Valley high (altitude)? APMany think Budinger is Arizona's best incoming freshman ever.
Here's the deal: Lute Olson is about to enter his 24th season as head basketball coach at Arizona. In that time, he has produced 31 NBA draft picks, including 12 first-rounders. He has also developed 30 All-Americans. Still, Olson has publicly stated freshman wing Chase Budinger -- yet to dribble a ball or take a shot for the Wildcats -- has a good chance of being the best prospect ever to play for him.
It's a list that includes Sean Elliott, Mike Bibby, Steve Kerr, Richard Jefferson and Gilbert Arenas. It's a list immensely long on talent and deep in achievement. It's a pretty darn intimidating list.
But the expectations on Budinger aren't the biggest deal.
This is: "Hopefully, I can go in there and make an impact and we can be better than last year," Budinger said. "If the chemistry is right and we play together, myself and a couple of the other new guys can help make it better than last season. I mean, that's one of the main reasons I wanted to go there, a place where 20 wins isn't good enough. That's the way it is. They're all about winning and know how to get it done. That's the way I am. Hopefully, we'll have closer to 30 wins."
It seems he has already learned one of the program's primary rules: At Arizona, attitude is as coveted as skill.
It is one of the few places where a 20-13 record and advancing to the second round of the NCAA Tournament is considered average, one of the few programs that can finish 11-7 in the Pac-10 and search for vast improvement, one of the few teams that can overcome a vicious schedule to give a No. 1 NCAA seed (Villanova) playing in its own city all it wants and more and still be greatly disappointed.
"That's the standard by which our program is measured," Olson said. "We won 20 games last year against the toughest schedule of anybody in our league and there were still some wondering whether we'd get into the [NCAAs]. The schedule is just as tough this year. We have never ducked people."
Any ducking last season might have been to avoid being hit in the head with all the missed shots. The Wildcats didn't find the hoop all that well (45 percent from the field, 32 percent on 3s), a major reason they finished fourth in a league that sent one team (UCLA) to the NCAA title game.
Olson is convinced he has discovered the remedy for such a troubling issue, assured he can turn bricks into baskets by mixing old and new into a team good enough to reach the second week of the NCAAs and perhaps beyond.
He believes he can toughen his side enough to again rule the Pac-10 by playing a nonconference schedule that includes neutral-court games against Illinois and Louisville, road contests at Virginia and San Diego State and home matchups with Memphis and North Carolina.
He feels that all the stars are aligned this time.
Jawann McClellan played just 45 minutes last year due to academic and injury issues, certainly not the prescribed time for the player Olson felt would lead his team in scoring -- and possibly rebounding. But now Olson can team his 6-foot-4 junior guard with other capable shooters in the McDonald's All-American Budinger, freshman guard Nic Wise and sophomore wing Marcus Williams (the team's top returning 3-point shooter at 45 percent). Olson can put a lot more offense around point guard Mustafa Shakur and forward Ivan Radenovic, seniors who last year shot just 43 and 46 percent, respectively.
Still, no matter how critical it was that Shakur and Williams chose to bypass the NBA draft and return to school, no matter how much talent and experience and how many sparkling resumes fill the roster, the topic of how good Arizona can ultimately be almost always returns to the 6-8 Budinger.
He shattered the San Diego section career scoring records with 2,930 points, averaging 32.8 points and 10.5 rebounds per game as a senior for La Costa Canyon High and going for 50 points in a CIF Division I final.
Did we mention he was named the California prep athlete of the year? Did we also mention he was the national prep volleyball player of the year?
"The thing that most impresses me about Chase is that scoring really isn't that important to him," Olson said. "He was the [co-]MVP of the McDonald's game and only scored [11 points]. You don't see that often. But he can handle the ball, pass like a point guard, gets more excited about a teammate scoring than himself.
"He's not as tough on the glass as he will be because things came almost too easy for him in high school. I think he has a chance to be an unbelievable defender. He has great lateral movement and quickness because of his volleyball skills.
"[Starting] positions aren't given here or based on reputation. They're earned on the court every day in practice. It will be up to Chase and his teammates to compete against one another. But we've obviously had some outstanding freshmen play important roles for us. Veterans get a chance to hold onto spots, but if someone comes in and is better, then that's part of the scene here. Every player understands it."
