O'Neill brings discipline USC craves
Arizona interim coach Kevin O'Neill walked off USC's Galen Center floor with the Wildcats leading at the half.
He was extremely irritated with assistant Miles Simon, who had stood up to question the officials.
O'Neill lit into Simon in the hallway, making sure he knew who was in charge.
Arizona won the game.
Two days later, the Wildcats were getting blitzed by UCLA at Pauley Pavilion. O'Neill went into the locker room at halftime and ripped into Jerryd Bayless, Chase Budinger and crew for essentially being soft. O'Neill was so upset, he broke a chalkboard into pieces.
Arizona didn't come back and win the game. But it was clear who was in control: O'Neill.
Love him or hate him, one thing is certain: Few coaches are as intense as O'Neill, which was evident during the four days ESPN.com shadowed him in 2008 while he was filling in for Lute Olson at Arizona.
O'Neill's passion for the game, and his diligence for detail in coaching, should serve him well as USC's coach. On Saturday, athletic director Mike Garrett tagged him as Tim Floyd's replacement.
O'Neill, a friend of Floyd's, is actually similar to Floyd in terms of his defensive style. But he is much more of a disciplinarian and will demand accountability of his players. If there is a need for tightening the program, the addition of O'Neill should suffice.
O'Neill isn't one to play the game of coddling handlers or advisers. That's not his style. If you want to play for him, if you are willing to commit yourself to defense, he's your coach. If you want to be treated as if you're living in a bubble and you have people around you, he's not the right guy.
The returning players who aren't expected to bolt -- like Dwight Lewis, Leonard Washington and Marcus Simmons, and to some extent North Carolina transfer Alex Stepheson -- are defense-oriented. The Trojans may struggle to score, but manufacturing points in a half-court offense is an O'Neill specialty. Grinding out a game defensively and, at times, mixing defenses is the norm for him.
Bayless, Budinger & Co. didn't get O'Neill's style. They assumed they would have had more freedom if Olson had been coaching them.
Phil Johnson, Floyd's assistant, good friend and confidant, was the heavy on the USC staff. He might be the one assistant who stays with O'Neill. Both former Arizona assistants, O'Neill and Johnson would fit well together. If O'Neill can land a few well-connected recruiters, he should be set.
Memphis coach Josh Pastner, who was O'Neill's top assistant during his interim season in 2007-08, said Saturday that he learned quite a bit from O'Neill. He said he had nothing but praise for O'Neill's coaching tactics, his knowledge of the game and how much he prepared Pastner to be a head coach.
O'Neill was tabbed to be Olson's permanent replacement on Dec. 18, 2007, six months after Olson had brought O'Neill back to replace longtime assistant Jim Rosborough. O'Neill didn't come to Arizona to replace Olson. He said at the time that he had no idea Olson would need to take a leave of absence.
Despite injuries to Bayless and Nic Wise, O'Neill led the Wildcats into the NCAA tournament with a 19-14 record (8-10 Pac-10) before they lost to West Virginia in the first round.
O'Neill's world was rocked the week of the Pac-10 tournament, when Olson announced he was returning for the following season. That was March 11. Two weeks later, according to the Arizona Republic, Olson wasn't interested in the recruits O'Neill had pursued. On March 25, O'Neill said he would return to be an assistant for the 2008-09 season. On April 23, Arizona athletic director Jim Livengood announced that O'Neill had been reassigned within the athletic department. By June 17, O'Neill was gone, hired by the Memphis Grizzlies as an assistant coach.
The way O'Neill's tenure ended at Arizona should fuel a rivalry between USC and Arizona. O'Neill has felt for more than a year that he should be the new coach at Arizona, especially after Olson couldn't coach last season. At the Final Four in Detroit, O'Neill said he should have been in play for the job before Livengood interviewed Floyd and ultimately hired Xavier's Sean Miller.
O'Neill will be in for quite a recruiting tussle with Miller in the Northeast and upper Midwest, two strongholds for O'Neill. He'll likely throw himself into the middle of the USC-UCLA rivalry, too, recruiting against Ben Howland and dueling with him as one defensive-minded coach against another.
Garrett wanted Pitt's Jamie Dixon, so much that he made multiple offers to try to land him in the last two weeks. After Dixon, Garrett focused solely on coaches who had pro ties (former Sacramento Kings coach Reggie Theus, ABC/ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy, P.J. Carlesimo, the University of Utah's Jim Boylen and UNLV's Lon Kruger).
O'Neill can sell recruits on the fact he has coached with the Grizzlies, Knicks, Pacers, Pistons and Raptors. He's tight with plenty of folks in the NBA, notably Van Gundy. Players will love the direct pipeline O'Neill provides to the league with contacts throughout the country.
No one with the school has been able to tell O'Neill what will happen with the NCAA's investigation of the program, since there hasn't been a notice of allegations yet. O'Neill should get plenty of time to rebuild the program. It will allow him to get the players he wants, the ones who are willing to be drilled and to play defense.
O'Neill got another chance to prove he can last in college basketball after his coaching stints at Marquette, Tennessee and Northwestern, and, after an NBA break, what he thought would be a new start as coach at Arizona. Now, leading a USC program that needs discipline, O'Neill may have found the perfect place to rehabilitate his coaching career.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
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