Although Lute Olson is a Hall of Fame coach, some of the shine has been knocked of the Wildcat program. They have made just one deep run in the past four years and high level recruits who have were in grade school the last time Arizona was in the Final Four.
Olson is a great coach. Arizona is a great program, but Olson's career is winding down. No one, not even Olson, knows quite how long he will coach, but odds are that by the time his current contract runs out in 2011 the Hall of Famer will no longer be at the helm of the Wildcat basketball team.
Essentially there are only a few years left to make a final run or two. Frankly, the more the program struggles, the harder it will be for the team to get the players together to build a team capable of making a deep push in March.
That makes this season so crucial.
That is why Bayless is so crucial.
The Cats have a ton of talent coming back. They seem to have decent chemistry. While there are many questions regarding this team, the biggest is at the point guard position.
Under Mustafa Shakur the Wildcats got inconsistent point guard play and in turn, played inconsistently for four seasons. When Shakur went well, the Cats could beat anyone. When he was shaky, the Cats failed to play to their potential.
This past season the Cats were more talented than their record and seeding indicated, but they had too many holes and injuries to be a legitimate national title contender. In December Shakur played the best basketball of his Wildcat career and the Cats went 12-1. By January he seemed to lack confidence and regress quite a bit and the Cats became average.
Next year they seem better constructed. They should welcome Kirk Walters back to a front line that has an improved Jordan Hill and some decent talent coming off the bench. Chase Budinger should be better, Jawann McClellan should be healthier and the bench should be bolstered by an infusion of talent.
The biggest question is at the point. The Wildcats will go to war with either a freshman or a little used sophomore running the show.
In my opinion this makes Bayless vital. Not just in next year's success, but in the success of the program over the next few years.
In my mind Bayless must be ready to run this team. If Bayless is good, the Cats will be good. If the Cats are good, all will be right with Wildcat basketball for the next few years.
Even with some early recruiting losses, the Cats should be able to land a solid 2008 recruiting class. Another average year and the same will not be able to be said about the 2009 class and beyond. Where once the Wildcats were the cream of the crop on the West Coast, they now have to battle the likes of UCLA, USC, Washington and even North Carolina for the top players in the region. All those programs seem poised for more success and the Wildcats cannot continue to lose ground by being a good, not great program.
The Cats have the talent to make a run IF they get solid point guard play. Based upon what I have seen, that means Bayless will need to lead them. I agree with most analysts who feel he is better suited to be a scoring guard, but that does not preclude him from being an effective point guard. Jason Gardner, Damon Stoudamire and even Jason Terry were score first point guards who effectively ran the Wildcat offense and led them to great things.
Bayless can still be a scorer, can still have that scorer mentality, but he will still have to get his teammates involved. Gardner was never a huge assist guy, but he kept the flow of the offense going. In 2001 the Wildcats could score from all five positions and all that team required from Gardner was to make sure the team remained up-tempo and that everyone got touches. In 2003 Gardner had Luke Walton to run the offense through, allowing Gardner to focus more on his scoring.
That is what they need from Bayless. They need Bayless to move the ball around, limit turnovers and score. He does not need to set the world on fire with assists, but at the same time he has to be savvy enough to get his talented teammates involved. He should also get some help from his wings. Budinger is a guy Olson has said could play some point guard and he could become a point forward to compliment Bayless. McClellan has also shown an ability to be a good passer and he too could help ease the transition to the college game for Bayless.
Bayless has all the athletic ability in the world. He is a proven scorer, a tough defender and an explosive athlete. He has gone head to head against all of the elite prospects over the past three seasons. He was the outstanding performer at the Nike All-American Camp as a sophomore. He almost single handedly led his high school team to the state championship game.
The only thing he has not done is proven he can play point guard. Many pundits feel that he is better off as a shooting guard, and that may be true, but one important person feels he's a point guard. At his season ending press conference Lute Olson said that Bayless would play point guard in the NBA and said that he's be a point guard in college.
If Bayless is not ready to lead the team as a point guard, it could be another tough year in Tucson. Nic Wise did not show enough this past year to make you think he can take the team deep into the NCAA's. While it is WAAAAAY to early to close the book on the sophomore, he'd have to make huge strides to be the guy to not only win the job from Bayless, but be the guy who can regain the glory of the Wildcat program.
Laval Lucas-Perry is that other player in the equation. The Michigander has a bright future, but he does not appear to be ready to lead a top-25 basketball team right off the bat.
All signs point to Bayless. More than likely his stay in Tucson will be a short one. No one really believes he will be at Arizona for more than a season or two. What he does there could be immense. If he is ready to lead the team. If he is ready to play solid point guard. If he can be 2/3 of the player Jason Gardner was as a freshman, then this team can be pretty good. If he can lead this team, then the next few years should be solid. The next few years should be a return to past success.
Jerryd Bayless is a vital recruit, but so were Sean Elliott and Mike Bibby.