#5 - Arizona Wildcats

Depending on how this season turns out for the Arizona Wildcats, this may be the last time for a while that the 'Olson Factor' earns them the benefit of the doubt. As it is, they are still coached by Lute Olson - despite his leave of absense - and they still have a lot of talent and potential in their starting lineup, though they are admittedly top-heavy.

Perhaps it's just the fact that they are Arizona that makes it difficult to envision them finishing below fifth place.

Perhaps it's because the last time they finished below fifth was the 1983-84 season. That said, something doesn't feel right about this team. We may see improvement, but it will not occur via addition by subtraction. That was the company line after Chris Rodgers and Hassan Adams graduated in '06, but the results were pretty much the same last season and the season prior – no defense, good offense, soft team, 11-7 in conference, 20 wins, first-round NCAA tournament exit.

Now once again the propaganda is that losing Radenovic, Shakur and Williams will make them better. That's not likely to happen. Arizona's offense was fine last year – they lead the conference in scoring and were in the top-10 nationally in offensive efficiency all season. Their problem was toughness and defense. They had neither. Even so, it is tough envision how losing those three experienced players will make them a better defensive team and it certainly won't make them a better offensive team.

A lot of Arizona fans are happy to see Mustafa Shakur go; they might be yearning for his return around midseason if one of their three potential point guard options doesn't prove he can handle the position quickly. The one-time No. 1-rated high school point guard, Shakur never lived up to that billing, but last year he was pretty darned good. He shot a respectable 39 percent (45 percent from the field and 33 percent from 3). He lead the Pac-10 in assists per game and was 3rd in A/TO ratio. He scored 12.0 PPG and lead the Wildcats in steals. Late in the year the Arizona offense definitely lost some of its early season crispness, but was still very good. It would be shocking if the 'Cats got anything close to Shakur's production from either of their true point guards - Nic Wise or Lucas Laval-Perry. While the uber-talented Jerryd Bayless will almost certainly help pick up the slack in the scoring department, he is not a true point guard.

Certainly Marcus Williams was a cancer in the mold of Chris Rodgers, but he was very productive offensively. On the other hand, he was the definitive 'me first' player and was nothing close to a dedicated defender. Regardless, it will still be difficult to replace his offensive production. In Ivan Radenovic they lose a classic Euro-style finesse power forward. Radenovic was also a soft defender but a skilled offensive player and a good rebounder.

Just to recap - the Wildcats lose 38.6 PPG (50 percent of their scoring), three of their top four scorers, two of their top four 3-point threats, their best on-ball defender, the best offensive post player, three of their top four rebounders (18.8 Rebounds per game), and a four-year starter at point guard.

On the plus side, they return one of the top three candidates for conference player of the year in Chase Budinger. Budinger brings the ability to score from all over the floor. He is a good 3-point threat, and a great mid-range shooter who gets excellent elevation on his jumper. He has a serviceable post game, does a good job of getting to the hoop and finishes well when he gets there due to his explosive leaping ability, as well as his excellent touch and body control. He is a good playmaker due to his above-average ball-handling skills and good passing instincts. On the down side, Budinger lacks lateral quickness and has trouble creating his own shot against good defenders. He is also a mediocre defender. He has trouble keeping his man in front of him, and while his 25 steals from last year is pretty good, a 6-foot-8 leaper like Budinger needs to block way more than three shots in a season.

With Budinger already manning the small forward position, the addition of the talented and extremely athletic Jamelle Horne makes the wing the Wildcats' most talent rich position. Horne is quick and is a great leaper, but needs to refine his game - especially his jump shot and his ball handling. Fortunately, with Budinger starting Horne will have a year to learn and improve before being thrust into the starting role. With Horne, the 'Cats have their small forward position set up for Budinger's inevitable jump to the NBA at season's end.

