The O'Neill Effect

This off season has been an interesting one for the Arizona Wildcats. Following their loss to the Purdue Boilermakers in the 2006 NCAA Tournament, there were a lot of doubters and questions regarding the Arizona Wildcat basketball program. Those doubters are getting fewer and fewer.

Were the Cats in jeopardy of losing their status as an "elite" program? What was going to happen with the coaching staff? Were the recent underachievements of the program signaling the end of the Lute Olson era? Would Chase Budinger follow Marcus Williams to the NBA? These, along with many more, were the negative thoughts running through the heads of Arizona fans and alumni.

Why wouldn't they be? Did you blame them? The Wildcats, based on their standards, were severely underachieving and seemed to be losing their status as an elite program while programs like North Carolina, UCLA, Florida, and others were on the rise. Perhaps the most crucial issue was the idea that Arizona would no longer be able to land those blue chip recruits. Despite landing a guy like Chase Budinger, people began to question if the Wildcats were going to be able to land the cream of the crop within the next few recruiting classes.

However, on April 29th, the Wildcats landed one of the more athletic, freakish players in the 2008 class of Emmanuel Negedu. Negedu wasn't a well known commodity at the time of his commitment, but he quickly gained steam and eventually became a top 60 player in the 2008 class.

You may be trying to put together the title of this piece along with Negedu's commitment. The reason why they correspond together quite well is the fact that two days after Negedu committed, the Wildcats brought on assistant coach, and defensive specialist Kevin O'Neill to their coaching staff. It's been noted that O'Neill, along with being a great defensive coach, is one of the better recruiters within the basketball world. It's been said that despite not being officially signed to the coaching staff, the O'Neill was watching Negedu play and in his presence when he verbally committed to the University of Arizona. O'Neil informed Negedu's prep school coach, an old acquaintance of O'Neil's, that he had interviewed for the vacancy with the Wildcats.

Perhaps the rumors of O'Neill quickly joining the Arizona coaching staff was enough to persuade Negedu to join the Wildcats's 2008 recruiting class. At the very least, it did not hurt.

Assistant Josh Pastner was the point man on the recruitment, and at the time of Negedu's commitment he had been listing the Wildcats as his leader, but the imminent hiring of O'Neil certainly did not hurt.

At the point and time of O'Neill's arrival, it seemed as if the entire complexion of the current state for the Arizona basketball program changed…and for the better. Not only did it follow a commitment from a key recruit, it seemed to open the possibility of Arizona landing some significant prospects from the 2008 class and beyond.

Days after he joined, the Cats landed another recruit in Brendan Lavender. While Lavender may not be a top 100 recruit according to many, he's exactly the type of player that a recruiting class seems to need. He wanted to be a Wildcat from the start, and even though he hasn't displayed the gaudy numbers that many would expect, he does the little things that make himself, along with his teammates better; Sort of like the "glue." Sounds familiar to a player the Wildcats had a few years ago, doesn't it?

A few weeks after Lavender and Negedu committed, the Cats landed perhaps their most prized recruit in quite some time. Brandon Jennings, the nation's top point guard, joined the 2008 class. Despite de-committing from USC not too long before that, Jennings was intrigued by the progress that the program was making with the commitments of Negedu and Lavender, along with the signing of Kevin O'Neill to commit to Arizona.

Again, Pastner did a lot of leg work, both before Jennings committed to the Trojans and then after he put himself back on the market, but O'Neil's NBA pedigree was certainly a feather in the Wildcats' hat. While Olson had the reputation of getting players to the league, O'Neil had coached there and knew what it took to stick.

The last commitment for the Wildcats for the 2008 class was four star big man Jeff Withey. The Cats desperately needed to land a true big man in the '08 class, and that's exactly what they got in Withey. His commitment came about a month after the Jennings commitment, and he too had recently de-committed from his original school of choice, Louisville. While the current staff had been working on Withey since he was a freshman, you cannot deny that adding a former NBA head coach to the staff was not appealing.

Throughout interviews since their commitments, all four members of the 2008 class have said that they loved seeing the Wildcats grab Kevin O'Neill for their coaching staff. They love his intensity, work ethic, and ability to turn college players into future NBA players. The attraction that players get from O'Neill and his NBA background shouldn't be ignored or taken lightly. It's something every college basketball player wants to hear and have when they commit to a college basketball program; and that's exactly what these four young players got when they committed to the University of Arizona.

In addition, the current players seem enthused about adding "KO". Although, to a man, they are loyal to former coach Jim Rosbrough, they are also enthused about O'Neil coming on board.

What O'Neil has done is bolster the already sensational recruiting efforts of the staff. The groundwork was laid, but adding not only a coach with the NBA background, but one who is also a dynamic recruiter has made the staff better. Roz was great with the kids, but was not a guy who beat the recruiting trail.

If you looked back on the recent struggles of the Arizona basketball program, it was quite obvious as to what was missing. Defense, intensity, and toughness were those things, and that's exactly what O'Neill brings to the program. Along with his NBA background, and experience as a head coach, the addition of Kevin O'Neill can't be ignored when looking at things that potentially turned the Arizona basketball program back into a program that is on the lips of recruits everywhere.

So perhaps bigger than Brandon Jennings's heart, or bigger than Jeff Withey's wing span, or bigger than Emmanuel Negedu's vertical jump, and Brendan Lavender's want and love to be a Wildcat, the arrival of Kevin O'Neill has to be looked upon as perhaps as crucial, if not more, than the Wildcats landing perhaps a top five recruiting class for the class of 2008. The "O'Neill Effect" may not be as cool and exciting as the special effects you see in movies like Transformer, the Matrix movies, & Spider Man, but it's definitely had an immediate impact on the current state of the basketball program. Plenty of current, and future players, have already expressed their love for Coach O'Neill and what he brings to the program. One player, incoming freshman Zane Johnson, even went as far to put on his Facebook that he simply couldn't move because of Coach O'Neill's crazy tactics.

However, as "crazy" as O'Neill may be, if that craziness helps hang a few more banners from the rafters of the McKale Center, chances are you can forget about hearing the negatives and questions that were being thrown around after that ugly loss to Purdue in the 2006 NCAA Tournament.

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