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Friday, April 27, 2007 - Page updated at 02:02 AM

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Bud Withers

Arizona no longer top cat in Pac-10 jungle

Seattle Times colleges reporter

Here's a sentence I never thought I'd type: Pac-10 basketball has never been more provocative, vibrant and downright pregnant with story lines.

The good old days? Hah. Compared to what's happening now, the league used to be as sterile as an orthodontist's waiting room.

The other day, a prospective point guard committed to Tim Floyd's USC program. If you're under 21, you might have heard of him: Lil' Romeo, hip-hop artist and the son of rapper/entrepreneur Master P. In another life, Lil' Romeo is a promising 6-foot-1 junior at Beverly Hills High.

I don't know about you, but I can't envision John Wooden, sitting back in his office chair at UCLA four decades ago, saying, "Wow, we can exhale for a while. Thanks to Master P's help, we just got a commit from Lil' Romeo."

Tabloid stuff is going on all over the league, from Ernie Kent's odd re-up at Oregon (more years, but a potentially easier exit), to frayed feelings at USC over Washington's signing of Troy-intended Venoy Overton, to Washington State's push to retain miracle worker Tony Bennett after its drop-dead sensational season.

But, for sheer seismic reach, nothing approaches what happened the other day at Arizona. The name might mean nothing to you, but Jim Rosborough is out of a job.

Rosborough has been to Lute Olson, the 72-year-old coaching icon, what merlot is to steak. He was an assistant coach to Olson for nine years at Iowa in the 1970s and '80s, then rejoined him at Arizona for the past 18 years. Now 62, Rosborough was Bill Guthridge to North Carolina's Dean Smith.

In the past generation of Pac-10 basketball, through UCLA's recent re-emergence, through Washington's 21st-century breakthrough, through Stanford's strength under Mike Montgomery, nobody has been a dreadnought like Arizona. It has gone to more Final Fours, gone to 23 straight NCAA tournaments, been more nationally prominent.

But, as the noted 16th-century baller Billy Shakespeare once said, "Uneasy lies the crown." Last week, Olson took a look at his staff, decided Josh Pastner and Miles Simon were too pivotal to his recruiting and figured Rosborough was expendable.

Actually, he offered Rosborough a UA department job at his current salary — $126,000 a year — but Rosborough has so far refused it, as well as comment. The few words he did utter, to the Arizona Daily Star, pretty much say it all: "I'm a non-person right now."

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On several levels, the offing of Rosborough resounds.

There's obvious slippage at Arizona in recent seasons. Among the nation's premier programs, the Wildcats seem to have dealt poorly with the new age of early NBA entries, grappling with chemistry issues and recruiting misjudgments.

Arizona has lost 41 games the past four seasons, more than at any time since Olson began rebuilding in Tucson. Twice in those four years, they've been one-and-done in the NCAA tournament.

But no doubt Olson's decision was hastened by a league that's suddenly grown fangs. About five years ago, you'd have easier convinced Arizonans that cactuses make nice quilts than the idea that the Huskies could ever go 3-0 in a season over the beloved 'Cats (2003-04), or the Cougars could sweep them ('06-07).

Now the league is more than simply being better than UCLA or Stanford. Oregon embarrassed Arizona in the Pac-10 tournament, and Purdue exposed the Wildcats' lack of toughness in the NCAA tournament.

Wait, there's another subplot. As early as today, Olson might announce the hiring of ex-assistant Kevin O'Neill to replace Rosborough, possibly with a double-barreled intent: Import a hard-charging assistant to preach the lost element of defense; and appoint a successor to the throne. (Rosborough, who had a failed head-coaching ride at Northern Illinois in the '80s, was widely seen as the career-assistant type.)

Who knows whether Olson is bent on selecting an heir, but in the past year, two putative future candidates for Arizona have gone to top-shelf jobs elsewhere: Kelvin Sampson, to Indiana, and Billy Gillispie, to Kentucky.

O'Neill, 50, coached under Olson only in the late '80s. But he went on to head jobs at Marquette, Tennessee, Northwestern and, briefly, the Toronto Raptors.

At Arizona, O'Neill was intense, richly profane and a terrific recruiter. When he worked for Olson, a national coaches' survey once named him the country's best recruiter among assistants.

Maybe Olson will tell O'Neill to turn around Lil' Romeo's commitment. In today's amped-up Pac-10, you don't rule anything out.

Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or bwithers@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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