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September 9, 2008
Losing former prize recruit Brandon Jennings, who bolted to play in Europe after struggling to qualify academically, is undoubtedly a big blow. The playmaking phenom would have given the Wildcats one of the nation's top point guards.
Arizona is thrilled to have Chase Budinger back for another season.
With Bayless - who averaged 19.7 points - and three-year starter Jawann McClellan (who was the team's best perimeter defender) now gone, little-used sophomore Zane Johnson is the only other guard on the roster with any experience. A 6-5 shooting guard, Johnson was supposed to redshirt last season, but instead averaged 4.9 minutes per game.
Johnson will compete for playing time with three freshman – shooting guards Brendon Lavender and Kyle Fogg and combo guard Garland Junkins, none of whom was ranked among the nation's top 150 prospects. Most likely, at least two of those players will be part of the rotation, and it's imperative that whoever earns those spots contributes on offense.
For much of the offseason, it looked as if Arizona would be losing its star small forward. Junior Chase Budinger, who first considered leaving early after his freshman season, entered the NBA Draft and went through workouts for several teams. But on the day of the withdrawal deadline, Budinger decided to return to school.
If Budinger had chosen differently, the Wildcats would have had a slim chance of extending their nation-long streak of 24 consecutive trips to the NCAA Tournament. Replacing Bayless is tough enough. Replacing Bayless and Budinger, who combined for 51 percent of the offense last season, would have been almost impossible.
The return of coach Lute Olson, who missed last season while dealing with off-court problems, may have influenced Budinger to stick around this season. Olson plans for Arizona to return to its up-tempo ways on offense after the ultra-conservative Kevin O'Neill slowed everything down last season. The switch should allow Budinger to take advantage of his athleticism in the open court. An inside-outside scoring threat with great leaping ability, Budinger will be counted on to carry much of the scoring load. He should be in the race for Pac-10 player of the year honors.
Budinger also will have one of the top big men in the Pac-10 to lean on again. Junior Jordan Hill arguably was the most improved player in the league last season, raising his scoring average from 4.7 points per game to 13.2 and nearly doubling his rebounding average, from 4.1 to 7.9. Using a little more caution on defense is the key toward more improvement. Hill had a penchant for committing unnecessary fouls last season and getting into early foul trouble. With little frontcourt depth, that often handicapped the Wildcats and left them undersized on the inside.
The hope is that 7-foot freshman Jeff Withey will help solve that problem. The No. 36 prospect in the 2008 class, Withey needs to add strength, but he's a well-rounded big man who will help immediately.
The Wildcats also are expecting major strides from power forwards Jamelle Horne and Fendi Onobun. Both were role players last season. Horne is a former five-star recruit, and Obonun is expected to be healthy after being slowed by a leg injury.
Redshirt freshman center Alex Jacobson also may be part of the rotation.
Olson wants to see the Wildcats return to their transition-based attack. He'll have a deeper rotation and stress generating more fast-break opportunities and playing at a faster pace.
SHOES TO FILL
Bayless. His offensive production (19.7 ppg) will be difficult to replace. Budinger needs to raise his scoring average to around 20 points per game and Hill to around 15.
MUST STEP UP
Onobun and Horne. The Wildcats sorely lacked depth last season. These guys can change that. Onobun has the strength and power to be a force on the glass, and Horne has the ability to develop into an all-league player.
Withey. One of Arizona's biggest problems last season was the lack of a quality backup for Hill. Withey can fix that. He's the Wildcats' big man of the future and has the physical tools to help in a number of areas. Being a defensive presence is what is needed most for now.
Andrew Skwara is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.