It's safe to say that very few schools have had to deal with what the 2007-2008 Arizona Wildcats went through. On November 4, legendary head coach Lute Olson announced that he was taking a personal leave of absence from the Wildcat basketball program. Initially, there was not timetable set for his time away from the program, but it ended up being a season long absence. His replacement was Kevin O' Neill, who had been hired earlier in the year, and many believed he would be the coach to replace Olson when he retired. However, many of the Wildcat players did not mesh with O'Neill and his defense-oriented system of basketball. Furthermore, there was a reported divide between O'Neill and Olson that emerged during the season. The situation reached its peak when O'Neill announced that he would not return next season if he was forced to be an assistant coach under Olson. It remains to be seen how Olson will respond to his return to coaching, as well as to see if he still has the respect of his players and coaching staff.
Last Season's Results: With the talent that Arizona had at its disposal last season, their performance throughout the year was inexplicable. How does a team that features Jerryd Bayless, Chase Budinger, Jordan Hill, and Nic Wise manage only 19 wins in a season? The obvious person to blame for the misfortune is Kevin O'Neill. It was clear from the beginning that his structured style of basketball did not mesh well with the roster he had. In only their second game of the season, Arizona was upset by the University of Virginia. The struggles continued throughout the season, as Arizona struggled to an 8-10 record in the very difficult PAC-10. Despite terrific play from Bayless and Budinger, the Wildcats ended the regular season with a record of 19-14. In perhaps the most controversial decision by the selection crew this past year, Arizona was rewarded a spot in the NCAA Tournament. Although the team was given this lifeline by the selection crew, the disappointing season finally came to the end in the 1st round of the NCAA Tournament, when they fell 75-65 to West Virginia.
New Faces: It's nearly impossible to discuss the new faces for Arizona this season without mentioning the one player that never ended up in Tuscon. Rated as the best PG in the nation coming out of high school, Brandon Jennings seemed on his way to being a member of the 08/09 team. However, because of academic issues, Jennings decided to forgo college basketball, and instead signed a professional contract in Italy. This marked the first high-profile recruit to bypass college since the NBA eliminated the jump straight from high school to the NBA. Even without the enigmatic Jennings, Arizona was still able to bring in a talented collection of new faces. The most intriguing member of the class is Jeff Withey. The 6'10 big man from San Diego, California, has as much potential as any player in the class. His development this season is vital for the Wildcats, as a combination of Withey and Jordan Hill would be dynamic. Brendon Lavender is another freshman that should contribute this season. Lavender is a versatile guard, who is noted for his all-around game and unselfish play. His team first attitude will certainly see Lavender play significant minutes this season, and potentially push for a spot in the starting lineup. The last freshman who may contribute this season is Kyle Fogg. Fogg has been described as a hidden gem by many recruiting websites, and it appears that Arizona may have found an elite player. The 6'3 guard could prove to be a tremendous weapon of the bench this season, and should be an elite scorer by the end of his Arizona career. Darnell Shumpert and Garland Judkins complete the class, but neither is expected to see playing time this season.
Players to Watch: Even with the departure of Jerryd Bayless to the NBA, Lute Olson should still have a very talented group this season. Leading the Wildcats will be Chase Budinger. Budinger seemed destined to follow Bayless to the NBA, but pulled himself out of the draft on the last day. He is an elite athlete, who has shooting range beyond the 3 point line. Because of his unbelievable jumping ability, it is nearly impossible to block Budinger's jump shot. Last season, he averaged 17.1 points per game, but only shot 38% from beyond the arc. If Budinger can improve his outside shooting, he could average over 20 points per game. The top returning post player for the Wildcats is Jordan Hill. Hill is an athletic and lanky big man, who has the improved dramatically throughout his career. Last season saw Hill emerge as an elite level big man, as he averaged 13.2 points and 7.9 rebounds. If Hill continues to improve this season, we could see him emerge as one of the top post prospects in the nation. The floor general for the Wildcats this year will be Nic Wise. Although Wise does not have overwhelming statistics, his value was demonstrated last season, when Arizona went 2-5 in the 7 games he missed through injury. There will be lots of pressure on Wise, as many Wildcat fans were expecting to see Brandon Jennings running the team this season. If Wise can get the ball to the numerous weapons on the Arizona roster, then this team has a great opportunity to be successful.
TKR's Concern-O-Meter: It will be a very rare game this season when GU will meet an opponent that has similar talent and athleticism. I believe that the Arizona Wildcats present one of these rare games, and with their offensive talent, this game has me very alarmed. Having to travel to Phoenix makes this game much more like a road game, rather then the "neutral site" game that it is billed as. This will also be the final game in a very tough road trip that will have seen GU travel to Orlando and Indianapolis in the previous two weeks. If the Zags are having any type of fatigue, Arizona has the talent to capitalize on any potential struggles.
What We are Watching for: This game is littered with terrific individual match ups. The one that has me the most intrigued is the battle between Josh Heytvelt and Jordan Hill. Going up against an elite level athlete like Jordan Hill will be a true indicator for how healthy Josh really is. Josh will need to demonstrate his complete arsenal of offensive moves, as Hill is a dynamic shot-blocker, who had tremendous success against the Lopez twins last season. It will also be interesting to see how Coach Few decides to try and guard Chase Budinger. With Micah Downs and Austin Daye, the Zags have two defenders who have the length and athleticism to bother Budinger. If they can limit his open looks, and force him to shoot from the perimeter, it will give the GU an excellent opportunity to win.