Arizona still alive, and still in limbo

Jeff Passan
Yahoo! Sports

MIAMI – Their old coach deserted them. Their new coach's narcissism led him to the unemployment line. Their old coach returned, and then he quit again. And as if the Arizona basketball team’s abandonment issues didn't run deep enough already, their newest coach is about to go, too.

When the Wildcats talk about adversity, it's not something planted in their heads by authority figures to manufacture motivation. Arizona has lived the vagaries of college basketball – the coaching carousel, the players reneging on commitments and the uncertain days that follow both – and it steeled every player on the roster.

So it's no shock that in an NCAA tournament that has gone nearly chalk, Arizona is the lone remaining Cinderella. The Wildcats, seeded 12th and widely believed to be the last at-large team invited to tango, advanced to the Sweet 16 with a 71-57 victory against 13th-seeded Cleveland State on Sunday.

In reality, Arizona is more the gravelly voiced, lounge-singing former pageant winner than the bright-eyed, tiara-wearing trixie. But still.

Arizona’s run through Utah in the first round and now Cleveland State sets up a date with No. 1 Louisville that will test the Wildcats’ mettle. It also could be the final hurrah for their coach Russ Pennell and his brains-of-the-operation assistant, Mike Dunlap.

The school plans on dumping the coaching staff following the NCAA tournament. Following the tumult of the last two years – legendary Lute Olson taking a leave of absence, Kevin O'Neill grabbing the reins and pulling too hard, Olson returning triumphantly before retiring soon thereafter, Dunlap turning down the job because Arizona wouldn't commit beyond an interim title and Pennell, a radio broadcaster the previous year, inheriting the top job – the school craves stability.

Which is ironic, in that stability is exactly what Pennell, Dunlap and Co. have provided

"Our coaches kept us together," junior guard Nic Wise said. "With all the turnover, it was easy for us to fall apart."

More than anyone wearing a Wildcats uniform, Wise has something invested in the program. He committed to Arizona as a freshman in high school, a pledge that never wavered. Wise considered transferring this offseason – "I was 50-50," he said – but stayed because Olson promised him control of the team. Then Olson left, and like all the other Wildcats, Wise was stuck.

"We knew they were vulnerable," Dunlap said. "They had been wounded."

A starting lineup worth of players from the previous two years already had left.

Center Jeff Withey transferred to Kansas, small forward J.P. Prince to Tennessee and shooting guard Laval Lucas-Perry to Michigan. Power forward recruit Emmanuel Negedu decommitted over the summer and joined Prince at Tennessee, and point guard Brandon Jennings – considered the best player ever to commit to Arizona – spurned college altogether to play in Europe.

"If they were here, I probably wouldn't be here, to be honest with you," Pennell said. "The winning would've continued. Who knows how Coach O would've played out? And Kevin. Who knows? I try not to play the what-if games."

Like, what if the selection committee opted for St. Mary's or San Diego State, as so many believed it should have? Well, Pennell and Dunlap would be jobless. Jordan Hill and fellow junior Chase Budinger would have their voicemails jammed with calls from agents frothing to represent them in the NBA next year. Wise would be lamenting his decision not to leave when the getting was good. And the Arizona basketball program would have missed its first NCAA tournament in 25 years.

Instead, the tournament berth breathed life into a team that needed a few extra gulps of air to get racing. Arizona packed in its frenetic zone and goaded Cleveland State into 3-for-23 shooting from 3-point range.

The Wildcats spread their offense around – Wise led them with 21, Hill had 16 and Budinger and Jamelle Horne each scored 15 – and followed the simple commands their coaches try to impart daily.

Rather than overwhelm their players with instruction, Pennell and Dunlap stuck with other methods of self-improvement. At the team hotel this week, Dunlap dressed down Horne in front of his teammates for not acting seriously enough. His mind wandered too much, Dunlap said, and he wanted to see a fiery face.

"He probably didn't like what I said," Dunlap said in Arizona’s locker room on Sunday, recalling the hotel exchange.

"You damn right I didn't!" Horne retorted across the room.

Of course, the last time Horne scored 15 points was Jan. 8. Dunlap knew which button to push. Months of highs and lows – a seven-game winning streak in the middle of Pac-10 season vs. five losses in the final six games leading into the tournament – revealed the players' character to the coaches and vice versa.

They learned that Budinger, an unassuming sort, could be the one who jumps into the huddle and yells. And that Wise needs more minutes to better control the team, so they bumped him to 36.4 per game.

And that, most of all, this is a mighty resilient bunch.

"No one's been through what we've been through," Arizona guard Zane Johnson said. "We lost our whole recruiting class. We lost our coach. Our season fell apart in front of our eyes. We had absolutely nothing. Except each other."

As do they still. The Wildcats planned to board a plane and fly back to Tucson, Ariz., before heading to Memphis for their regional. Senior David Bagga, the popular walk-on, would finish a COM 113 paper.

The other senior, forward Fendi Onobun, would contemplate the continuation of his college basketball career while dreaming of another in the NFL. The rest of the Wildcats, including the nation's most dynamic junior class, would remain appreciative that their nightmare season has flipped into something of a dream.

"I still have a job today," Pennell said excitedly, "and I get to work another week."

He knows better than to take something like this for granted. Pennell coaches a strong group. It has been through a lot. And it hopes to go through a lot more.

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