowledge I've picked up has been outstanding."

O'Neill's hiring in May arguably was the biggest news out of Tucson in the offseason, overshadowing the arrivals of guard Jerryd Bayless and small forward Jamelle Horne, who are ranked No. 13 and No. 21, respectively, in the class of 2007. That's largely because of O'Neill's reputation as a defensive guru.

Arizona's recent struggles they've been a No. 8 seed in the past two NCAA Tournaments and failed to get past the first weekend both times largely can be been attributed to defensive deficiencies. The Wildcats led the Pac-10 in scoring at 78.0 points a game last season, but gave up 72.5 points a game, which ranked ninth in the league. Two seasons ago, they ranked last in field-goal percentage defense in the league as opponents shot 45.3 percent.

That has led to questions about the Wildcats' toughness. They've been labeled soft and players have been accused of caring too much about their stats. Many believe the mild-mannered Lute Olson, who has taken Arizona to 23 consecutive NCAA Tournaments (the longest active streak), hired the fiery O'Neill to fix that. O'Neill was an assistant under Olson from 1986-89 at Arizona, and the Wildcats were 82-19 over that period.

"Some guys are just naturally tougher than others, let's face it," said O'Neill, who was coach at Marquette, Tennessee and Northwestern before spending the past seven years in the NBA. "That's just the way it goes. But I think you have to set down an expectation level about what's tough and what's not.

"If you are ducking out of charges, you are not very tough. If there is a loose ball on the floor and our jersey isn't on it, then we're not tough enough. There are certain measures of toughness that we all can see. Changing that or improving that is a cultural mentality more than anything. Being tough mentally is as important as physically. If you are tough mentally, you will do the right thing every time. A consistency in intensity and toughness would help any team get better. I think it's important that any team that is going to compete for national championships needs to play with a high level of intensity."

Talking about national championships in Tucson may seem like a stretch considering who the Wildcats must replace. No team in the Pac-10 lost more production. Three double-digit scorers (Marcus Williams averaged 16.6 points, Ivan Radenovic averaged 15.1 and Mustafa Shakur averaged 11.9) are gone. Shakur also dished out a league-high 6.9 assists a game, and Radenovic led the team with 7.6 rebounds a contest.

But the roster remains loaded with talent. Bayless, an explosive 6-foot-3 guard from Phoenix, scored nearly 3,000 points in high school. Horne, a versatile 6-7 wing with NBA potential, also is expected to contribute immediately.

Sophomore small forward Chase Budinger - the Pac-10's 2006-07 Freshman of the Year - chose not to enter the NBA Draft, a decision that could give the team two go-to scorers. Budinger averaged 15.6 points and 5.8 rebounds last season.

Arizona coaches believe sophomore power forward Jordan Hill will create an inside presence to make up for Radenovic's departure. Hill earned a starting job midway through last season and averaged 8.3 points and 6.9 rebounds over a 12-game stretch.

The return to health for some veterans also will provide a boost. Center Kirk Walters sat out nearly all of last season with mononucleosis, and shooting guard Jawann McClellan wore down in the final month because of knee injuries. Walters isn't much of a scoring threat, but he will be a defensive factor; he averaged 1.5 blocks a game two seasons ago.

"Even if Kirk isn't blocking shots, he's altering them," Pastner said. "He's a good athlete with good timing, and he forces someone bringing the ball to the hoop to make an adjustment."

Pastner called the team's effort and chemistry "great" in practice so far, but warned that sustaining it is the difficult part. The Wildcats started 12-1 last season, with victories over UNLV, Illinois, Louisville and Memphis, but an overtime loss to Washington State started a tailspin of six losses in eight games. That included an embarrassing 92-64 rout by North Carolina at home.

The Wildcats don't expect to encounter such streaks this season. They fully expect to return to the elite status the program has enjoyed for most of Olson's tenure. Of course, they know that depends on their defense more than anything else.

"Defense has been the big point of emphasis since the first day of classes," Pastner said. "We have some really good players who can obviously score. If we can make some big strides on defense, we have a chance to have a tremendous season."

Andrew Skwara is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at askwara@rivals.com.

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