Pennell seizes the moment

Photo Arizona’s Chase Budinger is averaging 18 points and 6.5 rebounds through 26 games.
( Kevork Djansezian/AP)

TUCSON, Ariz. – In two months, he’ll give back the keys to his office. Russ Pennell’s university e-mail account will be deleted, his parking space at the McKale Center assigned to someone else.

Still, on Wednesday, with television cameras rolling and reporters engrossed by his every word, Arizona’s interim basketball coach hardly seemed like a guy who will soon be out of a job.

Instead, Pennell spent 27 minutes at his weekly press conference answering questions about postseason hopes and winning streaks. The Wildcats will enter Sunday’s showdown at No. 14 Arizona State touting seven straight victories, and Pennell can’t help but beam.

“I just hope,” he said, “that we finish things off the right way.”

No matter where Arizona ends up in the Pac-10 race or how it fares in the NCAA tournament, Pennell’s one season with the Wildcats will probably always be looked upon favorably.

Less than a year ago, Pennell had just completed his season as Arizona State’s radio color commentator when Arizona coaching legend Lute Olson added him to his staff. When health reasons forced Olson to retire in November, the interim job was offered to assistant Mike Dunlap, who had won a pair of Division II national championships at Metro State.

“(Pennell) kept our spirits high during that stretch when we were disregarded by the media, by everybody. People were saying that we were no good, but (Pennell) kept us confident.”
– Arizona forward Chase Budinger

When Dunlap declined the opportunity, the position was given to Pennell. The hope was that he could maintain some semblance of order and structure within the program until a more high-profile coach was hired following the season.

With five regular-season games to go, Pennell is doing more than that.

The radio guy is winning. A lot.

“I’m sure I’ll be able to enjoy it more once it’s over,” Pennell said, “because I’ll be able to sit back and reflect.”

One of the main things Pennell will certainly remember is the late-season surge that has the Wildcats on the cusp of what would be a national-best 25th straight NCAA tourney berth. Arizona is 18-8 overall and 8-5 in the Pac-10, where the Wildcats trail league-leading Washington (10-3) by two games.

That Arizona is even in the discussion for the conference title should make Pennell, 48, a candidate for Pac-10 Coach of the Year. Not one member of Arizona’s coaching staff was in Tucson a year ago, and it’s not as if the season got off to an ideal start.

A mental error – guard Jamelle Horne forgot the score and fouled during the waning seconds of a tie game – resulted in a 72-71 second-round loss to Alabama-Birmingham in the Preseason NIT. The setback cost the Wildcats a trip to New York for the semifinals and final.

There was a 67-66 loss at Texas A&M and an early stretch during conference play when the Wildcats dropped five of seven games.

The losses and inconsistency were maddening for a team with so much talent. Even with an interim coach, Wildcats fans felt Arizona should’ve been doing better with a lineup that features a pair of likely first-round NBA draft picks in juniors Jordan Hill and Chase Budinger along with a seasoned guard in junior Nic Wise.

Photo Arizona interim coach Russ Pennell has the Wildcats at 18-8 overall and 8-5 in the Pac-10.
(Wily Low/AP)

One moment Arizona was losing to UNLV by 15 points, the next it was beating defending national champion Kansas 84-67. It just didn’t make sense.

“(Pennell) kept our spirits high during that stretch when we were disregarded by the media, by everybody,” Budinger said. “People were saying that we were no good, but (Pennell) kept us confident.

“We were able to get on this winning streak because of it.”

Also helping Arizona’s cause was Houston guard Aubrey Coleman, who lit a fire under the Wildcats when he stepped on Budinger’s face during a nonconference game on Jan. 24. Coleman claimed he planted his sneaker on Budinger’s grill by accident after Budinger fell to the court while scrambling for a loose ball.

Whatever the case, the incident led to a one-game suspension for Coleman and a new life for the Wildcats, who haven’t lost since.

