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November 4, 2008

Preseason story line No. 7: Life after Lute

Rivals.com has selected the top 25 story lines for the 2008-09 season and will be revealing one daily. At No. 7 we look at an Arizona program trying to recover from the loss of legendary coach Lute Olson.

This was supposed to be the year Lute Olson returned to the bench at Arizona. Instead, it's a sequel: The Year of the Interim II.

For the second consecutive season, Arizona will have an interim coach in place of Hall-of-Famer Olson. But there's a glaring difference this time around, one that leaves the future of one of nation's most prestigious programs looking uncertain.

Unlike last season, there is no hope of Olson coming back. Olson shockingly announced his retirement Oct. 23 just 25 days before Arizona's season opener. Reports later surfaced that Olson suffered a stroke sometime within the past year and was advised to retire by his doctor.

The news already has had a tremendous effect on the Wildcats. Three high school prospects decommitted, and freshman center Jeff Withey - a four-star recruit and a potential starter - is transferring.

Those losses are magnified when you consider two signees parted ways with the Wildcats in the offseason. Five-star guard Brandon Jennings went to Europe to play professionally, and four-star big man Emmanuel Negedu asked for and was granted a release from his scholarship. Negedu landed at Tennessee.

That may explain, in part, why Arizona associate head coach Mike Dunlap turned down an offer to replace Olson on an interim basis. The next choice, Russ Pennell, accepted. Arizona athletic director Jim Livengood said the school will conduct a national search for a full-time replacement.

Pennell, 47, has no head-coaching experience at the college level, a vast difference from last season's interim coach, Kevin O'Neill, who had been the coach at three Division I programs.

"The thing about Arizona, there are so many people that care about this program," Pennell said. "What I hope we can do is keep that passion going. We are going to compete at a high level.

"The one good thing about being named 'interim' is that we have pretty good players."

Pennell is right about that. While the departed recruits have hurt Arizona's depth, the Wildcats picked fourth in the Pac-10 preseason poll still boast one of the top trios in the Pac-10 in juniors Chase Budinger, Jordan Hill and Nic Wise.

Budinger may be the best all-around player in the Pac-10. He is the league's second-leading returning scorer at 17.1 points per game (Washington's Jon Brockman averaged 17.8 ppg). Budinger also ranked second on the team with 5.4 rebounds per game.

Hill had a breakthrough year last season and gives the Wildcats a solid inside presence. He led the Pac-10 in field-goal percentage (62.0) and ranked fourth in blocks (1.6) and sixth in rebounding (7.9).

Wise, a pass-first point guard, was third in assists (4.4) and fourth in assist-to-turnover ratio (2.1-1).

That trio's legacy either will be extending one of the most remarkable streaks in college basketball or being the group on whose watch it all came to an end. Arizona leads the nation with 24 consecutive NCAA tournament appearances, a run that began in the second season of Olson's remarkable tenure; that tenure included four Final Four appearances and the school's only national title, in 1997. The 24 consecutive appearances is three shy of the NCAA record set by North Carolina from 1975-2001.

Getting into the field of 65 is not a chief concern for Pennell, who was an assistant at Arizona State from 1998-2006. He's focused on fixing the psyche of his players, who have dealt with three coaching changes and a long list of twists and turns in the past year.

"Not only will it be entertaining, but we are going to be a team that people can get behind," Pennell said. "I know our players need that and our staff needs that. We're not ready to play today, but it can't get here fast enough. We need that. He (Olson) is not going to be around, but we march on."

Andrew Skwara is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at askwara@rivals.com.

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