LUTE'S LAST DANCE?Lute Olson has dominated his conference like no coach in America over the past twenty years. He built a powerhouse Cats team in the mid-1980s that did everything but win in the tournament, and then crashed into the Final Four with a string of memorable upsets in 1988. Finally, he took one of his least regarded tourney teams all the way to a championship in 1997.
But last year, cracks began to show in the facade. Arizona stopped playing defense, and it appeared they stopped listening to Lute. I can recall several conversations with Wildcat boosters at last year's Pac 10 Tournament that confirmed the level of discontent in Tucson. The whispers grew louder - was Lute too old? Was it time to step down? The early returns on the '06-'07 Cats suggest the answer is no.
Good News: Everybody scores - Arizona's starting five is averaging in double figures, led by uber-recruit Chase Budinger (left) at 19.9 ppg. The Wildcats also return the best player in the conference in SF Marcus Williams, though he's looked lost at times in the early going. Ivan Radenovic might be the most improved player in the Pac-10 - he's added muscle and is averaging 18.2ppg and 6.8 rpg thus far. Mustafa Shakur (right) is explosive on drives to the basket, but can occasionally let tempo get away from him. Junior SG Jawann McClellan is a very good scorer who needs to work harder on the defensive end (as do most of these 'Cats). That is an explosive starting five that is a threat to score 90 on any night.
Bad News: Kirk Walters is a returning starter at center, but is out indefinitely with mononucleosis (after suffering an earlier concussion that sidelined him for a month). The Cats need him healthy to add shot-blocking ability against bigger teams. Arizona has good talent behind their starting five, but not much game experience. Daniel Dillon is an OK backup combo guard; Bret Brielmaier is a widebody at forward with limited offensive skills.
Their defense and rebounding last year were unacceptable: Opponents shot 49% from three-point range against Arizona, and the Cats were out-rebounded by 13 boards a game. Budinger and Radenovic are key to establishing a more consistent presence on the boards, and thus far Arizona is +9 in rebounding margin. Perimeter defense appears more solid, as well, but will the Cats play with defensive intensity throughout a long conference schedule?
New Faces: In addition to Budinger, Lute will get minutes from freshman Jordan Hill (6'9"/211) and freshman PG Nic Wise (5'9"/190).
Prediction: 2nd place. Thus far Arizona is 6-1 against pretty good competition (but a far cry from the opening gauntlet they ran in '05-'06 of Kansas, Connecticut, Michigan State and Virginia). Lute always plays a tough non-conference schedule, which pays off in RPI and better toughness in conference play. However, this is not a terribly deep team, and it will be interesting to see how Budinger in particular responds to a long, physical season. He - and to a lesser degree, Radenovic - are the keys for the Cats, and together they will determine how deep into March Arizona plays.