Tom Billeter quickly answered his office phone the other day and saw no reason to hang it up.
“I’m just watching film of Arizona and I don’t even know why I’m watching it,” said Billeter, a former UA assistant under Lute Olson and current head coach at Augustana. “I’m not seeing Aaron (Gordon). I’m not seeing Rondae (Hollis-Jefferson).”
Billeter had seen both UA freshmen on the recruiting trail and knew those two add to a returning core that could be formidable for his Division II Vikings, who return for an exhibition tonight after being competitive against the Wildcats before the 2009-10 and 2010-11 seasons.
Gordon “is unbelievable,” Billeter said. “He’s so long and gifted. I watched him in the summer and thought he was phenomenal. And Rondae was so talented. All (Arizona’s) young kids are talented.”
That Billeter is bringing his Sioux Falls, S.D.-based team back for a third crack at the Wildcats is the product of his relationship with Olson and respect from UA coach Sean Miller.
While Olson was still head of the program, the Vikings were invited to play at McKale during the 2009-10 season, which turned out to be Miller’s first.
Augustana lost that game 92-76 but was tied with the Wildcats at 42 in the second half — despite the fact that Augustana played without its best player.
Wanting another stiff preseason test, Miller invited the Vikings back the following season.
They complied. Against a team that would eventually reach the Elite Eight, Augustana exposed Arizona’s interior weaknesses and lost by only 11 (70-59).
“We’re not a big team so we don’t have a lot of room for error,” Miller said after that game.
This season, Augustana will be the first test for the reloaded Wildcats, who have already generated a No. 5 ranking in the USA Today coaches Top 25 poll and are near-unanimous favorites to win the Pac-12.
Here are five things worth knowing about the Vikings this time:
1. It’s not about the money
While Arizona is paying regular-season one-time guests to McKale Center between $80,000 and $96,000 this season, Augustana will get only $20,000.
Oh well. The Vikings are having fun, anyway.
Since their players are on fall break, they came to Tucson on Saturday and made a mini-working-vacation out of it.
“We’ll cover our costs,” Billeter said.
“We’re actually bringing some boosters with us and will make a little money with them,” he added. “We had to get a little creative. I understood that if we didn’t come they could bring in a (closer) school for only $5,000.”
2. They’ll be good, but not yet
Augustana is ranked No. 22 in the Division II Bulletin preseason poll, having lost one starter off a team that went 22-9 last season and reached the Division II NCAA tournament.
But three key players are out, Billeter said, including wing Alex Richter, who caught his thumb in an opponent’s jersey during a summer league game — and ripped his shoulder apart.
“It was a completely freaky injury,” Billeter said. “We’re in a weird situation. We do have two starters back but the rest of our kids are freshmen and sophomores.”
3. Don’t let the words ‘Division II’ fool you
Augustana has five players who actually turned down Division I scholarship offers, Billeter said, because of personal preference.
For them, financial and fan support at Augustana are comparable to many Division I schools. Augustana can offer up to 10 scholarships, which is only three fewer than Division I men’s teams have, and averaged 2,446 fans for its home games. Their Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference as a whole attracted an average of 1,242 per game last season.
“It’s very, very well attended,” Billeter said. “We’re in that last pocket of the country that doesn’t have (many) Division I schools, so if kids want to stay home they’ll go Division II instead of Division I.”
4. Olson has roots in region
The former UA coach was born in Mayville, N.D., attended high school in Grand Forks, N.D. — just about 300 miles up the Minnesota border with the Dakotas — and is still widely known in the region.
Moreover, Olson’s older brother was coached in high school by Ole Odney, who later became Augustana’s basketball coach from 1948 to 1966. Augustana has since created the Ole Odney Award to honor an alum involved in coaching and teaching.
So Billeter was only too grateful to have Olson and his wife, Kelly, attend an Augustana fundraiser last May. Each guest had a chance to meet Olson and receive an autographed photo of him.
“We had some people in that came just to see him because they remembered playing against him,” Billeter said. “Coach helped us raise a significant amount of money. We called it ‘Jeans And Jewels.’ We talked and had a great dinner. It was really cool.”
5. Billeter named D-II’s best
By getting 22 wins out of a starting lineup that had three true freshmen and a sophomore in his starting lineup last season, Billeter was named the Clarence “Big House” Gaines National Coach of the Year, an award given to the top Division II men’s basketball coach.
“I appreciated it very much,” Billeter said. “I was very surprised, but I do know it’s a unique award because they don’t just automatically give it to the national champion.”
At a Final Four banquet for various college basketball honorees last April, Billeter was seated next to Miami’s Shane Larkin, who was honored as the top Division I player who has spent at least two seasons with his respective team.
The name of that honor? The Lute Olson Award.