Arizona basketball avoided what could have been a much different fate

Jan 16, 2013, 7:25 PM | Updated: 7:30 pm

The news of USC’s dismissal of head coach Kevin O’Neill, which broke Monday, served as a friendly reminder of how different Arizona basketball could have become had the chips fallen in a slightly different way.

Five years ago, the same O’Neill was the head basketball coach in Tucson. It was just on an interim basis, but there were plans to make the arrangement permanent.

Former athletic director Jim Livengood announced on Dec. 18, 2007, that O’Neill would succeed Lute Olson when the Hall of Fame coach finally retired. The exact details of how that would happen weren’t hammered out at the time, though. Ultimately, that oversight proved to be a major problem.

When Olson returned from his leave of absence, he decided to resume coaching. Instead of having O’Neill resume his duties as an assistant, the relationship deteriorated between the two men.

O’Neill decided to leave for greener, or at least clearer, pastures.

That plan never materialized, and Olson retired before coaching another game, making way for a different interim coach, Russ Pennell, before Sean Miller finally got the job.

While it’s impossible to predict precisely how the O’Neill tenure would have played out at Arizona, that alternate reality would have happened — and really should have — if Olson hadn’t flirted with returning.

You can’t make O’Neill’s failed job at USC a litmus test for his ability at Arizona, either, because that’s comparing apples to oranges. Let’s just say Arizona fans should count their blessings that Miller is the one on the court.

In O’Neill’s one year at Arizona, he led the Wildcats to a 19-15 record and a berth to the NCAA Tournament, where they lost in the first round. That’s where the positives end for O’Neill.

While the 2007-2008 Wildcats had a lot to deal with off the court, they had a great deal of talent on it. Freshman Jerryd Bayless and sophomores Chase Budinger and Jordan Hill all played vital roles for the underachieving Wildcats.

It’s hard to rely on three young college stars who haven’t exactly lit up the NBA since then. But all three are still playing professionally and have received significant minutes when healthy, leading us to believe that O’Neill didn’t lack talent in Tucson.

Arizona also went 8-10 in a strong Pac-10 conference; its first losing conference record since Olson’s first season in charge.

It’s safe to say O’Neill didn’t make a solid first impression.

He was still in line to take over after Olson decided to call it quits at the end of his contract, which was set to expire in 2011.

Obviously, though, things didn’t go as planned.

O’Neill left Tucson and headed to the NBA as an assistant coach for the Memphis Grizzlies for a season before replacing Tim Floyd as the head coach at USC in 2009.

The USC position was open because Floyd, ironically, almost went to Arizona to fill in the coaching vacancy — the one originally set aside for O’Neill. Instead, Floyd opted to stay at USC.

Well, at least until the allegations of improper benefits used to court O.J. Mayo surfaced, forcing Floyd to resign. When the dust settled, Miller was in Tucson, O’Neill was in Los Angeles and Floyd was unemployed.

O’Neill finally had his Pac-10 coaching job, but that was about the end of the good news in his new home. The entire USC recruiting class decommitted and instead headed to Tucson. Some of the notable names? Former No. 2 overall pick Derrick Williams, senior forward Solomon Hill and former point guard Lamont “Momo” Jones.

O’Neill was taking over a Trojan team with a bare cupboard: DeMar DeRozan and Taj Gibson left early for the NBA, he had no recruits coming in and the program was facing NCAA sanctions.

With everything workng against him, the 48-65 record O’Neill had at USC is understandable, but not admirable.

He had just one conference win last year.

O’Neill never once brought in a Top-25 recruiting class; the Trojans were never ranked during his four years and they never won a game in the NCAA tournament. He also said he wouldn’t recruit one-and-done talent, something that could isolate a school from elite talent.

O’Neill has proven throughout his career that he’s a good coach with a great defensive mind. At a program like Arizona, though, that wouldn’t be enough.

Arizona has been blessed with some great fortune through its first 15 games this season — three consecutive Florida turnovers, perfect timing on Nick Johnson’s block in Hawaii and, of course, the “late” buzzer beater by Colorado’s Sabatino Chen.

But with the abrupt end to the O’Neill era at USC, Wildcat fans should be breathing a sigh of relief for the real bullet they dodged. Losing a regular season game to Florida is forgettable. Years of mediocrity and irrelevance are not.

&#149This story was courtesy of the Arizona Daily Wildcat.

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