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November 3, 2008

Monday Tip: Will Arizona make the tourney?

VOTE: Will Arizona make the NCAA tournament?

Speculation about who will be Arizona's next coach will be a constant theme during the 2008-09 season.

In the wake of the sudden retirement of the legendary Lute Olson last week, former assistant Russ Pennell accepted the head coaching job on an interim basis. It's clear Pennell is only a temporary fix. Arizona athletic director Jim Livengood said he will conduct a national search for a full-time replacement.

That will likely mean waiting until the end of the year to make an offer to a big-name coach. Arizona remains one of the most attractive jobs in the nation and is sure to draw plenty of interest. Memphis' John Calipari and Pittsburgh's Jamie Dixon have both been talked about as possible candidates.

But Arizona faces a more immediate concern. The Wildcats' nation-high streak of 24 consecutive NCAA tournament appearances just three shy of the NCAA record of 27 set by North Carolina from 1975-2001 appears to be in serious jeopardy.

Arizona was already considered a borderline NCAA tournament team with Olson back at the helm the Wildcats are No. 38 in the Rivals.com Top 65 Countdown.

Leading scorer Jerryd Bayless (19.7 ppg) and starting guard Jawann McClellan (8.4 ppg) are gone from an Arizona team that had to sweat out Selection Sunday last season. The Wildcats were given an at-large bid and a No. 10 seed despite an 8-10 record in Pac-10 play.

The good news is that three starters return, including Pac-10 Player of the Year candidate Chase Budinger. The Pac-10 also appears to be weaker after a banner year that produced six NCAA tournament teams.

But can the Wildcats keep the streak intact given all of the tumult of the past year? Here's what our experts say:

McClellan's pick: YES

Don't misconstrue my pick as saying the Arizona situation isn't a complete mess. It is. It's a downright my-neighbor's-dog-got-in-my-garbage mess.

What I'm saying is this season is salvageable. It starts with Budinger (17.1 ppg, 5.4 rpg), who tested the NBA waters but remained at Arizona. He asserted himself more offensively last season, and without Bayless will have to ramp up his game on that end even more. It would almost be an upset if he doesn't average at least 20 points per game, and there is no question with his shooting stroke and ability to finish at the rim that he's capable.

He's not the only piece of the puzzle that remains, either. Improved big man Jordan Hill comes back after averaging 13.2 points and a team-leading 7.9 rebounds. He also must improve on those numbers - and there's no reason to believe he won't.

Nic Wise gives the Wildcats three returning starters. He's the quarterback, a player who makes excellent decisions with the ball and who gets it to Budinger and Hill in the places where they can score. Wise averaged 9.2 points and led the team in assists (4.4 apg), assist-to-turnover ratio (2.2) and steals (2.0 spg).

Throw in former five-star prospect Jamelle Horne (3.0 ppg and 2.7 rpg in just 15.3 mpg) and you won't find any Pac-10 coaches sobbing for the Wildcats.

Arizona was picked fourth in the Pac-10 preseason media poll, behind UCLA, Arizona State and USC. Not that they have to concede anything to the Trojans, but say they do finish fourth. Only once in the past 15 years has the Pac-10 not placed at least four teams in the NCAA tournament.

Given the streak, all they have to do is be reasonably close to deserving a bid (much like last year), and they're in.

Skwara's pick: No

It's true that the Pac-10 isn't nearly as good as last season. But neither is Arizona. In fact, the Wildcats aren't even close.

Bayless (a lottery pick) and McClellan (a three-year starter) are being replaced by little-used sophomore Zane Johnson and a combination of three freshmen Kyle Fogg, Brendon Lavender and Garland Judkins. Johnson has little experience, averaging only 4.9 minutes a game last season. None of the newcomers was ranked among the nation's top 150 prospects.

The Wildcats also lost their second-best recruit when four-star big man Jeff Withey chose to transfer soon after Olson retired. Remember, five-star guard Brandon Jennings has already taken off to play professionally in Europe. The 6-10 Withey was a potential starter and was being counted on to be a steady part of the rotation.

There's also Pennell, who was coaching AAU ball when Olson called him this past summer. He's a giant coaching downgrade from Olson or even Kevin O'Neill, the interim coach last season. O'Neill had been a head coach at three other Division I programs. Pennell has never been a head coach anywhere. If Olson hadn't called, he'd probably still be out of college basketball.

Throw in the fact that Pennell and his entire staff are brand new, as well as the impending distractions that are sure to be generated by a coaching search, and I wouldn't be shocked if Arizona's season turns into a total mess. Even in the best-case scenario, I don't see how the Wildcats play well enough for an NCAA tournament bid.

VOTE: Will Arizona make the NCAA tournament?

Andrew Skwara is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at askwara@rivals.com.
Bob McClellan is the college basketball editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at bmcclellan@rivals.com.

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