In the front court, the Wildcats are really going to hurt. Sure Budinger returns, but after him the only player of any real merit as a potential top-level Pac-10 player is Jordan Hill. Hill was a productive rebounder and shot-blocker in somewhat limited minutes last season, but his offensive game is extremely raw. He has a developing jump hook, but by no means is it a go-to move. He has a so-so jumper, but still plays very mechanically in the post and does not possess great feel. On the plus side, Hill is very athletic and uses that athleticism well as a defender and a rebounder. He has all the potential to be a defensive enforcer and rebounding machine, as well as a solid complementary scorer. In fact, in terms of potential, he is very similar to Cal center DeVon Hardin. The big question is, to what extent will he build on that potential? If he can take a step forward and be a double-double threat, it will go a long way to shoring up an area of serious weakness for the 'Cats.

Behind Hill is little depth. Bret Breilmaier is a solid player, but nothing more a backup who can give some quality effort in limited minutes. Fendi Onobun and Mohamed Tangara are both extremely raw and have yet to really show that they can be productive players. Freshman Alex Jacobson is a true 7-footer, but that's about it. He is a major project who is pretty slow and lacks athleticism, but may be forced to contribute significant minutes.

The backcourt - on the other hand - should be very good. Despite the loss of Shakur, the 'Cats return shooting guard Jawann McClellan. McClellan is a good shooter and was very athletic before suffering a slew of knee injuries. The knee problems really came home to roost last season when McClellan suffered a prolonged shooting slump - especially from the outside - largely due to his inability to get lift on his shot. Reportedly, McClellan is healthy and demonstrating much of the athleticism and shooting touch that made him one of nation's top-rated shooting guards as a high school senior.

In addition to McClellan, the Wildcats bring in highly-touted combo guard Jerryd Bayless, who will start for this team immediately. He is too good, too athletic and too dynamic a scorer not to. Bayless is a solid outside shooter, a good ball handler, does a great job getting his own shot and can get to the rim with ease. He will immediately be the best athlete on the team. Bayless is a more explosive leaper than even Budinger and has all the quickness that the 6-foot-8 small forward lacks. Bayless also has all the potential to be a lock-down defender as well, and perhaps he will with the hiring of assistant Kevin O'Neill. The key issue is whether he will dedicate himself to that task, as defense is more about effort, determination and focus than raw athleticism.

Sophomore Nic Wise is too small and not nearly quick or athletic enough to be a top level Pac-10 point guard. Freshman Lucas Laval-Perry has potential but his biggest problems are his lack of college experience and that he is not Jerryd Bayless. Senior Daniel Dillion is one of the few solid defenders on the 'Cats, but he isn't really a point guard. In the end, expect to see Bayless as the starting point guard along side McClellan as the starting 2. Whether or not Bayless is ready to run the offense is another story, but one thing is for certain, assuming McClellan is healthy, the 'Cats should have a very good 1-2 scoring threat in their backcourt. If Bayless can effectively run the offense as a lead guard, the 'Cats offense should once again be top notch.

But again, it all comes down to defense and discipline for this team. In the heyday of the late 90's for the 'Cats, Olson's teams were able to mix a fast-paced helter skelter running offense, with disciplined half court sets and an opportunistic high-intensity defense. While those Wildcat teams didn't play the kind of tough, physical, iron wall defense that has been adopted by some of the current top-level Pac-10 clubs, they were good at position D and forced a ton of turnovers. Olson needs to get his team back to the days of disciplined half court offense when their running game fails and tough, focused effort on D.

The hiring of assistant O'Neill - a defensive minded ex-NBA coach - has been talked about in Wildcat circles as something of a panacea, but it is difficult to believe that an assistant coach with a career college head coaching win percentage of .479 is going to come in and turn around a program that is already coached by a Hall of Famer. On the other hand, if O'Neill is able to do this season what Olson has not been able to do the previous two seasons, what does that say about the now 73-year old Olson?

In the end the 'Cats will not suffer a collapse despite youth and question marks all over their roster. They still have great talent and Lute Olson as their coach. Put your money on Lute Olson to once again make them competitive in conference and a NCAA tournament participant in March.


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