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Underrated Wildcats: Chase Budinger provided stability when Arizona needed it most

NCAA BASKETBALL: JAN 31 Arizona v USC Photo by Chris WIlliams/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Who are the most underrated Arizona Wildcats? I posed that question to our Twitter followers, and got a bunch of good answers, so we are starting a new series that highlights some of these athletes. Enjoy!

When you think of the great small forwards to don an Arizona uniform, Chase Budinger’s name probably isn’t the first to come to mind. If you started following the program in the 2000s like I did, you probably think of guys like Richard Jefferson and Andre Iguodala.

But what if I told you that, statistically, Budinger was better than both of them? Well, it’s true. Here are their numbers at Arizona:

  • Budinger: 100 G, 17.0 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 2.8 APG, 46.9 FG%, 38.3 3PT%
  • Jefferson: 84 G, 11.2 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 2.8 APG, 49.0 FG%, 36.8 FG%
  • Iguodala: 62 G, 9.6 PPG, 6.6 RPG, 3.4 APG, 1.5 SPG, 42.4 FG%, 27.4 3PT%

A two-time all-conference player, Budinger combined sweet shooting with a 40-inch vertical that allowed him to make highlight plays above the rim. Only Sean and Bob Elliott scored more points in their first three collegiate seasons than Budinger.

Budinger is in Arizona’s Ring of Honor but isn’t typically revered as an all-time great, even though his numbers say he should be. That probably boils down to two things: his teams never advanced past the Sweet Sixteen and he was only a role player in the NBA.

But that should not denigrate Budinger’s legacy, which was an important one. He, along with Nic Wise, Jordan Hill and Jerryd Bayless (for a year anyway), kept the program afloat in the aftermath of Lute Olson’s sudden retirement.

When the Hall of Fame coach took a leave of absence in 2007-08, that quartet led the Wildcats to the NCAA Tournament by surviving a Pac-10 Conference that was absolutely loaded from top to bottom. (Seriously, go look at those teams’ rosters. Almost all of them had future NBAers, if not several of them.)

When Olson unexpectedly retired a month before the 2008-09 opener, again putting the program in disarray, Budinger, Hill, and Wise stepped up and led Arizona to the Sweet Sixteen as a 12-seed without much of a supporting cast. (Remember, Arizona’s recruiting efforts were severely hindered by the uncertainty surrounding Olson’s health, and Bayless had moved on to the NBA.)

What could have been a devastating two-year stretch for Arizona basketball actually turned out to be quite fruitful.

And while the Wildcats were fortunate to face an overrated 5-seed (Utah) and a 13-seed (Cleveland State) on their way to the Sweet Sixteen, the fact they were able to keep their 25-year NCAA Tournament streak alive was impressive enough given the circumstances. (And it wouldn’t have happened if Budinger didn’t lead a comeback against Houston after famously getting his face stomped.)

The one knock you hear about Budinger is that he didn’t develop at Arizona. His numbers were virtually identical all three years of his career. But having to play for two different interim coaches—Kevin O’Neill and Russ Pennell—in his final two seasons did him no favors.

Besides, he was pretty freaking good from start to finish, offering the kind of stability the program sorely needed at the time.