INDIANAPOLIS (AP)—Arizona coach Russ Pennell will play this weekend by the book.
Rick Pitino’s book.
He’s savoring every moment in Indianapolis, from the open shootaround to the usually dreaded news conferences, fully understanding Friday night’s game against top-seeded Louisville could be his first and only chance to lead a team into the regional finals.
So the man with the interim title spent Thursday blunting questions about his uncertain future by focusing on the present. Or what Pitino once described as the precious present.
“Just the opportunity to walk through this journey this year is incredible. It’s stretched me, it’s forced me to think outside the box. It’s very unconventional what we’ve gone through,” Pennell said. “If this is the only opportunity, so be it. Life goes on.”
At Arizona, basketball success has exceeded all expectations this March.
The tumultuous season began in October with the retirement of Hall of Fame coach Lute Olson, a move that suddenly put a career assistant, Pennell, in charge of a program with 24 straight tournament appearances.
There were times Pennell found himself on tenuous ground.
Arizona opened the Pac-10 season going an uncharacteristic 2-5, and many thought the longest NCAA streak in the nation would end after the Wildcats lost five of their last six games heading into Selection Sunday.
Instead, they were one of the final teams chosen for the field and proved they deserved the bid last weekend by beating fifth-seeded Utah and 13th-seeded Cleveland State in Miami. That got them a ticket back to Indy, the same site where the Wildcats upset Pitino’s heavily favored Kentucky squad to win the 1997 national title.
Now Pennell faces Pitino’s Cardinals (30-5), a team that looks a lot like Arizona.
“It’s the closest I’ve ever seen two teams in the type of pressure (defense) they apply,” Pitino said. “They do one thing different—they bring their center out to the corner sometimes. But it’s almost identical to what we’re trying to accomplish.”
That’s where the similarities end.
No. 12-seeded Arizona (21-13) is the lowest left in the field and wasn’t supposed to make it past one round, much less round two, and now looks like a longshot to get past Louisville.
The Cardinals are still expected to be in Detroit for next weekend’s Final Four after winning the Big East regular-season and tournament titles, taking the No. 1 ranking in last week’s poll and claiming the top overall seed in the tourney. That means anything less than a national title won’t suffice.
Yet in a Midwest Regional packed with tradition and familiar coaches, Pennell is the exception. A year ago, he was still doing color commentary on Arizona State radio broadcasts.
The four teams playing in Indianapolis have combined for eight national titles and three of the coaches here—Pitino, Michigan State’s Tom Izzo and Kansas’ Bill Self—have national championship rings. Pennell does not.
Pitino also owns a sterling 8-0 record in regional semifinals, but Pennell sees things differently. “I’m undefeated (in the tournament). Better record,” he said, drawing laughter, after going 2-0 last weekend.
Pennell isn’t the only who was being asked about his future Thursday.
So was Pitino.
If Kentucky coach Billy Gillispie is out, as rumors suggest, Pitino’s name will almost certainly resurface as a possible candidate in Lexington. Again. It’s a distraction the Cardinals don’t need this weekend.
Then Pitino was asked about another possibility: replacing Pennell at Arizona.
“I wouldn’t answer any question about any other job because it would be disrespectful to Louisville,” Pitino said. “Anytime you hear a player stand up here and say, ‘I’m not going pro, I’m coming back,’ he’s gone. Any time a coach says he’s not interested in a job, he’s dead interested in a job. All I can tell you is that for eight years, I’ve given every ounce I’ve had to the University of Louisville and I will continue to do that.”
The speculation appears to be having no impact on the Cardinals.
They reduced a scheduled 50-minute practice to 30 minutes and performed what amounted to a Midnight Madness workout—an impromptu dunk contest with an array of half-court shots. Players also chatted with the large contingent of fans who made the 100-mile drive to Indy, where Louisville won its first national title in 1980.
Forward Terrence Williams reflected on his days cutting lawns and one of the best smiles in college basketball.
Clearly, there’s no pressure in Louisville’s locker room.
“Even though it’s a serious game, you want to win, but you can still smile while playing hard, trying to win the game,” he said. “So I want to be the rare guy that smiles all the time.”
Despite the possibility that Friday night could be his last game with the Wildcats, and perhaps ever as a head coach, Pennell isn’t worrying about what could happen.
He’d rather take care of business on the court, just like Pitino.
“When I signed on to work at the University of Arizona, I was hoping we’d be in the Sweet 16, but I had no idea that I would be the head coach,” he said. “The great thing about life, in general, is that it can change quickly. Sometimes it’s for the best, and this year it’s been that for me.”