CATCH A FALLING STARThursday will mark the 24th time Lute Olson has walked the visiting bench in Berkeley (or Oakland/SF, where a handful of Cal/UofA games were played). In that time, Olson has built and sustained a dynasty in the desert. Lute's players helped define the Pac-10 and western basketball for almost twenty years - from Sean Elliott and Steve Kerr to Miles Simon to Richard Jefferson.
Last year everything fell apart. The Cats won only 20 games in 33 tries, and they didn't look like a Lute Olson team. Sure, they ran and scored, but they didn't have a good offensive flow all year and their defense was well below average (221nd in the nation in field goal percentage allowed).
I hearken back to a drunken discussion I had with some Arizona boosters at last year's Pac-10 tournament. To my great surprise they almost unanimously advocated Olson's retirement - voluntary or not - after one more year. When I reminded them politely that Lute won a NC and made four Final Fours, they insisted that he should have won more with the talent afforded him. These weren't college sophomores with no sense of history, either - these guys were probably in their early forties and identified themselves as "givers" to the program.
Whatever the reasons for last year's slump, this year the pre-season hype was that Arizona and Lute were back. ESPN ran a fawning article in its Pac-10 preview suggesting that Lute had re-focused his team on fundamentals and defense, and the clear suggestion was that UofA would give UCLA all they could handle in conference. Chase Budinger, according to newspaper hacks, was the best freshman in the country next to Greg Oden. Marcus Williams was a likely POY in the Pac-10.
28 games later, none of those predictions have come true. Arizona looks like the same disinterested bunch whose effort ebbed and flowed throughout the season. They don't play good defense, and Budinger - while enormously talented - has at times struggled to assert himself in games. Williams has the offensive numbers, but looks either lost or disinterested on the other end of the floor. They have little off the bench. It's the same damn Arizona team.
Last week there was an interesting back-and-forth between Jon Wilner of the Stanford Daily, er, San Jose Mercury News and Greg Hansen, the top writer covering Arizona basketball at the Arizona Daily Star, about the recent decline of the Wildcat program. Wilner sees a general collapse of the program:
Now, after two incredible decades, 11 league titles, four Final Fours and a national title, Lute Olson’s program is fading at runaway-truck pace. After being the standard against which all other programs were measured, after forcing the rest of the league to elevate its play, the Cats have fallen into the middle of the Pac.Then Wilner gets specific about what he sees as Lute's mistakes. You can read the article to get the full flavor, but Wilner suggests that Olson has lost his ability to communicate with his players and made bad recruiting decisions.
Hansen thinks that's a bit overblown:
Shortcomings? The Wildcats misjudged the long-range potential of Mustafa Shakur and missed it on several other recruiting evaluations, from J.P. Prince to Mohamed Tangara. To me, that is the extent of Olson's shortcomings. A few recruiting mistakes.
It's not just that their "star recruits" haven't hit. Arizona's classes have almost always been rated highly, but they've also always included guys who accepted a variety of roles once they got to Tucson. What the Cats lack are the players who have helped define the program over the past twenty years - role players who might not score twenty points a game but who play defense, set good picks and get hustle rebounds.
Guys like Reggie Geary (I feel dirty writing that). Even their "stars" were players who checked their egos and played a complete game, like Luke Walton, Miles Simon (left) or Jason Terry. Wilner calls them "glue guys," and he's absolutely correct in his analysis. I'd go a step further and call them mature basketball players - guys who made enough good decisions to help Arizona win basketball games. Where are the guys with high basketball IQs?
From an outsider's perspective it almost seems as though Lute is running the program with one eye on the hourglass. Rumors suggest that his wife would like to see him retire, and he is 72 years old. Maybe the "glue guys" are harder to find in Tucson because Lute isn't recruiting them - because he knows he won't be around to see them develop into productive juniors and seniors. Maybe there's no fear left in his players, since Lute has shown a propensity to treat discipline problems with kit gloves. Whatever the reasons, I generally agree with Wilner's conclusion. The sun is about to set in the Sonoran Desert, and the conference will never again be the same.
(And if Marcus Williams goes for thirty against us Thursday, don't blame me.)