Budinger's season superlatives
Arizona forward Chase Budinger couldn't help but be in good spirits as he headed home from Wednesday's workout at the McKale Center. Practice was over – and so were his final exams.
A sociology major, Budinger said one final was particularly difficult.
"Structural Mind and Behavior," he said. "You learn a lot about people's brains and personalities and why they act the way they do. Sometimes it's tough to understand."
At times, Budinger's career at Arizona has been stymied by the same brand of angst and confusion. Not that it's his fault. Three years after arriving in Tucson, Budinger has now played for three different head coaches.
The 6-foot-7 Budinger was considered one of the top prospects in the country when he signed with the Wildcats and legendary coach Lute Olson prior to the 2006-07 season. But after coaching Budinger as a freshman, Olson took a leave of absence to deal with personal matters while assistant Kevin O'Neill guided the Wildcats to the NCAA tournament.
Olson fired O'Neill last spring and was set to resume his spot on the sideline. Then, less than a week after the first practice of the season, Olson announced his resignation. With no proven head coaches available, Arizona placed the interim tag on assistant Russ Pennell, who a year ago was providing color commentary for Arizona State's radio broadcast.
"If anything," Budinger said, "this has all been a good learning experience."
As frustrating as the situation has been at Arizona, the last two years have been a bit easier to endure thanks, in part, to Budinger, who has kept the Wildcats respectable on the court despite the distractions that keep surfacing off of it.
Budinger is averaging a team-high 18.8 points for Arizona, which is 7-2 and riding high on momentum following Sunday's victory over No. 4 Gonzaga. Wins at UNLV this Saturday and at home against Kansas on Tuesday could catapult the Wildcats back into the top 25 poll they called home for so many years.
– Chase Budinger, on the Wildcats' resurgence.
"We could make a huge statement in these next few games" Budinger said. "Our team is confident right now. The main thing is that everyone is starting to have fun."
That's a far cry from how things were two months ago, when Olson announced that he'd coached his last game. Budinger didn't hesitate when asked to describe the impact the decision had on the team.
"Depressed," he said. "Just a heavy state of depression that took us about a week to get over. In the beginning there were people who were really mad [at Olson] – especially some players' parents."
"If you think about it," he said, "the main reason all of us came here was to play under Coach Olson. It was a big hit to our program."
No one felt the sting quite like Budinger. Projected as a mid-to-late first-round pick, Budinger withdrew from last summer's NBA draft at the urging of Olson, who convinced Budinger that he needed another year to develop before turning pro.
Budinger seemed on board with Olson's thinking and became one of his staunchest supporters, telling reporters he was "100 percent sure" Olson would coach the team in 2008-09.
Looking back, though, Budinger said it was obvious the 74-year-old Olson was in no condition to coach. He looked fatigued during the few practices he attended prior to his resignation. Players said they noticed him shaking and that he rarely spoke.
Five days after Olson stepped down, his doctor announced that Olson had suffered a small stroke during the last year which sometimes caused depression and impaired judgment.
"At first people didn't realize his health wasn't allowing him to coach," Budinger said. "But once we heard that … you had to respect him for even trying. The thing I'll always know is that, if Coach O could've coached, he would've."
Budinger said it took "about a week" for the Wildcats to snap out of their funk and regain their focus. Not surprisingly, the season didn't begin smoothly.
Arizona was denied a trip to New York for the Preseason NIT semifinals when guard Jamelle Horne committed an intentional foul with the score tied in the waning seconds against Alabama-Birmingham – a mental mistake that resulted in a 72-71 loss. The team's other setback came in a 67-66 defeat at Texas A&M on Dec. 5.
But the Wildcats' fortunes changed in back-to-back victories over San Diego State (7-2) and previously unbeaten Gonzaga, which entered the game touting wins against Tennessee, Washington State and Maryland.
"We had a good game plan going into Gonzaga," Budinger said. "We watched film and saw that no one had really pressured or trapped them. We threw a twist at them and caught them off guard. We created turnovers and took them out of their offense."
Budinger wasn't shy about throwing praise toward Pennell for the victory. Even though his stint as head coach will last just one year, Budinger said Pennell has done an admirable job of bringing a sense of normalcy back to Arizona.
He said Pennell adheres to the same offensive philosophies as Olson. If there's any difference between the two it's on defense, where Pennell is encouraging the Wildcats to become more physical and to play with more passion.
That should be a welcome change for Budinger. As much as they love his all-around game, the main knocks NBA executives had with Budinger last spring was that the Encinitas, Calif., native was lackluster on defense and that he played with an overall passivity.
"He has that reputation of being a laid-back, California kid," one scout said Wednesday. "But I think he's making a conscious effort to change that perception.
"I was at his game against Gonzaga and he was diving all over the floor for loose balls and directing his teammates. He was carrying himself in a totally different manner."
Thing was, Budinger didn't even have one of his best games against the Zags, going just 5-for-15 from the field. For the season, though, he's shooting a career-high 54.5 percent overall and has made 60 percent (24 of 40) of his three-point attempts.
A year ago, Budinger likely would've been drafted between No. 20 and No. 30 overall. This summer – especially with a weaker draft – he's expected to be a top-20 pick.
"I think what I've been through here is going to pay off for me," Budinger said. "If I get to the next level … you're going to have situations where you're going to have different coaches. Your head coach could get fired during the season. You might get traded. You've got to learn different systems.
"I've enjoyed Arizona. I don't regret coming here. If I could do it all over again, I'd make the same decision."
- Chase Budinger