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October 13, 2006

Preseason expectations high for Arizona

Smith key to Vols plan
Midnight Madness Preview
The College Basketball Wire

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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -After listening to Arizona coach Lute Olson rave about his team Monday, Texas coach Rick Barnes said Wildcats fans should expect nothing less than a national championship this season.

"Coach Olson, I was just thinking, you say you've got four starters back and you've got the kid that reminds you of Sean Elliott," Barnes said at a news conference to promote the inaugural Basketball Hall of Fame Challenge on Dec. 2 in U.S. Airways Center. "For the people in Arizona, I think he's basically telling you he's going to win you a national championship."

Olson chuckled and said, "My job depends on that."

In truth, the 72-year-old Olson hasn't had to worry about job security for years - at least not since 1997, when he brought home Arizona's first and only national title in men's basketball. But with highly touted recruit Chase Budinger joining four returning starters, Olson knows expectations will be higher than usual in Tucson this winter.

With fall practice opening Friday, Olson fanned those expectations by comparing Budinger, a 6-foot-8 forward out of Encinitas, Calif., to former Wildcats star Sean Elliott, whose jersey was the first retired by the powerhouse program. "I think he's probably ahead of any of the freshmen that we've brought in," Olson said. "He reminds me a little bit of Sean Elliott when Sean came in, but does not have that knee problem that I think restricted Sean's defensive ability more than anything.

"So many people have been talking about (Budinger) since actually he committed to us during his junior year, but I think he has a chance to be as good as we've ever had there," Olson said. "He's a great kid. He's a team guy. He's going to be a very key player for us."

Budinger will join a team whose returnees include swingman Marcus Williams and point guard Mustafa Shakur, who both considered turning pro last spring.

Arizona will face Illinois and Texas meets Gonzaga in the made-for-TV doubleheader, which will raise funds for the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass.

The Arizona-Illinois game will be rematch of their 2005 NCAA regional final in Rosemont, Ill. Playing in front of a heavily pro-Illinois crowd, Arizona blew a 15-point lead late in regulation on its way to an eventual 90-89 overtime loss. The loss cost Arizona a trip to its fifth Final Four.

Asked how often he thinks about that game, Olson replied, "Not more than once or twice a day."

This time, there will be little at stake. And the Fighting Illini will bear almost no resemblance to the team that reached the national final two years ago, losing to North Carolina.

"We will be new," coach Bruce Weber said. The last time we played Coach Olson, in Chicago on the way to the Final Four, those five (Illinois) starters are all on NBA rosters now. So we've got some new young guys and some inexperienced guys. We jammed a bunch of home games in early in the November just trying to get ready.''

The Wildcats, by contrast, face a relatively tough nonconference schedule. They open at Virginia on Nov. 12, play Louisville on Dec. 5 in Madison Square Garden and take on Memphis on Dec. 20 in McKale Center.

The idea, Olson said, is to prepare his team for the NCAA tourney, where Arizona has had mixed success over the years.

"I think we as coaches try to schedule games where we have at least one or two games in a large facility, a neutral-site facility, to get ready for what faces you in the time ahead," Olson said.

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