It's not likely that Budinger will ever be in jeopardy of losing his spot as a veteran. Part of that is it's not likely, health willing, that he will be in Tucson to ever boast of upperclass status.
There were several predraft projections that considered him a first-round pick had he been eligible to skip college. It's not a new concept for Olson, the idea that the window of opportunity to coach such a talented player shuts sooner and sooner nowadays.
"Once they come here, we need to count on them for two years," he said. "I think Chase will be ready for [the NBA] after one year, but I also think he is a kid who would want that extra year of maturity in college. I also think his parents would want that for him."
So here's the deal: The kid is really, really good. With him, Arizona is, too.
-- Ed Graney
The Hot Zone
Each conference team held opponents to an average or 70 points or fewer last season -- a first in the shot-clock era -- and now the Pac-10 returns 76 percent of those players that made up starting lineups in 2005-06.
Oregon State will go as far as its frontcourt takes it. The Beavers have one of the Pac-10's best trios up front in juniors Marcel Jones and Sasa Cuic and senior Kyle Jeffers. They combined to average 29 points, 15.4 rebounds and 2.0 blocks last season.
Arron Afflalo tested the NBA draft waters, decided against jumping in and now returns to UCLA for his junior season (even though he's now sidelined six to eight weeks with a stress reaction). He started all but one of the team's 39 games last season, leading the team in scoring (15.8) and minutes (33.4).
For years, many wondered just how good USC basketball -- what with its rich recruiting base and once-again dominating football program to help attract athletes -- would be with a state-of-the-art facility in which to showcase its team. Now we'll find out: The on-campus Galen Center (10,258 seats) opens this fall for second-year coach Tim Floyd and his Trojans.
UCLA wing Josh Shipp missed 35 games during his sophomore season with a hip injury. "The main focus for Josh is to come back 100 percent healthy, which I'm confident he'll do," coach Ben Howland said. "If he does that, he'll have a great year."
Want a lineup of second-year players that could beat most teams on any given night? G Darren Collison (UCLA); G Justin Dentmon (Washington); F Marcus Williams (Arizona); F Luc Richard Mbah a Moute (UCLA); and F Jeff Pendergraph (ASU).
For the first time since Lorenzo Romar has been at Washington, the head coach can boast of having some serious height up front without sacrificing quickness elsewhere. The Huskies list five players 6-8 or taller.
Oregon. Here's why: The Ducks last season went 1-9 in games decided by five points or less and eight of those losses came by three points or less. You figure as the league's most experienced club coming in (not to mention one that held opponents to an average of just 65.3 points), Ernie Kent's team will begin winning a lot of those last-minute affairs.
-- Ed Graney
He just looks older. Honest.
Maybe it's the hair. Or lack of it. Maybe it's the 13-year head coaching career or more than 250 victories or five straight NCAA Tournament appearances. Maybe it's that in the last five years, only Duke has more ACC wins than the basketball team Herb Sendek led.
Maybe you just consider all that and can't believe the guy is only 43.
Arizona State went in search of a coach with West Coast ties and instead received what many would term a best-case scenario: One from a major conference with notable success who is young enough to still have the fire burning inside and experienced enough to know what a triumphant turnaround looks like.
"It's always important to pause, recognize and pay tribute to players and coaches that were here before you," Sendek said. "The stones that we want to place will be the result of a lot of hard work by previous coaches and players. This season will be good because we have a wonderful group of young men."
Young men who, frankly, haven't been very good on the court lately.
Sendek was hired away from North Carolina State to revive an ASU program that in eight years under Rob Evans went 119-120, including 11-17 last season.
Sendek begins with a team that returns four of its top five players but recently learned that leading scorer Kevin Kruger is transferring to play his final season under his father at UNLV. It's a definite setback, given Kruger shot 40 percent on 3s and the offense Sendek ran at NC State had games where it attempted more than 40 from that range.
But there are other numbers in ASU's favor with Sendek in charge. In the last decade, he has won 28 games against Top 25 teams. During that span, ASU went 5-62 in such matchups.
