College Basketball Bailout: Restoring the Arizona Wildcats

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College Basketball Bailout: Restoring the Arizona Wildcats
(Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)

Unless you’ve been hibernating over the past year, it’s impossible to turn on CNN, log onto msnbc.com, or even open a newspaper—yes, they’re still printed everyday—without reading about the sinking ship that is the U.S. economy.

Job losses are in the millions and mounting. Storing retirement funds under your mattress or in a piggy bank is a safer option than 401Ks. Even Cubs fans are more optimistic than the average consumer.

President Obama and Congress have passed stimulus packages designed to get the economy moving again.

The stimulus packages provide bailouts for the banking industry, the housing market, and the automakers, that is, if those idiots stop flying private planes to Washington right before they stick both hands out and cry poor mouth.

There’s even a section in the stimulus package—the entire document being thousands of pages long—for college basketball.

A quick scan of the hardwood landscape reveals that some of the heavyweights of college hoops are in serious need of a bailout. Big time programs, including past national championship winners, are stuck in deep ruts. Extricating themselves from what seems like bottomless holes is proving to be no small task.

So let’s identify some of these troubled giants, starting with the Arizona Wildcats, and map out a return to glory.

For the 25th straight year, Arizona found its way into the NCAA tournament, much to the screaming and yelling of many that they didn’t deserve the bid and made it only on name reputation.

Since they were a No. 12 seed, it’s fair to suggest they were one of, if not the last, at-large teams selected.

Not only did they receive a bid, but they managed to win two games and advance to the Sweet 16 before being destroyed by Louisville, 103-64.

While their season was certainly filled with ups and downs, it’s hard to feel sorry for a team that counts Chase Budinger, Jordan Hill, and Nic Wise in its starting lineup. But a closer look revealed some gigantic cracks in the foundation.

The past year has been anything but sunny in Tucson, despite the state’s excellent year-round weather.

After missing the previous season due to personal reasons, long time coach Lute Olson resigned this past October, but not before dismissing Kevin O’Neill, who coached the team in Olson’s absence. Russ Pennell was named interim coach for this year, even as the school conducted a search for his replacement.

Olson’s resignation cost the Wildcats their prized recruiting class of point guard Abdul Gaddy, wing guard Solomon Hill, and forward Mike Moser. Gaddy committed to Washington, Hill to Southern California, and Moser to UCLA. All three former recruits will now play against Arizona in Pac-10 games next season.

If that wasn’t enough, 7'0" freshman center Jeff Withey transferred to Kansas after one semester in the desert.

To make matters even more difficult, stud point guard recruit Brandon Jennings never made it to campus. When Jennings couldn’t qualify academically, he opted to play professionally in Europe.

Jennings could’ve joined super freshman Jerryd Bayless in the Arizona backcourt, but Bayless bolted for the NBA last season. Instead of harnessing his game, Bayless has only played in 51 games for Portland this year, while averaging a mere 4.4 points per contest.

Also hanging over the program is an NCAA investigation into possible recruiting violations committed on Olson’s watch.

The violations center around Olson asking donors to give money to support a recruiting event Arizona held at the McKale Center.

By NCAA rule, a school or coach can’t arrange financial assistance for the payment of a recruit’s expenses before said student enrolls at the university.

Arizona, national champs in 1997, has been the top program in the western time zone for the past two decades. So, what’s in the bailout package for the ‘Cats?

First, they need to hit a home run with their coaching hire. Stability starts at the top and a known commodity will re-establish instant credibility.

Enter Sean Miller of Xavier.

The 40-year-old Miller accepted the Wildcats head coaching job on Monday.

Miller coached at Xavier for five years. Four of those seasons resulted in NCAA tournament trips, including advancing to the Elite Eight last year.

The coaching search has been a tedious process for Arizona.

Last week, they were publicly turned down by Tim Floyd of USC. The list of candidates the school informally sought is even longer, according to Gary Parrish of cbssportsline.com

Under Olson’s reign, Arizona recruited nationally. Miller must have talented assistants who can convince high school players with NBA skills to be part of a rebuilding process. Tapping into the gold mine of California talent will be critical.

Due to the past uncertainty of the coaching position, Arizona is already behind in recruiting the 2010 class.

A handful of players in their recruiting area have already made verbal commitments to other schools. Among them are Tristan Thompson of Nevada and Daniel Bejarano of Phoenix (both to Texas), Jeremy Tyler of San Diego (Louisville), Patrick Simon of Washington (Washington State), Tyler Lamb of Santa Ana (UCLA), and Dwayne Polee of Los Angeles and Gary Franklin of Santa Ana (both to USC).

Current Wildcats Jordan Hill and Chase Budinger are NBA prospects and both are expected to leave after this season.

Sean Deveney of The Sporting News is reporting that Budinger will declare for the draft this week.

Given this current development, it will be imperative that Miller convinces senior-to-be Nic Wise to stay in school as opposed to turning pro, should Wise not desire to be part of a rebuilding process.

Sophomore Jamelle Horne (6.8 ppg, 5.2 rpg) needs to continue to develop the way he has this season. Arizona has a history of athletic wing forwards. Horne needs to be the next one.

The Wildcats always play a tough non-conference schedule. Miller needs to continue that trend.

But it isn’t enough to just play high-profile teams in the non-conference slate. Arizona must win some of those games.

And a win against a big-time school next year, like the 84-67 hurting they put on Kansas this season, will go a long way to remind teams, and potential recruits, that they’re still Arizona.

Winning closer to home, specifically against in-state rival Arizona State and conference foe UCLA, will also go a long way to restore confidence in the program.

Herb Sendek arrived in Tempe to coach Arizona State three years ago. In the seven seasons prior to Sendek, the Wildcats posted a 13-1 record against the Sun Devils.

But Sendek has reversed that trend. He has a mark of 5-2 against Arizona, including five straight wins and a three-game sweep this season.

Ben Howland took over the coaching reigns at UCLA six seasons ago.

While Howland dropped his first four contests against Arizona, he has a mark of 8-1 since that time, including seven in a row over a three year span.

It should also be noted that Howland took the Bruins to three straight Final Four appearances. Arizona’s most recent Final Four run occurred during the 2001 campaign.

While at Xavier, Miller employed a style in which long, athletic players who can handle the ball, drive to the basket, and drain threes, thrived. His teams are also relentless on defense. That style should play well to a Wildcat fanbase that is used to seeing its team get up and down the court.

Returning Arizona to prominence won’t happen overnight. Fans need to be patient.

Miller must be granted at least a couple of recruiting cycles to employ the type of offense and defense he desires. In addition, some of the remaining Arizona players will need to improve their games.

While the task at hand will take time, Miller certainly appears to be a solid choice to restore the Arizona program to its past glory.

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