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January 31, 2008

Budinger delivering in new role for Arizona

It has been a season of change for Arizona small forward Chase Budinger.

Three players who started alongside him last season are gone. His coach is new. The Wildcats' whole approach is different.

But Budinger, a 6-foot-7 sophomore jumping jack, is adjusting. So is the rest of the team, new faces and veterans alike. New-look Arizona is 14-6 overall and 4-3 in the Pac-10. More important, Arizona is seventh in the RPI and has the nation's No. 1 strength of schedule as it heads into the Pac-10's Los Angeles road swing. The Wildcats play red-hot USC on Thursday night and visit UCLA on Saturday.

Arizona has one of the highest-scoring tandems in the Pac-10 in freshman guard Jerryd Bayless and sophomore forward Chase Budinger. "We're starting to find each other's hot spots and where we like the ball," Budinger told Rivals.com. "Each game we're getting better together."

Here are the top five scoring tandems in the Pac-10:
PlayersSchoolCombined ppg
Ryan Anderson/Patrick Christopher California 37.8
Jerryd Bayless/Chase Budinger Arizona 37.6
Malik Hairston/Maarty Leunen Oregon 34.0
O.J. Mayo/Davon Jefferson USC 32.4
James Harden/Jeff Pendergraph Arizona State 32.2
Arizona is playing well, too. It comes off a home sweep of the Washington schools, including a 76-64 drubbing of Washington State. The Wildcats shot a jaw-dropping 58.1 percent (25 of 43) from 3-point range in the two games, with Budinger going 9-for-17.

"Before this last weekend, we kind of were going a little one-on-one too much and not creating for each other," Budinger told Rivals.com. "We were very unselfish this weekend in finding the open man, and he was knocking it down."

Budinger was one of those guys knocking it down. He had 22 points on 6-for-11 shooting against Washington State and 25 on 8-for-15 shooting against Washington.

He's riding a streak of three consecutive 20-point games, and it fits with coach Kevin O'Neill's assertion that Budinger is a go-to guy whose game needs a more aggressive bent.

"I'm kind of like a timid player," Budinger said. "I know I have to be more aggressive when he tells me that. I have to go out there and do the little things and get involved. Sometimes I'll sit and watch instead of being aggressive and making a play happen."

With a terrific shooting stroke and leaping ability to spare, Budinger is capable of making a play happen at anytime. There never has been anything suspect about his offensive game.

Defensively, last season's Wildcats were softer than fleece. They gave up 72.5 points per game to rank ninth in the Pac-10. Coach Lute Olson went out and hired O'Neill to be an assistant specifically to shore up Arizona's defensive problems. But Olson, 73, took a leave of absence in the first week of November citing personal reasons. By the first week of December, Olson had decided to sit out the entire season. The reins were handed to O'Neill, who is to Olson as Michael Bolton is to Nine Inch Nails.

"He pushes you hard and he says what's on his mind," Budinger said. "It's his way now. Before, it was Coach Olson's way.

"This team's main focus is all about defense. On the offensive end, he likes to run plays and grind it out. He wants a score in the 60s rather than the 80s or 90s. 'Coach O' is the complete opposite. He wants to get out and run."

But here's a testament to O'Neill: Budinger sounds like he's buying in. That's all a coach can ask.

"I think we could win either way, but in this day and age to be a national championship team, you need to be a grind-it-out team," Budinger said. "Those are the types of teams that win it all."

We'll know more about whether Arizona is that type of team after this weekend.


Each week, basketball editor Bob McClellan picks six things to watch for over the weekend:

1. Shakedown in the Pac-10. The nation's best league (yeah, I said it) has two marquee matchups Saturday with Arizona at UCLA and Stanford at Washington State. All four are potential Final Four teams. The Bruins, with freshman center Kevin Love and junior point guard Darren Collison coming off monster weeks in a sweep of the Pac-10's Oregon schools, are going to be a tough out for anyone the rest of the way. The Cardinal has gotten a whole lot tougher since Brook Lopez (17.8 ppg, 7.9 rpg) returned after the first semester. The Cougars' tough defense and deliberate style always provide a tough matchup.

2. The Chris Lofton thermometer. Don't look now, but Lofton the SEC's leading career 3-point shooter finally may be heating up. Lofton has hit 50 percent (21 of 42) of his shots from behind the arc over the past four games and has averaged 21.3 points. When you consider he was hitting just 33.3 percent from 3-point range before this stretch, he's looking more like himself. He'll need to keep it up Saturday, when Tennessee goes to Starkville to battle Mississippi State. The Bulldogs are looking like the class of the SEC West, and Jamont Gordon and Charles Rhodes figure to be especially difficult matchups for Bruce Pearl's team.

3. The resurgent Huskies. Welcome back to the national picture, UConn. Jim Calhoun's team dropped three of its first five games in January and looked as though it might fade from view again, as it did last season. Suddenly, the Huskies woke up. They trounced Marquette at home, escaped at Cincinnati, stunned everyone with a huge victory at Indiana, and held off Louisville in their most recent outing. UConn draws Pittsburgh at Gampel Pavilion on Saturday. A win would leave the Huskies 16-5 overall and 6-3 in the Big East, and looking like a solid NCAA Tournament team with a potential to earn a No. 6 seed or better.

4. Blake Griffin. The Oklahoma power forward is my new favorite freshman. He's 6-10 and 243 pounds, and he plays like he's even bigger. He and the Sooners (15-5, 3-2) have a big game Saturday at Texas A&M (17-4, 3-3). Griffin is averaging 14.7 points and 8.7 rebounds, and he made one of my favorite plays of the season Monday night against Oklahoma State. In the waning seconds, he got a pass from Tony Crocker, who was near midcourt and got fouled by Marcus Dove as he let the ball go. Griffin took the pass, went in for a huge dunk (that didn't count because of the foul, but his elbow was at the rim), but already could see that Crocker had been knocked to the ground. As soon as Griffin landed, he sprinted toward midcourt to check on his teammate and/or get between him and any Cowboys. That's the kind of teammate you want.

5. The two-time defending champs. Florida coach Billy Donovan deserved criticism for a non-conference schedule that was weaker than decaf. But it sure looks good now. The youthful Gators (18-3, 5-1) are off to an unexpectedly solid start in SEC play and look every bit like a tournament team. The young Gators no doubt gained some confidence ripping through the likes of North Carolina Central, North Florida and Charleston Southern. They already have won twice on the road in the league (against Alabama and South Carolina), and they'll look to make it three on the road Saturday at Arkansas.

6. The leader of the Devils. DeMarcus Nelson is the only senior on Duke's roster, and he was named the team captain before the season began. He's playing up to the title, too, averaging 14.8 points, 5.9 rebounds and 3.0 assists. There isn't a coach in America who wouldn't take Nelson on his team. He's not the fastest, the strongest, the best shooter. He just plays hard all the time, makes big baskets and helps his team win games. The third-ranked Blue Devils play host to Miami on Saturday.

Bob McClellan is the college basketball editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at bmcclellan@rivals.com.

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