“After the incident,” Budinger said, “you could definitely tell the morale on the team really went up. Our intensity grew. We started playing for one another. We started playing harder on the court. We became a different type of team. Since then, we’ve just been getting better.”

Pennell said he could sense a change in attitude, too.

“The one thing I do remember,” he said, “is that, as the referees were sorting everything out, the intensity in our huddle was different. I saw in Chase’s face that he was very upset.

“At the time, you don’t know if that means he’s going to go play good or if he’s going to knock someone out. You just don’t know what that means. But I knew that there was a change and a difference in him. Something in that whole scuffle triggered something in Chase’s head, and he’s continued to play with that edge.”

So have the rest of the Wildcats, who have scored more than 80 points in five of their past seven games.

“I know I’m making it sound like we’re all sitting around a campfire singing Kumbaya,” Pennell said. “But there’s definitely a good karma with this team right now.”

That karma extends way beyond future NBA players Budinger and Hill. Last week, it was Wise who earned the Pac-10 Player of the Week honor after scoring 27 points in a win over Southern California and 26 in a victory against the same UCLA squad that defeated the Wildcats by 23 points back on Jan. 15.

Zane Johnson and Kyle Fogg are also members of a starting cast in which each member routinely plays more than 30 minutes per game.

“Any time you win, it’s always fun,” Budinger said. “This is a great time of the season. It’s coming down toward the end, when people really need to start stepping up for their teams. This is what basketball players live for.”

Photo Guard Nic Wise leads Arizona in assists and is third on the team in scoring.
(John Miller/AP)

Excited as they are about their recent success, Arizona knows that extending its winning streak – and its NCAA tourney streak, for that matter – will be tough considering the Wildcats’ next three games are on the road.

“If we start talking to them about a streak … I mean, everyone knows it’s there,” Pennell said. “The exciting thing for me is not the seven (wins) in a row. It’s that I think we’re getting better, and we’re going to continue to get better. I don’t think we’ve topped out on what we can do as a team.”

Neither does Pennell’s mentor, Eddie Sutton, who coached Pennell when he played at Arkansas and later hired him as an assistant at Oklahoma State. Sutton called Pennell after last week’s victory over UCLA.

“Get on them when they’re winning and build them up when their losing,” Sutton told Pennell. “And don’t let them get complacent.”

That’s one thing Pennell can’t see happening. For players such as Budinger, Hill and Wise, Pennell is the third head coach they’ve played for in as many years. Olson was with the trio as freshmen before missing last season for health reasons. Kevin O’Neill took over for Olson during his seasonlong leave of absence but was not retained once Olson returned.

The bottom line is that the Wildcats, more than any time in their college careers, are having fun with basketball again. And so, too, is Pennell, who added his father, Dewey – a longtime prep basketball coach – to a staff that also includes Dunlap.

Though some believe Dunlap runs the team from an X’s and O’s standpoint, Pennell’s words make it seem as if that’s hardly the case.

“I’ve always said that I’ve been fortunate because the people I’ve coached for have allowed me to coach,” said Pennell, who was also an assistant under Rob Evans at Ole Miss and Arizona State before moving to the radio booth.

“A lot of assistants, all they do is recruit and stand on the sideline twiddling their thumbs during practice. I was with guys that made us think, made us coach, made us develop players.”

Pennell hopes to continue to do that in the future, but he knows it probably won’t happen at Arizona.

Barring any last-minute changes of heart following the season, athletics director Jim Livengood has said he’ll conduct a national search that, hopefully, will result in the hiring of a high-profile, proven coach. Gonzaga’s Mark Few, Pittsburgh’s Jamie Dixon and Minnesota’s Tubby Smith are among the names that have surfaced as potential options.

As for Pennell?

“I enjoy coaching basketball,” he said. “Whether it’s at the Pac-10 level or my daughter’s team, I love to coach the game. I’ll be coaching somewhere next year. What level? Who knows?

“But I’ll be coaching somewhere.”

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