Arizona's Budinger ignores the pressure
By Bruce Pascoe
Special to The Commercial Appeal
December 19, 2006
TUCSON, Ariz. -- The blond, curly locks, Southern California hometown and surfer diction are your first clues that Chase Budinger is easygoing. The other is the stat sheet.
Arizona's superbly skilled wing forward spent his first few months in college being compared to former Wildcat and NBA star Sean Elliott -- by his coach, of all people. Then Arizona coach Lute Olson, whose Wildcats will host the University of Memphis Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. (CST), told Budinger after a 17-point opening game at Virginia that he needed to be a new version of Elliott and take charge of a team loaded with veteran talent.
Budinger's response: He dropped 32 points on Northern Arizona in his next game and quickly became Arizona's leading scorer. He bumped shoulders with a physical Illinois team in his sixth game, coming up with 22 points and eight rebounds, and he collected another 17 points in Madison Square Garden against Louisville in game seven.
Pressure? Nah. Just fun.
''He's a very laid-back kind of guy,'' Olson said. ''Virginia was a carnival atmosphere, with them opening their new arena, and I didn't think he was uptight about that. We played Illinois at US Airways Center (in Phoenix), and that's a situation that could bother a freshman a little bit, but it didn't bother him. Then he gets to Madison Square Garden, the mecca of college basketball, and he didn't look like he was nervous there.''
Along the way, Budinger's early performances have drawn attention from Sports Illustrated and USA Today, not an easy accomplishment on a team that starts five NBA prospects.
His response is typically, well, laid-back. He says things like ''Um, I just play,'' and shrugs about all the hype.
''I never thought I'd be doing as well as I am,'' he said. ''I just try to keep it up and do what I'm doing. The main thing right now is that we're winning games.''
Arizona, 8-1 and ranked ninth by the Associated Press, has won eight straight since its 93-90 loss at Virginia on Nov. 12 because it has multiple weapons: a quick, improving point guard in Mustafa Shakur, a strong spot-up shooter with Jawann McClellan; an explosive forward in Marcus Williams and a crafty, perimeter-minded big man in Ivan Radenovic.
The Wildcats also have Budinger, a guy who can fill box scores from virtually anywhere from the floor. He has the highest shooting percentage among UA perimeter players at 57 percent, is third in steals (six), third in rebounds (5.9 per game) and shoots free throws well enough (80 percent) that Olson asked him to take technical shots against Illinois. He's also second in blocks, with seven, thanks in large part to a set of world-class volleyball skills that could land him on the U.S. Olympic volleyball team in 2008 -- if he isn't already in the NBA by then.
Though Budinger lost his team scoring lead slightly to Radenovic after he actually showed a few nerves, scoring just five points in a homecoming game at San Diego State on Dec. 9, there is no evidence to support the idea that he might care.
''He doesn't want to talk a lot,'' Radenovic said. ''He doesn't have a big head. He's a guy who works hard every day in practice, learns something every day, and when it comes to the game he performs at a high level. He rebounds and takes open shots. He doesn't force anything.''
In short, he's a sponge. A very talented sponge. Tell him something and he won't forget it. Sure, he doesn't play defense like Olson wants him to, but he's improving. In fact, during his offensive off-night in San Diego, Budinger was credited for sound defensive play that helped hold the Aztecs to 32.8-percent shooting.
He also rebounded from that San Diego State game with a typically efficient offensive effort in the Wildcats' 87-62 win over Houston on Sunday: 15 points on 7-of-10 shooting.
''The great thing with Chase is he's coachable,'' Olson said. ''He wants to learn, and he accepts what you're trying to do with him. He's never making excuses for anything. He does a great job in terms of handling the ball, he's done a great job of shooting, and he has done a nice job on the boards.''
Olson just hopes he has a chance to keep coaching Budinger for a while. Unlike in Elliott's late 1980s era, college stars with NBA skills don't last long in school these days.
Budinger said he's not thinking of the NBA now, and those around him say he's committed to at least two years at Arizona. Still, Olson knows anything could happen.
''There's no question that he's an outstanding talent and is going to be an outstanding basketball player -- for us, we hope -- for a number of years,'' Olson said. ''That's always a problem with the high-quality players when you get them. You just hope you get to keep them long enough so they can mature and get ready to make a career at the next level.''
Next for No. 18 Tigers
Opponent: No. 9 Arizona
When, where: Wednesday, 7:30 p.m. CST, at Tucson, Ariz.
TV: Fox Sports Net