Illini to face Arizona team playing under interim coach

John Supinie

On the same day Arizona coach Lute Olson announced he would extend his leave of absence through the rest of the basketball season, divorce papers were filed seeking to end his marriage Thursday.

While Olson's reason for stepping away from the program remained guarded until Friday, his absence began Nov. 4. Even without the Hall of Fame coach who guided the Wildcats to the NCAA title in 1997 and a runner-up finish in 2001, Arizona returned to the top 25 behind experienced interim coach Kevin O'Neill and budding superstars Jerryd Bayless and Chase Budinger.

No. 22 Arizona faces Illinois today at the United Center. If the 78-67 win over then-No. 9 Texas A&M on Sunday was any indication, the Wildcats are poised for a big year with or without Olson and any distractions his absence caused.

"I really admire and respect the job our players have done as they focus on the game of basketball,'' O'Neill said. "We deal with whatever comes every day.

"We're an improving team. We've got a bunch of young guys who are doing a little better. We're not near where we need to be by any stretch of the imagination. We play hard and play together. Our guys are starting to get it a little bit.''

For the immediate future -- and perhaps much longer -- Arizona is in the hands of O'Neill, the former head coach at Marquette, Tennessee and Northwestern who was known as much for his profane sideline language as his teams' success on the court.

After seven years in the NBA, including one season as Toronto Raptors head coach, O'Neill returned to Arizona, where he first built his reputation as Olson's top assistant from 1986-89.

"He's done phenomenal -- not good, not great, but phenomenal,'' Arizona athletic director Jim Livengood told the Tucson Citizen after the victory over Texas A&M. "When Lute determines that he no longer wants to be the head coach and steps down, then Kevin is an absolute natural.''

O'Neill initially arrived to serve, in essence, as the defensive coordinator. The Wildcats now play man-to-man defense.

"They're a little better defensively than they were maybe last year and definitely from the beginning of the season,'' Illinois coach Bruce Weber said.

Arizona runs more set plays under O'Neill, as opposed to Olson's motion offense. Bayless and Budinger handle much of the scoring.

Bayless (19.9 points, 3.7 rebounds, 4.9 assists per game) is a freshman guard from Phoenix who has scored 20 points or more in four of the first seven games. Budinger (18.4 points, 4.9 rebounds, 3.6 assists), an honorable mention preseason All-American at forward, is the reigning Pac-10 Conference freshman of the year.

"They're tough matchups,'' Weber said. "If you put a little guy on Budinger, they post him up. If you put a big guy on him, they run him off screens. He has great body control. Bayless has exceptional athleticism. He can really jump up and shoot it. That makes him tough to defend.''

A sprained ankle might limit Illini senior center Shaun Pruitt's playing time. Weber indicated Pruitt's status might be a gametime decision. If so, freshman center Mike Tisdale will likely get the bulk of Pruitt's minutes.

After losing to Duke and Maryland, the toughest two teams thus far on the schedule, Illinois could use a win against a team expected to earn an NCAA berth.

"These games really tell what you're about as a team and the progress you're making,'' Weber said. "They're great resume builders when (the NCAA selection committee is) comparing conferences and teams. They always have on the board the marquee non-conference wins. This would be one that would show up.

"After what we went through last year, being the last team or one of the last teams in, every game in the non-conference season is important.''

After Duke, this is the best team the Illini faced thus far. Part of the credit should go to O'Neill, who speaks with Olson daily.

"Anytime you can get the opinion of greatness, you should do it,'' O'Neill said. "We have a Hall of Fame coach. It's great to have that kind of input.''

John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com. For more coverage, read Illini Talk blog at www.sj-r.com and www.pjstar.com.

Illinois (5-2) vs. No. 22 Arizona (5-2)

11 a.m., United Center, Chicago (ESPN, Illini Sports Network)

ILLINOIS (5-2)   ppg     rpg

F Brian Randle Sr. 6-8 9.7 4.4

C Shaun Pruitt Sr. 6-10 10.3 7.4

G Trent Meacham Jr. 6-2 10.9 1.7

G Calvin Brock Jr. 6-5 8.6 4.7

G Chester Frazier Jr. 6-2 7.1 6.3

ARIZONA (5-2)     ppg   rpg

F Chase Budinger So. 6-7 18.4 4.9

F Jordan Hill So. 6-10 11.4 4.4

C Kirk Walters Sr. 6-11 0.8 2.0

G Jawann McClellan 6-4 Sr. 9.3 3.9

G Jerryd Bayless Fr. 6-3 19.9 3.7

Noteworthy: Arizona leads the series 7-6 after an 84-72 victory over the Illini in Phoenix a year ago. This is the first meeting between the two teams in the United Center since 2000. … Pruitt's string of 75 consecutive starts could come to an end because of a sprained ankle. He was the only player to start all 35 games last season. … Arizona is Illinois' only game in a 15-day stretch. … Arizona was picked to finish fourth in the Pac-10 Conference. … O'Neill was 152-165 in 11 seasons as head coach at Marquette, Tennessee and Northwestern. During coach Lute Olson's leave of absence, all games will be credited to O'Neill's record. 

Key for Illini: Play with a sense of urgency. The Illini could use a meaningful win against a team that's expected to play in the NCAA tournament.

Key for Wildcats: Avoid foul trouble and stay away from going to a bench that lacks depth.

Key quote: "They've played at Kansas and took them to overtime. It's not like they haven't been to tough environments. It seems like when we walk into the United Center and the lights go out for introductions, the kids play at a very high level. I hope that happens. We're going to have to have the extra energy to compete with them.'' -- Illinois coach Bruce Weber.

Prediction: Arizona 76, Illinois 71