TUCSON - As always, Arizona basketball coach Lute Olson is looking forward to the upcoming season. This time, he expects to be a part of it.
The 74-year-old Hall of Famer is coming off the most troubled season in his 25-year tenure at Arizona. A seemingly endless soap opera began in November, when Olson requested a personal leave of absence for undisclosed reasons. Olson returned to the helm shortly after Arizona was eliminated in the first round of the NCAA tourney last spring.
The difference this autumn? Olson said he feels physically able to handle the grind of coaching.
“I think I would say on that, the difference is last year was last year, and I was having problems with the energy level early,” Olson said during a 38-minute session with reporters at the team’s media day Tuesday. “So I feel much more energized at this point.”
It will take a lot of energy to bring Arizona back to its accustomed level among the national elite. Arizona has drawn 24 straight NCAA tournament berths, the nation’s longest active streak. But the Wildcats went 19-15 last season and finished seventh in the Pac-10 — their worst showing since 1982-83, the year before Olson arrived from Iowa.
Olson believes he’s up to the job, and so do his players .
“I see a glow in his eyes,” junior forward Jordan Hill said. “He’s always energetic. He’s happy. He’s smiling. When you see that smile, it brings a smile to our face just to know that he’s doing OK.”
With so much attention on Olson, the Wildcats received little attention on the court last season . Thanks in part to a formidable schedule — the Wildcats played eventual Final Four teams Kansas, Memphis and UCLA on the road — Arizona drew its 24th straight NCAA tournament appearance, but lost to West Virginia in the first round.
Given the events of the last year, it’s no wonder Olson is looking forward to the season opener against Florida Atlantic on Nov. 17, part of the NIT season tip-off.
But he said he’s not quite ready for a game — nor is his team. “Not yet,” he said with a chuckle.
The Wildcats have to replace leading scorer Jerryd Bayless, who left for the NBA after one season.
Arizona will lean heavily on Hill, swingman Chase Budinger and point guard Nic Wise to lead a young team with seven freshmen or sophomores on scholarship.
Olson also is breaking in a new staff — associate head coach Mike Dunlap and assistants Russ Pennell and Reggie Geary, a former Wildcat player.
“It’s been a different kind of situation, obviously,” Olson said.