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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    A quarter-century of consistency

    NCAA Tournament

    Russ Pennell and the rest of the Arizona men’s basketball congregated in McKale Center’s Lohse Room Sunday afternoon not knowing if the Wildcats’ streak of 24 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances would end or continue into 2009 and become 25 straight.

    The Wildcats had just finished practice and were eating a catered meal. Some of them remembered that it took almost the entire duration of CBS’s Selection Show to reveal Arizona’s name last season.

    Then it happened.

    Just moments into the program, it was announced that Arizona (19-13) was chosen as a No. 12 seed to play No. 5 seed Utah (24-9) in Miami’s American Airlines Arena on Friday.

    “”I was actually kind of looking down when it popped up and I just heard the guys go crazy,”” UA interim head coach Russ Pennell said Sunday evening. “”They were flying around the room, as you can imagine, jumping on chairs and tables, and absolutely going berserk.

    “”It actually took me about 5 minutes – it was so loud and the buzz was so incredible – for me to find out who we were playing, where and what day. I honestly didn’t know. I knew that we were in by their response and I saw it on – I just saw ‘Arizona'””

    The excitement and relief didn’t come from personal desire. For Pennell, it was all about his players.

    “”That moment that the kids saw that, it was like everything that they’d gone through was worth it. You could tell,”” Pennell said. “”I don’t think I’ve ever seen a group of people celebrate that long. I must have hugged the same guy five times, and he’d keep forgetting he had hugged me.

    “”That moment, I’ll never forget as long as I live,”” he added. “”Just the elation on those kids’ faces.””

    The national media started calling Pennell on Saturday while he was at his daughter’s gymnastics meet. People were telling the coach the Wildcats were still in the race for an NCAA Tournament berth despite being a bubble team, but he did have a certain level of doubt until it was announced.

    He even started preparing for the NIT – something he said is not as bad a thing as the general public makes it out to be, because it is still postseason basketball.

    “”I’m always optimistic for my kids. But when it happens to me, for whatever reasons, I always prepare for the worst,”” Pennell said. “”I’ve always done that. In my own mind, I was like, ‘Well, I don’t know if this is going to work. I see all these other spots.’

    “”Yeah, I was hoping, and I had well-wishing friends, and I didn’t say anything to the kids about that,”” Pennell added. “”I didn’t want anyone else to know that. But I was just really concerned. And it had nothing to do with our team. I thought our team was good enough. It came down to the math. Fortunately our body of work was strong enough to hold up.””

    The Wildcats’ No. 62 Ratings Percentage Index, No. 34 strength of schedule and wins over San Diego State, Gonzaga, Kansas, Weber State, Washington and UCLA helped Arizona’s case to get into the Big Dance.

    “”We’ve had some big wins, we’ve had some tough losses. Just the whole circumstance about the way the season started,”” Pennell said. “”Then you have the highs and lows: You get to the Pac-10 Tournament feeling like maybe you needed to win one more and you don’t. And then you wonder, ‘Gosh, are we in?'””

    Pennell is the third coach in three years to lead the Wildcats into the NCAA Tournament. Kevin O’Neill was the team’s leader last season and Olson took Arizona to the Big Dance 23 straight times before that.

    Olson called Pennell soon after the selection was announced.

    “”I kiddingly said, “”Hey, the streak’s somebody else’s problem now,'”” Pennell said with a smile. “”And he said, ‘Congratulations on that one.’ One of the things I told Coach O was, ‘You built a program that’s able to endure a couple years after you’re gone.'””

    But Olson wasn’t the only one to call UA’s current head coach.

    “”As you can imagine,”” Pennell said, “”when it first appeared, the phone blew up.””

    Pennell said each time he has been through the Selection Sunday process, it has been exciting and has carried a different meaning. When he was an assistant coach at Ole Miss (1992-1998), the 1997 team won the SCC Tournament. It marked the first time the university had ever received an at-large bid in school history.

    He was also part of the coaching staff that led ASU to a 2003 NCAA Tournament berth.

    This time may not overshadow his past memories, but it is certainly one he won’t forget anytime soon.

    “”A bunch of guys surrendered to each other and surrendered to a coaching staff, and said, ‘You know, I’m going to give my best,'”” Pennell said, referring to the beginning of the season when Olson retired. “”For it to turn out like this, to me, that’s fantastic.””

    But of course, the Wildcats’ are completely satisfied just yet. A run in the NCAA Tournament is the goal.

    “”We’re not just happy to be here,”” Pennell said, “”but we’d like to stay a little while if we can.””

    Stay with all week long for NCAA Tournament coverage from Miami, Fla., with Daily Wildcat basketball reporters Lance Madden and Bryan Roy. Follow us on Twitter here

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