- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 20, 2008

Arizona interim coach Kevin O’Neill has made a lot of stops during his career, college and pro, but this season has been more interesting than just about any other.

“With a capital I,” he said.

The Wildcats are in the NCAA tournament for a 24th consecutive year, the longest current streak by any team. But for the first time in that run, their Hall of Fame coach, Lute Olson, will not be with them during the postseason. Olson, who revived the program in the early 1980s and has gone on to record 589 victories, four Final Four appearances and one national championship, is back home in Tucson.

Instead, O’Neill will guide the 10th-seeded Wildcats (19-14) during their first-round West regional game against No. 7 West Virginia (24-10) tonight at Verizon Center. It has been that way since Nov. 4, when Olson announced he was taking a leave of absence that ended up lasting the entire season.

Olson, always fiercely protective of his privacy, refused to provide specifics. That led to all sorts of speculation and rumors — most concerning his health — among the tightly knit Arizona basketball community.

Olson, at 73 the oldest NCAA Division I coach, said at the time in a statement that health was not an issue, that it was a “personal matter” that required his attention. Meanwhile, he was filing for divorce from his second wife. (His first wife, Bobbi, died on New Year’s Day 2001.) But in another statement 10 days ago, he revealed he had a “a medical condition that was not life-threatening.” Again, he withheld specifics. Olson has not spoken to reporters in any detail, citing university personnel policy.

But Olson did say he would return next season, which put O’Neill’s future with the program in doubt. After working as an assistant under Olson for three seasons in the late 1980s, O’Neill was coach at Marquette, Tennessee and Northwestern, an NBA assistant with New York, Detroit and Indiana and coach in Toronto.

O’Neill, 51, returned to Tucson in 2007 and in December was anointed by athletic director Jim Livengood as Olson’s eventual successor. But when that occurs is now anyone’s guess. O’Neill has repeatedly said he will decide what to do during the offseason.

Like most big-time college programs, Arizona has dealt with its share of minor incidents over the years. But there has been nothing quite like this.

“Any time you have an interim coach of anything, there’s gonna be a drastic adjustment,” O’Neill said. “I’m sure it was a little bit challenging.”

The change from the dapper, white-haired Olson to the slightly rumpled, balding O’Neill was more than cosmetic. Their personalities could not be more different.

“I think they’re opposites,” sophomore forward Chase Budinger said.

The same applies to their coaching styles. Olson favors more of an up-tempo, motion game. O’Neill’s philosophy reflects a more pugnacious attitude than Olson’s.

“I’ve always kind of been a half-court, man-to-man, set-play guy,” said O’Neill, whose relationship with the media is more comfortable than Olson’s. “What Lute has done for countless years works darn good for him. But I had to really coach what I was comfortable with in a way that I was comfortable with it.”

Freshman guard Jerryd Bayless, who leads the team in scoring and is expected to jump to the NBA next season as a potential lottery pick, called the coaching transition “a little bit of a shock.”

After playing their traditionally strong nonconference schedule and starting 15-6, the Wildcats went 4-8 down the stretch.

Bayless attributes the slump more to injuries to key players, including himself, than the coaching change. Now the team is its healthiest since December.

“We haven’t had a lot of key parts for the whole season,” he said. “But I feel like we have everybody together now.”

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