TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) -When Kevin O'Neill took over as Arizona's interim basketball coach last month, he expected his team to play defense.
Defense has been more of a concept than a reality around the McKale Center in recent years. The Wildcats have typically featured gifted offensive stars who don't want to do the dirty work required to stop opponents.
But three weeks into the season, the 22nd-ranked Wildcats (5-2) have begun to deliver on O'Neill's promise.
``I think we're developing a personality of defense,'' freshman guard Jerryd Bayless said. ``Coach O'Neill's definitely taken that upon his shoulders to make that our identity, and that's what we're trying to do.''
O'Neill replaced Lute Olson when the Hall of Famer went on a personal leave of absence on Nov. 4. Olson has attended a few practices but is not expected to return to the sideline any time soon.
Arizona faces another big test on Saturday, when it travels to Chicago to take on Illinois (5-2) in the United Center.
M on Sunday afternoon in the McKale Center.
The taller Aggies did pretty much what they wanted in the first half, shooting 60 percent from the floor and taking a 32-12 lead after 13 minutes. Down 40-28 at halftime, O'Neill told his players they would win the game if they committed to stopping the Aggies.
M to 34.5 percent shooting after intermission and outscored the Aggies 50-27 to cap the Wildcats' biggest comeback victory in five years.
``One thing I do like: I don't think there's a lot of quit in this team,'' O'Neill said. ``We were down 11 or 12 to Virginia and came back, in Kansas they got down 13 and came back. I think they're going to be a group who fight, and that's what we need them to do is fight.''
Last spring, Olson hired O'Neill, his former assistant, because he wanted to tap O'Neill's expertise at building defenses. O'Neill's Marquette teams led the nation in field-goal percentage defense in 1993 and 1994.
But it's one thing to teach defense and another to have players accept it. O'Neill demands that every player on the floor be accountable, and he refuses to play zone defenses to try to hide a weak defender.
``Our guys understand that I'm going to play all man-to-man,'' O'Neill said. ``If they're shredding us, we're playing man-to-man. I think they're going to start believing in that. And I think they're a team that really likes each other and counts on each other.''
The transition has been gradual but evident in Arizona's three games against topflight opponents.
M to 46.3 percent on Sunday.
In a 91-65 victory over Cal State-Fullerton a week ago, Arizona held the Titans to 20 points below their average.
``I see us making some progress,'' O'Neill said. ``We're not there yet.''
Senior Jawann McClellan said the transition to a defense-oriented attitude will take time.
M). We're getting better and better defensively every game.''
If Arizona can continue to improve defensively, the Wildcats could become a dangerous team by the time NCAA tournament bids go out. Their offense has begun to evolve around Bayless and sophomore forward Chase Budinger.
Bayless averages 19.9 points and Budinger averages 18.4. Their combined 38.3 points account for almost half of Arizona's scoring.
When Arizona fell behind the Aggies, O'Neill pulled Bayless aside and ordered him to become more aggressive on offense. Bayless responded by scoring 26 points on 7-for-12 shooting. He also hit all 10 of his free throws.
Bayless said he didn't have to make up his mind to take over the game. It came naturally.
``I'm just used to playing like that,'' he said.
O'Neill was also happy with Bayless' six assists and one turnover in 37 minutes. And he praised the freshman for helping to inspire his teammates.
``One thing that guy has is a competitive fire like not many people in the whole basketball world,'' said O'Neill, who has also coached in the NBA. ``He has a competitive fire that is second to none.''

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