With Kruger gone, expectations on forward Jeff Pendergraph grow even higher. A member of the All-Pac-10 freshman team, he averaged 14.7 points and a team-best 8.0 rebounds last season. This, after missing all of fall conditioning due to surgery on a benign tumor on his left leg.
"Regardless of how many older players or new guys you have, we are who we are," Sendek said. "It doesn't matter what the makeup or experience of the team is. What we have to do is embrace what we have and then try to make us better.
"You can't compare teams and say our style will be the same as [at NC State]. Just because we did something well there the past three seasons, it doesn't mean that will be our style here."
Still, be assured ASU fans are hoping for the type of scoring NC State managed under Sendek. The Wolfpack ranked third among ACC teams last season in league play at 75.8 points per game, interesting when you consider Washington led the Pac-10 at 77.6 points per conference outing.
What ASU fans are undoubtedly happy about: Sendek is 1-0 against Arizona coach Lute Olson, having led Miami (Ohio) over the Wildcats in the 1995 NCAA Tournament. It's something for the Sun Devils' faithful to brag about at least until January.
"Every team and every season will have a set of circumstances that make it different," said Sendek, now the Pac-10's second-youngest coach behind Tony Bennett at Washington State and yet the fourth-best in career wins. "This year's team will have its ups and downs just like our teams at Miami and NC State did in their first [years]. I look forward to working with this group and attacking any challenges that we have."
-- Ed Graney
* -- NCAA Tournament
* -- Pruitt is academically ineligible for the fall semester.
-- Andy Glockner
Arizona: Senior forward Ivan Radenovic led the team with 203 rebounds last season and should be just as strong inside come the fall, given he has gained 20 pounds in the offseason. "I don't know anyone," Lute Olson said, "who has improved as much as he has in 2½ years."
How much immediate pressure is on freshman point guard Derek Glasser? Consider: When top returner Kevin Kruger decided to transfer to UNLV, the Sun Devils lost a player who ranked among the top 10 in eight conference categories. Kruger also ranked second nationally in minutes played (38.96 average).
For the first time in school history, the Bears made more free throws (525) than their opponents attempted (505) last season. Problem is, the player who shot 270 of those 525 (Leon Powe) left school two years early for the NBA.
The Ducks are hoping experience translates into victories. Oregon returns nine players who started at least 10 games last season and the roster includes four seniors and seven juniors. Back from last season is 81 percent of the team's scoring, including the top four in junior Malik Hairston (15.0), senior Aaron Brooks (10.8 ppg), junior Chamberlain Oguchi (9.6 ppg) and junior Bryce Taylor (9.3 ppg).
If those in Eugene are counting on veteran leadership, those in Corvallis need youth to prevail. OSU has just one scholarship senior (Kyle Jeffers) and it's a roster that includes six freshmen (two redshirt and four incoming). "We feel like we're starting anew," said fifth-year coach Jay John. "But this is the way things have to be at Oregon State. We have to be a four- or five-year program. That will allow us to compete against teams with lottery picks and early-entry guys."
The Cardinal have posted 13 consecutive winning seasons, a streak that will continue only if some key young faces contribute. Leading the way is sophomore point guard Mitch Johnson, a Pac-10 honorable mention all-freshman pick last season. Six new players are included on the roster, including McDonald's All-American twin big men Brook and Robin Lopez. They are the second set of twins to play for Stanford, following Jason and Jarron Collins.
Jordan Farmar is now figuring out how to earn minutes with the Lakers, so the Bruins' lead point guard role goes to sophomore Darren Collison. As a backup last season, he appeared in 39 games (two starts) and averaged 5.5 points and 2.3 assists in 19.2 minutes. "He was a significant factor as to why our team did so well," Ben Howland said. "He really developed as the year progressed. That's significant to me, because being a great player means continuing to improve."
Struck by the tragic offseason shooting death of guard Ryan Francis, the Trojans attempt to move forward with a program that returns four starters. Last season, the Trojans were just one of 27 teams to claim three or more wins against opponents that finished the regular season in the RPI top 25. The hope is that progress will be defined by a defense that strung together an 11-game streak of holding opponents under 70 points, the school's longest since 1959-60.
