Goodbye, Hello

December 10, 2007

(hoops: UA 78, Illinois 72)


So how was your week?

Mine wasn’t bad. I did some decorating, got a little exercise, and lost my 780-win Hall of Fame basketball coach.

Wow. We didn’t expect Lute’s leave of absence, we didn’t expect it to be a long one, and we certainly didn’t expect to go the entire season without seeing him on the bench.

It’s funny, going into the year we thought we had the dream offseason. As sports fans we always wait for the next season with pie-in-the-sky wishes. "If we just sign [Big Name Free Agent or Recruit] we'll be an instant contender.” Or, "Why don't we bring in [Suddenly Available Elite Coach]?" But the reality all too often is that the coveted player or coach doesn’t view our team as favorably as we do.

Well, after another sub-standard UA hoops season a bunch of us said, "We need to bring in an assistant coach with experience, toughness and the ability to teach defense." And you know what? We actually got it. Plus he was known as a relentless recruiter. Plus he had UA ties. It was the perfect scenario. Until we lost the guy who created the perfect scenario.

Now we go from a wealth of basketball knowledge on the bench to a staff that is a man short, and that man happens to be this town’s sports legend. Where be the breaks?

Maybe Lute will come back next year and we’ll get our LO/KO combo. Or maybe he won’t and we’ll go crazy it with disappointment.

There’s some historical cost as well. If this is it and Lute never coaches another game, he finishes just 20 wins shy of 800 college victories and 11 short of 600 wins at Arizona.

But the big one is by not coaching this season Lute won’t have the chance to break his tie with Dean Smith for the individual record of most consecutive NCAA tournament appearances. Both Olson and Smith will stay in the record books with 23-year streaks.

Lute also won’t have the opportunity to keep up with or pass Bobby Knight for the most total tournament appearances. Olson and Knight both passed Dean Smith by taking their 28th team to the big dance last year but the Texas Tech coach will have a free shot to take the record for himself this year. The good news is his Red Raiders have already lost to Sam Houston State and Centenary so maybe it won’t be an issue.

The team consecutive tournament appearances streak is still intact so it will be Kevin O’Neill’s job to punch our ticket for the 24th straight year and move us within three of North Carolina’s all-time mark.

He’s certainly off to a good start. Well, on the season, not in individual games.

Against Illinois it took seven turnovers, five minutes, and three timeouts to score our first points. With ESPN’s technical problems I had flashbacks to the Cal football game on Versus where things were so bad we weren’t even allowed to watch our team stink.

Our two stars were struggling but Coach O’Neill found a couple replacement lights. That’s kinda like what good teams do!

I suppose we shouldn’t have been too surprised. You can always count on a Wise man showing up around Christmas.

We also learned what Jordan Hill can do when he’s not in foul trouble. 23 points, 14 rebounds, 3 blocks and 2 steals. 67% shooting from the floor and 78% shooting from the line. Hill yeah, that’s a good game.

But even when your supporting cast comes up big you still need something from the headliners. I liked that we went to Chase on the first possession of overtime even though he hadn’t scored a bucket the entire game. I liked that he made the shot a lot more.

It cracked me up when I heard the pro-Illini crowd getting on the refs in the second half for not calling the game tight enough. Isn’t that like Superman (the original one, not Antoine Cason) complaining about Earth’s yellow sun being too hot? If your team’s reputation is built on being “tough” and “aggressive” and “knocking bodies around,” is it really smart to ask for the officials to call more fouls?

Speaking of whistle-blowers, one of my pet anti-peeves is a good free throw shooting team. I love that our top three scorers (Bayless, Budinger, Hill) all shoot 78% or better. I love that we have guys like Dillon (10-10) and Wise (13-17, 77%) on the bench. I love that when Illinois got into foul mode in the final minute we made seven out of eight free throws, with Bayless making six straight to put the win on ice.

So that brings us another win closer to avenging the 2005 Elite Eight loss to Illinois. Two down, 837 to go.

Say hello to the future.

--

Changing gears, here's the problem with this year's football season: The "can't wait" factor is gone. After beating ASU to end 2004 we couldn't wait to see how much we would improve in Stoops’ second year. (Turns out, not much.)

After 2005 we couldn't wait to see what a healthy Willie Tuitama could do after he teased us with the Oregon State and UCLA wins in his first two starts. (Turns out, quite a bit, but it took two years to find out.)

Last year's offseason was just dripping with can't-wait. We had won three out of four games to close the year and we just knew the bad times were gone. We knew our defense was going to be great. We knew we were going to post a winning season.

It wasn't, and we didn't.

Now what do we know about next year? Absolutely nothing. Will all the returning starters on offense greatly improve that unit? It should...but after watching this year's defense struggle we're not sure. Should a second consecutive drop in out-of-conference schedule strength make it easier to get to a bowl? It should...but after watching the Mountain West point and laugh at us we're not sure.

There's your ’07-‘08 offseason in a nutshell: We're not sure. And it's really hard to Can't Wait for Not Sure.

Maybe next year we can finally kiss this era goodbye.



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