Lute Olson will not be on the sidelines for just the eighth time in his 25-year career at Arizona when the No. 17 Wildcats begin their season on Tuesday against Northern Arizona at the McKale Center.
The coach has taken a leave of absence from the Wildcats for unspecified reasons, which the 73-year-old has said are not health related.
Olson took another extended leave in 2001, when his wife was terminally ill with cancer. He eventually returned and led Arizona to the Final Four.
“For the past 25 years, I have always given 110 percent to the team and this job,” Olson said earlier this month. “In light of this personal matter, I feel it is in the best interest of the team and the University of Arizona to take a leave of absence.”
Olson has missed just seven of Arizona’s games during the previous 24 seasons. He missed one contest in 1994 due to back problems, and six during the 2000-01 season because of his wife’s illness. Arizona went 4-3 in those games.
Assistant Kevin O’Neill will assume interim head coaching duties.
“He will be back shortly,” O’Neill said Monday of Olson’s status. “We all know that and our job is to go about our business day to day until he is back.”
O’Neill will look to get the Wildcats off to another fast start. Arizona began the 2006-07 season with 12 wins in 13 games, but cooled after that to finish 20-11, and lost to Purdue in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
Arizona will need to improve its defense, which ranked ninth in the Pac-10 last season with 72.5 points allowed per game.
“I think we’re a long ways away from being a good defensive team,” O’Neill said. “I think we’re a team that is in the beginning stages of learning how to play defense and learning how to play hard all the time on defense.
“But with time I hope that we’ll get better with both of those things. There’s no magic to it.”
The Wildcats no longer have last year’s leading scorer Marcus Williams, who left for the NBA after two seasons. Without him, Chase Budinger, who averaged 15.6 points and 5.8 rebounds last season as a freshman, is expected to become the team’s top option on offense.
“Chase is a guy who should be a go-to guy for us,” O’Neill said. “He’s got a real high level of skill, both with and without the ball. Chase knows this: he needs to become a more aggressive defender more of the time.
“He’s only 19,” O’Neill added. “I forget that sometimes.”
Senior Jawann McClellan is also expected to step up. McClellan averaged 9.6 points last year, but was bothered by knee problems and lost his starting job late in the season.
Arizona is expected to start two freshmen on Tuesday in Jerryd Bayless and Jamelle Horne. Bayless takes over the point guard position from Mustafa Shakur, and O’Neill sees plenty of potential in him.
“I like Jerryd at the point,” O’Neill said. “His ultimate position at the next level is probably going to be at the point. He’s what I would call a scoring point guard.”
Northern Arizona (1-0) won its season opener 78-65 at home over Adams State on Sunday. Josh Wilson scored a career-high 20 points and Kyle Landry added 16 points and seven rebounds for the Lumberjacks.
Arizona has won 23 straight meetings against Northern Arizona and 38 of the last 41 matchups, including last season’s 101-79 victory in Tuscon.