Greg Hansen: O'Neill didn't lose this one; Cats won it

2011-03-12T00:00:00Z 2012-11-30T19:14:09Z Greg Hansen: O'Neill didn't lose this one; Cats won itGreg Hansen Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
March 12, 2011 12:00 am  • 

LOS ANGELES - During every timeout Friday at Staples Center, some goof wearing over-sized Mickey Mouse gloves, a cape and a coonskin cap stood about 10 yards behind the Arizona bench behaving like a guy having a very bad day.

Kevin O'Neill, maybe?

In Los Angeles, where this kind of schtick is viewed as entertainment, "Rental Man" thrives. He danced a contorted dance, made his face into some very odd shapes, and generally performed a stunning impersonation of the USC basketball coach.

All "Rental Man" lacked were blood-red cheeks and a pair of glasses.

Unfortunately, as Arizona eliminated USC in the semifinals of the Pac-10 tournament, 67-62, O'Neill's suspension diverted attention from Arizona's skillful game plan and 27th victory of the year.

"It was a tough night," said UA forward Solomon Hill. "I didn't have time to worry about who was coaching them. That was for people who weren't in the game."

Nobody at USC is going to say much for the record, other than the usual "I'm sorry," which is probably good given the beating USC's image has taken for the last few years. The most appropriate reaction at Staples Center came when someone in the UA cheering section hoisted a large sign that read:

HOTEL BAR (with an arrow pointing to an imagined watering hole)

The arrow for Arizona points to the league championship game, its first in what seems like ages. (OK, it was only 2005.)

On a day of distractions, following a night of distractions, UA coach Sean Miller didn't get out of character. His aim was to limit the production of the Pac-10's most feared inside twosome, Nikola Vucevic and Alex Stepheson, and at game's end that was the difference.

"If you get caught up in that KO stuff, you lose," said Wildcats senior Jamelle Horne. "Coach Miller talked about the strategy and about being focused. That's why we won."

What is a coach worth in college basketball?

The good ones, from Duke's Mike Krzyzewski to Kansas' Bill Self, are probably worth a couple of buckets a game. Maybe less, given they almost always have the best players. But the marginal head coaches, the oft-fired, recycled ones like Kevin O'Neill, sometime become a deficit.

O'Neill put his personal feelings about Lute Olson and Olson's closest friend, Tucson auto dealer Paul Weitman, before his team's well-being. It was precisely the distraction the NCAA-bubble-riding Trojans couldn't afford.

O'Neill let his team down at the most important point of the season.

"There's no anger," said USC senior captain Marcus Simmons. But on Sunday, when the Trojans seem certain to be omitted from the NCAA tournament, maybe then his coach's irresponsible behavior will manifest itself in, if nothing else, disappointment.

O'Neill's replacement, long-time No. 2 man Bob Cantu, defended his boss. What do you expect.

"He's a great person," Cantu said after the game. "He really is."

It wasn't a convincing speech.

Arizona probably would've beaten the Trojans no matter who coached them Friday night. Derrick Williams played one of his most effective games, scoring 20 points against Vucevic/Stepheson, but more importantly, he played smart. He did not get in foul trouble and he dispensed one of the top defensive games of his career.

That's why, in part, Arizona has won 27 games. As his team developed around him, Williams continued to grow himself.

"If I limit (Vucevic's) catches, I limit his points," said Williams, who estimated that he chopped 10 catches off the Trojan's catches when USC beat the Wildcats 65-57 on Feb. 24.

Maybe now there can be some closure to the whole Olson-exits-Arizona scenario. The last festering resentment came from O'Neill, the one-time boy-wonder assistant coach who returned to Arizona as Olson's hand-picked successor and then imploded.

O'Neill's work at Arizona wasn't awful. The Wildcats went 19-15 and lost a first-round NCAA tournament game with O'Neill calling the shots. But it was an awkward and uncomfortable campaign.

O'Neill admitted he did not have a relationship with his assistant coaches, all hired by Olson; he wasn't even on speaking terms with the affable Josh Pastner. Worse, O'Neill drew Olson's ire by sometimes poking fun of him in conversations overheard by Olson loyalists. Some of it got back to Olson, who didn't enjoy the lack of respect, perceived or otherwise.

The men were not on speaking terms when O'Neill left Tucson. The feelings lingered. On Thursday night at a bar adjacent to Staples Center, Weitman's and O'Neill's paths crossed at the wrong time in the wrong place.

O'Neill couldn't resist and it cost him. He couldn't let it go. Now his head coaching future has surely morphed into zero-tolerance territory.

Horne, who played for O'Neill in 2007-08, and has been belittled by him publicly, did not take the opportunity to crow about it.

"These guys at USC see (O'Neill) out there for 30 games and they get used to it," Horne said. "So when he's not there this time, maybe they lost some luster. I don't know. We were focused on getting to the championship game. It's better just to worry about your own team."

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