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Friday, December 28, 2007

O'Neill has 'Zona in the zone

O'Neill has 'Zona in the zone
Interim coach tries to help surprising team keep focus
By Jim Masilak
Friday, December 28, 2007

When Arizona rolls into FedExForum on Saturday night to face the No. 2 University of Memphis, interim Wildcats coach Kevin O'Neill says it will just be more business as unusual for his resilient bunch.

Thrust into the top job when Lute Olson took an eve-of-season leave of absence, O'Neill and his surrogate Wildcats have thrived despite the uncertainty surrounding their legendary head coach. No. 17 Arizona's 10-2 record, including wins over No.9 Texas A&M, Illinois and UNLV and an overtime loss at No. 3 Kansas, belies the almost unprecedented level of turmoil the Wildcats have faced this season.

"There's no real blueprint for what we've went through," O'Neill said Thursday. "It's been different, I'll give you that. I've got a lot of admiration for our players and how they've handled that situation. I couldn't be more pleased."

Given the circumstances, that's understandable.

On Nov. 4, Olson opened his 25th season at Arizona by announcing that he was taking a leave of absence in order to deal with what was described as a "private family matter." As speculation grew, and with continued uncertainty about when or if he would return, Olson earlier this month extended his leave through the remainder of the season.

Shortly thereafter it emerged that Olson, who has won 589 games at Arizona and led the Wildcats to the 1997 national title, had filed for divorce from his second wife, Christine.

Olson's decision to extend his leave, however, provided "clarity" for the Wildcats, O'Neill said

"It also gave Lute some clarity and allowed him to focus on what he needs to in his personal life," he added.

O'Neill, who was already serving as interim coach, has since been publicly named as Olson's eventual successor. As Olson's assistant at Arizona from 1986 to 1989, O'Neill helped the Wildcats to their first Final Four appearance, in '87, and earned a reputation as a top recruiter and basketball mind.

He spent most of the next two decades bouncing between jobs at the college and pro levels. The increasingly itinerant O'Neill went 36-47 at Tennessee from 1994 to 1997 in between head-coaching stints with Marquette, Northwestern and the NBA's Toronto Raptors.

When the 50-year-old returned to Arizona this year as a replacement for longtime Wildcats associate head coach Jim Rosborough, his $375,000 annual salary made him the third-highest paid member of the Arizona athletic department. Although O'Neill's compensation package raised eyebrows in the desert, it is well below what he would have commanded as an NBA assistant.

And while O'Neill's hiring led to speculation that he was being brought in as the 73-year-old Olson's handpicked successor, O'Neill says he agreed to come back to Arizona after an 18-year absence because he "wanted to help Lute finish it out the right way."

O'Neill said he conferred with a number of former Arizona players, including Phoenix Suns president and general manager Steve Kerr, before deciding to return to the college ranks after seven years away. He said he had NBA options, but decided this was "the right thing to do at the right time."

"When I took the job, I didn't really ever envision taking over for Lute," O'Neill said. "I probably planned on being here for a couple years and then going back to the NBA. The way things worked out with Lute taking a leave of absence -- he plans on coming back next year -- I've been (picked) to be his successor."

In an interview with the Tucson Citizen in June, Olson described the effect O'Neill had upon his return to Arizona. Given what has since transpired, Olson's comments have an almost prescient feel to them.

"Kevin has brought a lot of discipline to the program," Olson said. "They've responded well to him. When you've got guys whose goal is to eventually get to the NBA, it's nice to have somebody on the staff who knows from first-hand experience what it takes to get to that level."

O'Neill has also been received warmly by Arizona fans, many of whom now wonder if Olson will ever return to the Wildcats' bench.

"The people in Arizona have been very gracious to me and my family. Because of that, it's made the job easier," O'Neill said. "Of course, we've won six in a row, so it's easy to be gracious when you're winning."

If Olson does return for a couple more years, however, the eventual passing of the whistle should be smoother if this is indeed a trial run.

"I realize it's not gonna be an easy job anytime you follow a Hall of Fame guy," O'Neill said. "But I think this is gonna make for an easier transition. It's also going to make recruiting easier. When any coach nears the end, you always have questions about who's going to be there. Now we can say if Lute's not going to be there, Kevin's gonna be there."

Memphis coach John Calipari, whose Tigers (10-0) lost to Arizona last year in Tucson, has been impressed with what he has seen of the Wildcats under their caretaker coach.

"Kevin has brought in a man-to-man mentality, more of a toughness. So they're a little different," Calipari said. "They don't score as many normally -- now they'll probably go for 105 against us -- but they're scoring a little bit less and they're being a little more efficient in how they play. They're grinding it out."

O'Neill, who credits senior guard Jawann McClellan with "really being a leader and holding together a young team in a tough situation," said the turmoil of the past two months has made the Wildcats even more single-minded.

"It forces you to focus," he said. "If you're not focused against Illinois at the United Center, you're gonna lose. Bad. Our guys have done a wonderful job of staying focused on the business at hand."

- Jim Masilak: 529-2311

Next for Tigers

Opponent: No.17 Arizona

When, where: 9 p.m. Saturday at FedExForum


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