Youth is also a popular theme up in Seattle, where the Huskies try and reach a fourth straight NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history. Of the 14 players on its roster, Washington offers six freshmen (two redshirt) and four sophomores, a group that includes incoming McDonald's All-American center Spencer Hawes. "It will be different because guys are learning about us and us about them," UW coach Lorenzo Romar said. "We just have to grow again. We'll experience some tough times early because we're so young. We'll throw them out there and let them learn from their mistakes."
Tony Bennett might have his own style, but one thing won't change as he assumes the head coaching role from his father, Dick: The Cougars will again dictate tempo and defend the basket each possession as if their lives depend on it. Washington State held opponents to an average of 57.7 points last season and return two of the league's best shot blockers in junior Robbie Cowgill and senior Ivory Clark. "We were very competitive last season, but fell short too many times," Bennett said.
-- Ed Graney
While the Pac-10 was not the juggernaut it had been previously, it was still a solid league last season with a UCLA team that kept getting better and better. The difference in the league between four years ago and now, though, is simple: Oregon and Stanford are not what they have been, and only Washington has emerged to take their place.
With that in mind, I think the Pac-10 could be one of the top three leagues in the country next year (along with the SEC and Big 12) if things play out perfectly.
UCLA lost Jordan Farmar, Ryan Hollins and Cedric Bozeman, but ask anyone in the league and they will tell you that Luc Richard Mbah a Moute is the driving force behind everything that changed in Ben Howland's second year in Westwood. Also keep in mind that the Bruins get Josh Shipp back from injury, Aaron Afflalo back from the NBA draft (and now injury, too) and Darren Collison is now thrust into the starting point guard roll. The wings, Shipp and Afflalo, will be more efficient offensively and look for Mbah a Moute to explode offensively.
Arizona brings back Marcus Williams (the best young player in the league), Jawann McClellan (who may have been their best player if he had not had grade/injury issues) and three-year starter Mustafa Shakur (who wisely pulled out of the NBA draft). While Shakur has never been great, with the talent coming back and freshman sensation Chase Buddinger coming in, the Cats may be able to shake off the underachiever label that has followed them in the four years since their last Final Four appearance.
Remember the name Spencer Hawes. He shunned everyone to stay home and play for Lorenzo Romar at Washington. With Justin Dentmon, Jon Brockman and sniper Ryan Appleby stretching the defense, the Huskies will once again be tough at home, albeit young on the road.
The X-factor in this league is Oregon. When they made a run with Luke Ridnour and Luke Jackson four years ago, they had the pick of the proverbial recruiting litter and they chose Aaron Brooks, Malik Hairston, Marty Leunen, Chamberlain Oguchi and Bryce Taylor in a two-year span. These were top-level recruits that everyone wanted -- and they have massively underachieved ever since. The Ducks have the talent to win the league and the experience to overcome most obstacles in front of them, but something has been missing. If the Ducks decide to defend and share the limelight, they can overcome their previous faults and keep Ernie Kent employed.
USC opens its brand-new arena, but will have to wait on the eligibility of Gabe Pruitt before it has any idea how good it can be. That said, Tim Floyd in Year 2 may be very close to making the dance.
Cal brings back Ayinde Ubaka at the point and highly underrated DeVon Hardin inside. With the loss of Leon Powe, Jordan Wilkes will be front and center in terms of the Golden Bears' NCAA chances. If he gets it going, Cal should again have the best front line in the league.
Stanford brings in the Lopez twins and should become much tougher on their interior, but the Cardinal are a year or so away with their incredible amount of youth. Despite that, it's still very difficult for opponents to win at the Farm.
Washington State, Oregon State and Arizona State are left to compete for scraps, but none of these teams are bad. In fact, that may be the beauty of the league now -- with the consistency finally established in Corvallis, the Bennett family plan in Pullman and the Princeton-style winning ways of Herb Sendek in Tempe, there are no easy games.
The Pac-10, barring a mass NBA exodus after the season, will be even fuller from top to bottom next year, and if O.J. Mayo and Kevin Love come into the league, we may have to find ways to get more West Coast love than we have in a long time.
-- Doug Gottlieb
If resident Bracketologist Joe Lunardi is correct, 2007 will look a lot like 2006 as far as the Pac-10 in the NCAA Tournament. See what seeds Joe has for the league's four dance participants.
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