Combine Arizona's improved overall game with the prospect of tackling Arizona State's tenacious zone defense, and the Cougars face a unique challenge this week. Having played Oregon on Sunday makes things even more interesting, since the Cougars took Monday off (normally a practice day) to satisfy the NCAA mandate to provide players with at least one day off per week.
The Cougars, 3-3 against Arizona since snapping their 38-game losing streak to the Wildcats in the 2004-05 season, aim for their third straight win over the 'Cats on Thursday in Tucson (5:30 p.m., FSN). On Saturday, the Cougars pursue their third straight win over much-improved Arizona State (4 p.m., FSN).
O'Neill and WSU coach Tony Bennett, familiar with one another since their days in Wisconsin (O'Neill is a former Marquette head coach), offered praise for the opposing coach and team during Tuesday sessions with the media.
"I have great respect for Dick Bennett (Tony's father and predecessor at WSU) as a coach and as a person," O'Neill said. "I think he's one of the great guys that's coached in this game, and I think Tony has done a great job with his team."
"He is really a hard-nosed, defense-minded coach," Bennett said of O'Neill. "He gets his teams to buy into that identity."
Olson, who said he plans to resume coaching in 2008-09, left O'Neill (Olson's designated successor at retirement) a lovely parting gift in the form of Jerryd Bayless. The 6-foot-3 freshman, who set an Arizona prep record with his 28.3 career scoring average, leads the Wildcats and ranks third in the Pac-10 with 19.2 points per game. Bayless can drain shots from the perimeter or slash to the bucket, where he routinely earns trips to the free-throw line.
"He's just a high-level guard," Bennett said.
The Wildcats already boasted one of the Pac-10's best athletes in 6-7 forward Chase Budinger. Rated one of the nation's top prep players in both volleyball and basketball, Budinger was named Pac-10 Freshman of the Year last season. He averages 17.1 points and 5.6 rebounds.
"Just a tremendous talent," Bennett said.
Arizona (12-6, 2-3 Pac-10) does suffer from a lack of depth. Three of the top six Pac-10 players in minutes per game play for the Wildcats; No. 16 ranked Taylor Rochestie leads WSU with 31.7 minutes per game.
Arizona State, copying the 2006-07 season of WSU, has risen from the Pac-10 basement to the Top 25 polls by mixing adequate offense with suffocating defense. The No. 24 ranked Sun Devils (14-3, 4-1) are tied for first with UCLA (16-2, 4-1) and WSU (16-1, 4-1) after having their 10-game winning streak snapped Saturday at Stanford. ASU is 11-0 at home.
Freshman guard James Harden, whose status is uncertain due to a groin injury suffered against Stanford, leads ASU with 18.6 ppg. He provides a worthy complement to rugged forward Jeff Pendergraph, who averages 14.1 and 6.9 rpg and leads the conference with 65 percent shooting from the field.
"James Harden is such a multi-dimensional scorer," Bennett said. "The thing I like about him is that he's got such a really nice feel for the game. We tried to recruit him really hard."