James Harden was among the attendees in a near-sellout crowd watching Arizona State and Arizona tussle in Tempe last February.
The Wildcats were one of several schools who wanted Harden when he was a high school sophomore. ASU came into the picture his junior year.
Given his status as a high school All-American, it seemed obvious which school he’d ultimately pick — the Tucson school whose coach (Lute Olson) had taken it to 24 NCAA tournament appearances and produced hordes of NBA players.
Instead, he chose the Tempe school with a new coach (Herb Sendek) and one NCAA tournament appearance this decade.
“We can change things around here,” Harden said in preparation for today’s in-state rivalry game at Wells Fargo Arena.
Does this mean Tucson’s team is slipping?
The answer, according to the outside world, is probably not.
This was supposed to be Olson’s 25th season at Arizona, but a string of personal issues has kept him away from the team this season, with one-time Arizona assistant Kevin O’Neill in charge after being rehired by Olson last summer.
After coaching at Northwestern, Tennessee and in the NBA, O’Neill was named Olson’s eventual successor shortly after the season began. While Olson is expected to return next summer, the winds of change are whipping.
No one knows if it will happen this summer, next year or three years hence, but it’s coming.
“They’re a premier program and (an eventual coaching change) is not going to change that,” said former ASU coach Bill Frieder, longtime friend of Olson. “A lot of teams change coaches, but the program can still move right along under adverse circumstances.”
Not so fast.
“Naming (a successor) helps but there’s still a lot of questions surrounding it,” ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said. “Whether Coach Olson decides to come back for another year you don’t know. Even though you know who the next guy is going to be, it’s an impossible situation for the next guy. You have to wait for Lute to decide, and who knows?
“The answer is, 'I don’t know,’ which isn’t what families want to hear.”
Despite a home loss to Oregon last week, the Wildcats are on course to make another NCAA tournament appearance, especially with the eventual return of former Phoenix St. Mary’s star Jerryd Bayless from a knee injury.
From now through March, Arizona likely will stay among the Pac-10 elite.
Come summer, however, when recruiting trails are mercilessly beaten by coaches, some believe Arizona needs to have resolution, or risk scaring away some of the nation’s elite players Tucson is accustomed to attracting.
Whether he’s healthy enough to play tonight or not, Bayless has turned heads as a freshman, and sophomore Chase Budinger is an elite Pac-10 player. Neither are likely to stick around beyond next season.
“At the end of the day it’s one guy closing the deal and it’s the head coach,” Scout.com National Recruiting director Dave Telep said. “Who’s going to close these guys down? If it’s Lute in charge, he’s got to be the closer. If it’s Kevin, he’s got to be the closer. You can’t have too many chiefs in the teepee.”
What does this mean for Sun Devil Nation? Could Tucson’s unknowns work wonders for Sendek’s efforts in building a program on this end of the I-10 corridor?
“ASU has blinders on,” Telep said. “It wouldn’t matter.
“Herb is going to build how he knows and if there’s residual benefits of a dropoff, I’m sure ASU will take that. But U of A won’t make or break what they do in Tempe.”
Arizona at Arizona State
When: 7:30 p.m. today
Where: Wells Fargo Arena
TV/Radio: FSNAZ/KKNT (960 AM)
Records: Arizona (10-4, 1-1 Pac-10), ASU (12-2, 2-0)
Arizona — The Jerryd Bayless watch continues. He will be a game-time decision tonight with a sprained knee, though he practiced lightly Tuesday. Nic Wise would start in place of the former Phoenix St. Mary’s star, and he’s not Bayless, but not bad either. He’s averaged 15 points, six assists and 3.3 steals per game in 119 of 120 possible minutes in three starts. This is the start of a four-game road trip for the Cats (ASU, Houston, Stanford and Cal) against teams that are a combined 45-9.
Arizona State: Not having to deal with Bayless would be a huge plus for ASU’s chances, but James Harden, for one, wants his fellow McDonald’s All-American to play. “It’d be a better game,” he said. ASU is on an eight-game winning streak, the longest since the Devils won nine straight in the 2004-05 season. Approximately 1,000 tickets ($25 each) were available as of Tuesday.