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March 23, 2008

Corky: Mystery surrounds program

Two tall beers at some watering hole here are already saying it. . .

Lute's got to spread his cards.

Not only that, Kevin O'Neill has to make up his mind and somebody must convince Chase Budinger he can't be ready for the NBA until he's ready for the Pac-10.

But (burp!!) what the heck? Ain't'cha glad this turkey of a season is over?

Once and future Arizona basketball coach Lute Olson has made clear that he intends to return to the sidelines next season. What's still fuzzy, apparently due to right-to-privacy considerations or some such, is -- precisely -- why he separated from the team all season while divorcing his wife, Christine and attending to some sort of mysterious physical problem.

O'Neill, the defensive coordinator who took over the program while Lute was away, has said he'll sort through the plusses and minuses of returning as an assistant or perhaps he'll go back to the National Basketball Association (where defense and coaching are often notable by their absence).

Without Lute or a bench (or much talent), the Wildcats ricocheted to a 19-15 record in the season just completed, bounced out of the NCAA Tournament in the first round by West Virginia.

A quick check of the Arizona media guide shows the Cats won the fewest games since 1986-87, while losing the most since 1983-84.

Nobody expected it to be a banner year, but surely nobody quite expected such momentum of mediocrity to overtake, so suddenly, one of the country's elite basketball programs.

On the other hand. . .

To win 19 games against the toughest schedule in the country, without your Hall of Fame head coach, with only two assistants (Josh Pastner and Miles Simon), with a thin bench and a string of awful injuries (Jerryd Bayless for four games, Nic Wise and Bret Brielmaier for twice that many) was a remarkable achievement by O'Neill.

And give the crew credit: Arizona managed to extend its nation's-best consecutive trips to the NCAAs to 24 years.

And never mind that their appearance in the tournament had a shorter run than a clean play on Broadway.

The Cats had every reason to be dizzy, divided, disrupted and demoralized. I don't know that they were -- but they had every reason to be.

Olson is among the greatest coaches college basketball has ever seen. O'Neill is a hard-working, extremely passionate gym rat who probably loves the sport even more than Lute.

But fans and media were in the dark all season about what would happen. Would Lute ever come back? And if he did, would K.O. split for the NBA?

Equally important -- and not to overlook him by any means -- what about the best player on the team, Phoenix freshman Jerryd Bayless? Will he leave UA for a fortune in the NBA, or return to school knowing that that will mean an even greater fortune?

Bayless could be the best player in the country next year. With Brandon Jennings coming in at point guard, the Cats could have the best backcourt anywhere. And didn't the two of them once discuss what a dream it would be to play together at Arizona?

If, if and if. . .

It gets as frustrating as it is confusing. In the words of an old television cartoon character, Dick Dastardly, "Drat and triple drat!"

Media reports and a few lunatics on the information highway gave us overlapping conversations all season long. Lute's coming back. . .no, he's not. . .O'Neill will coach next year. . .no, he's going to go back to pro ball. . .Bayless is definitely gone. . .huh uh, he wants to play one year under Lute and see what happens. . .Chase Budinger will turn pro. . .nope, he's not ready.

As good as he was at times, Budinger seemed to suffer a bad case of the sophomore jinx this season. He's too good to be as inconsistent as he was at times. He definitely needs another year at Arizona.

On the other hand, it's easy to be inconsistent when you have two defenders sharing your shorts and jersey.

The season of the 2007-08 team is gone, and good riddance.

Arizona was a team that seemed to never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. At times the energy was like a pinwheel trying to lift a Boeing 747 off the ground.

It was the weirdest sort of human interconnectedness ever to put on sneakers and baggy pants.

Will the Lion of Scrimmage, Olson, return and straighten things out? Will he have the services of Kevin O'Neill? Will assistants Pastner and Simon be back? Will Budinger and Bayless become the newest millionaire college dropouts?

Are the good times really over for good?

Stay tuned.

Corky Simpson



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