Kevin O'Neill was forced to take his USC Trojans into the Richard Jefferson practice facility on Friday, but not because somebody took his McKale Center keys away.
It just might seem that way.
Surely, you recall O'Neill, the humorous yet hard-nosed onetime Lute Olson assistant in the 1980s who returned to Arizona in 2007-08, became the interim head coach, was named the promised successor to Olson and … well, you know the rest of the story.
O'Neill moved on and the Wildcats moved on, eventually. But yet, for one day at least, today's Senior Day at McKale, there is expected to be a strange juxtaposition of figures: O'Neill (who was not retained when Olson returned for the 2008 off-season and now coaches USC), Olson (now a retired fan), Sean Miller (the current UA coach), departing UA senior Nic Wise (who played for all three of them) and an entire USC team that will be playing its last game because of self-sanctions.
There could be emotion in every corner of the arena.
Or maybe not.
"That's for you guys to decide," O'Neill told a small group of reporters Friday. "We're gonna play the game, play as hard as we can … and then we're gonna leave town. I'm gonna go recruiting Sunday. That's it."
O'Neill laughed. He then strolled into the UA practice facility and coached the Trojans' final workout of the season in cargo shorts, cross-trainers and a USC T-shirt.
After that, he said he planned to hang out with friends at nearby Bob Dobbs Bar & Grill, as he often does on trips to Tucson, and to see his son Sean, a recent UA graduate who lives in Tucson. Wife Roberta came with him, too, to enjoy the reunion of sorts.
"I have tons of friends here," O'Neill said.
But while O'Neill was greeted warmly by a number of UA athletic department coaches and officials Friday, he knows his reception today inside McKale could be a bit cooler.
O'Neill knows opinions varied when he coached the Wildcats during Olson's leave of absence in 2007-08.
"I can't control what the reception's going to be," O'Neill said. "No matter what the reception is, I have great memories of being here. I have lots of friends here, had two great stints here, but for me the whole thing is a moot point. It really is."
So, he said, it is an issue he will not raise in the pre-game locker room.
"There will be none of these 'One for the Gipper' speeches," O'Neill said. "These guys don't even give a … who the Gipper is. That has been one thing I never talked about it."
True enough, says USC guard Dwight Lewis.
"He doesn't care," Lewis said. "I just think it will make it more fun, with a hostile crowd."
Maybe it all doesn't matter on the other end of the sideline, either. Only two UA players remain from the 2007-08 season, Wise and forward Jamelle Horne, and when asked if O'Neill's presence would have an impact today, Miller answered by discussing his respect for O'Neill's work.
It's "the way his teams defend, and the career that he's had," Miller said. "Watching him a long time ago, as a head coach - Marquette, Tennessee, Northwestern - and one thing that's real important for our fans to realize is he was a big part of the building Arizona.
"His efforts and recruiting under Coach Olson, that tireless effort that he put into this program, is something everyone has to reflect and say 'he was a part of the path that led us to where we are.' "
Wise, meanwhile, says he's glad O'Neill will be on hand for his final home regular-season game.
"I'm grateful to him and to all four of them," Wise said, referring to his many UA coaches.
For O'Neill, too, Wise is a key to his past. O'Neill recalled how poorly the Wildcats played when Wise missed seven games with a knee injury in 2007-08 (they were 2-5).
"Nic's a great guy," O'Neill said. "I hope he plays well, but we win."
On StarNet: Follow the Cats on Bruce Pascoe's blog at go.azstarnet.com/pascoe
Arizona will face either UCLA, Oregon State or Stanford in its first-round Pac-10 tournament game. The Wildcats will finish in either third or fourth place and will earn a Pac-10 tournament seed between No. 3 and No. 5 depending on today's results. Here's what could play out:
• Arizona would be No. 3 if … it beats USC, UCLA beats ASU and OSU beats Washington. The Wildcats would face OSU in a 3-6 game, since UCLA beat OSU twice to give UCLA the No. 5 seed.
• Arizona would be No. 4 if … it beats USC and Washington wins. It would face UCLA in a 4-5 game unless ASU beats UCLA and Stanford also beats California, in which case the Wildcats would face Stanford, OR if it beats USC and Washington loses but ASU beats UCLA. In this scenario, Arizona would face OSU in a 4-5 game; OR if it loses to USC but OSU and UCLA also lose. Then Arizona would face UCLA in a 4-5 game.
• Arizona would be a No. 5 if… It loses to USC, OSU beats Washington and UCLA beats ASU to create a four-way tie for fourth place. Then it would face No. 4 OSU.
Pac-10 tournament tiebreakers are determined first by head-to-head records (or records among a tied group) then by record against the top team in the standings on down until the tie is settled. Although USC is not participating in the Pac-10 tournament, it will figure into any tiebreaker calculations.
• What: USC at Arizona
• When: 11:30 a.m.
• TV: Ch 58, FSAZ (Replay: 10:30 p.m. on Channel 9)
• Radio: 1290-AM, 107.5-FM, 990-AM (Spanish)