Arizona’s players had gotten used to the idea of Kevin O’Neill being their head coach. Now they know he’ll be there for good—eventually.
The No. 19 Wildcats will get their first chance to win a game with O’Neill as the officially designated successor to Lute Olson on Wednesday when they play at UNLV.
O’Neill has been serving as interim coach since Olson went on a personal leave of absence in November. On Tuesday, O’Neill was officially named the successor of the 73-year-old Hall of Famer when Olson retires.
“When I was an assistant here, I used to think, boy, it would be great to have the Arizona job,” said O’Neill, who served on Olson’s staff from 1986-89 before returning as an assistant last spring. “It is a dream job.”
Olson has said he plans to return to coach the team next season, but for now, and seemingly well into the future, O’Neill is the man in charge.
On the court, O’Neill has led the Wildcats (7-2) to four straight wins since a heartbreaking, 76-72 overtime loss to No. 4 Kansas on Nov. 25. They’ve won a pair of impressive games during their recent streak, beating No. 9 Texas A&M on Dec. 2 and rallying to top Illinois in overtime in Chicago six days later.
Arizona’s most recent win was a 69-50 victory Sunday against Fresno State— a team UNLV defeated 84-71 on Dec. 8.
Jerryd Bayless scored 21 points, Chase Budinger added 16, and Jordan Hill finished with 15 and nine rebounds in the win over the Bulldogs.
“I told our team before the game, we’re a growing team, and when you’re a growing team you don’t want to have any setbacks,” O’Neill said.
Bayless and Budinger have provided Arizona with the best 1-2 punch in the Pac-10. Bayless, a true freshman, is second in the league in scoring, averaging 20.0 points, while Budinger is also in the top 10 with 17.0 per night. In addition, they’re two of the best 3-point shooters in the league. Bayless makes 47.6 percent of his attempts from beyond the arc, and Budinger knocks down 45.7 percent of his.
Arizona defeated UNLV 89-75 at home last season, the first meeting between the schools since 1990, as Budinger had 15 points and 11 rebounds. UNLV holds a 9-5 edge in the all-time series, winning all eight games played in Las Vegas.
The Rebels (7-2) are looking for their fourth straight win, and haven’t played since junior guard Rene Rougeau scored a career-high 19 points in their victory against Fresno State.
While UNLV doesn’t feature the pair of big scorers Arizona does, it does have balanced scoring. Curtis Terry leads the team with 13.8 points per game, Wink Adams scores 13.3 and Joe Darger 13.0 for the Rebels, whose 75.2 points per game rank third in the Mountain West.
Arizona averages 78.3 points, but 80 seems to be its magic number. The Wildcats are 165-19 when scoring 80 or more since the start of the 1997-98 season, including 3-0 this season.