Strangely Good

June 23, 2008

Strange times in Tucson.

The city’s crown athletic jewel was on a roll, churning out negative headlines every other day. You couldn’t discuss University of Arizona Basketball without using words like “chaos,” “turmoil” and “unbridledpanicfromHoughtontoSilverbell”.

But then something weird happened:

Good news. And then great news.

Nic Wise didn’t transfer. Then Chase Budinger didn’t take NBA money. Nic was publically saying he was 50/50 until right before Memorial Day, and I had put the odds of Chase returning slightly below that of flying a machine 423 million miles to melt Martian ice.

A roster desperately needing perimeter scoring suddenly features two of the best 3-point shooters in the conference. Add in Jordan Hill and you have three starting positions locked up with two potential lottery picks. Not too bad for the worst 12 months in the Lute Olson era.

Before Wise and Budinger’s announcements there was a hideous trend of guys abandoning ship. You really had to list it out to keep track of everybody. As the 2007-’08 season got underway there were 18 guys who could have been part of the program for the ’08-’09 season. Two took jobs elsewhere (Kevin O’Neill and Josh Pastner), one got fired (Miles Simon), two transferred (Laval Lucas-Perry and Mohamed Tangara), one went pro (Jerryd Bayless), one was released (Emmanuel Negedu), and one may be leaving the country (Brandon Jennings). It was so bad there were rumors that Wilbur the Wildcat was considering a job offer from Kentucky.

If we had lost Wise and Budinger we would’ve been looking at a whopping 10 of 18 people out the door. It’s hard to maintain a business when you turn over 56% of your personnel.

But we didn’t. And at this stage in the game 44% turnover looks like Gibraltar-esque stability.

That’s why the athletic department felt compelled to issue a press release when Wise decided to come back. You know times are tough when you’re officially alerting the media when a player doesn’t transfer. “Stop the presses! A sophomore basketball player with minimal pro potential is becoming a junior basketball player!!!”

But the good news doesn’t mean more odd stuff hasn’t happened since the last time we talked hoops. Lute made it known he was returning to coach the team but it took him a really long time to be seen again. An entire set of assistant coaches was introduced without so much as a wave from the head guy. Who makes new assistants hold press conferences by themselves? The LOA had turned into MIA.

You did have to be impressed with the hiring of Mike Dunlap though. An NBA assistant who was a dominating head coach at the Division II level is nothing to sneeze at. And he never once worked for Arizona State.

Dunlap’s resume certainly seems comparable to that of Kevin O’Neill. Is succeeding at a lower level better than being mediocre at higher levels? I don’t know, I’m asking you. But it’s definitely not a reach to have Dunlap as the top assistant at a high-end D-I program.

Then you have Reggie Geary who replaced Miles Simon who replaced Geary. When Reggie was hired the first time he was an assistant high school coach. Now he’s been a head coach in a pro league. That’s not a bad trade either.

Another good recent happening is Coach Olson settled his divorce. That’s positive because I’m assuming it means he won’t be dialing up Johnjay and Rich any more. (I still can’t believe THE Lute Olson called into a morning radio show to chat about his failed marriage. Maybe the leave of absence was for severe dyslexia and he thought he was calling Jay John.)

The bleeding may have stopped but the scab could easily be ripped away in the next few days. There’s still one very large piece of potentially bad news lurking. Brandon Jennings failing to qualify and ending up in Europe would be a major setback. Jennings is the Bayless of this recruiting class and we saw how well the team did when Jerryd was out this past year.

But we never got to see how far last year’s team would’ve fallen without both Bayless and Budinger, and thankfully we aren’t looking at that scenario this year either. Could we get good news on the test score front and add a third NBA lottery pick to continue this new-found momentum?

Stranger things have happened.

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