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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Roy: Pennell making a splash of his own

    Gonzaga head coach Mark Few has a 211-52 record as the Bulldogs head coach over the past nine years.
    Gonzaga head coach Mark Few has a 211-52 record as the Bulldogs head coach over the past nine years.

    Basketball Commentary

    PHOENIX – Nobody could help but ponder whether Sunday’s game against No. 4 Gonzaga would serve as a tryout for next year’s Arizona head coach.

    Gonzaga’s head coach Mark Few is the second-winningest active coach by percentage (.802) in NCAA Division I basketball. He built Spokane, Wash., into a national basketball powerhouse in nine-plus seasons – all of which ended in NCAA Tournament runs.

    He’s a young, established coach considered a great fit to make the upgrade from mid-major West Coast Conference to the elite Pacific 10 Conference.

    With UA athletic director Jim Livengood in attendance, sitting two rows from the floor, was this as close to a tryout as possible?

    Time will tell.

    But on the other bench, there was another guy who, believe it or not, actually won the game.

    His name is Russ Pennell, the current UA interim head coach. Self admittedly not a household name, Pennell broke UA’s seven-year winless streak against top-5 ranked teams.

    “”Right now, we need everyone to step up,”” a fired-up Pennell told his team with 3:24 remaining against the ‘Zags. In the huddle of the media timeout, an equally as pumped-up Arizona team responded.

    And so far this season, Pennell has stepped up himself, leading this originally distraught program to a 7-2 start and legitimate shot at a wide-open Pac-10 field.

    The variable remains: Can Pennell do enough – if at all possible – to prove worthy enough of inheriting this program beyond March?

    Is it even an option?

    Nobody thought that phrase would even be a consideration back in November. Livengood said he wants a big-name coach who can win over the inaugural press conference – someone who can lead SportsCenter’s 6 p.m. edition with the news live from Tucson.

    The program needs somebody who can draw national attention from Day One.

    Somebody like a Few has potential to make a big splash, but still, the 46-year-old Gonzaga coach doesn’t feel like the perfect fit.

    Few’s post-game press conference hardly kept the attention of the Tucson media. In fact, more reporters followed Pennell outside of the media room and into the hallway after his own press conference was prematurely cut off following Arizona’s win over the Bulldogs.

    In Pennell’s first homecoming to the Valley of the Sun, the Phoenix media inquired about his status as the program’s babysitter just keeping the seat warm. The 47-year-old coach – once again – avoided talking about the long-term future.

    When bluntly asked what a win over the No. 4-ranked team in the country does for him personally, Pennell said, without a blink, “”nothing,”” and moved onto the next question.

    It’s his simplicity that shows a clear reflection of what his team has become.

    Just look at their practices.

    Pennell and de facto defensive coordinator Mike Dunlap saw significant progress in their brainchild defensive project in the 69-64 win over Gonzaga.

    The Wildcats used aggressive traps and a variation of full-court presses to force turnovers with a complex 1-1-3 defensive scheme. Bulldogs point guard Jeremy Pargo committed seven turnovers on Sunday after previously only giving up six turnovers in the ‘Zags last four games.

    How did “”The Claw”” defense finally come to fruition? It’s a result from Pennell’s elementary drills in practice. Literally, elementary-type routines like jump stops, pivots and shuffling are drills that the Wildcats performs routinely in practice.

    Either way, nothing significant will be determined until late March. And speculation certainly dies off as the wins keep coming.

    To conclude Sunday’s media session, the soft-spoken Few finished by answering the question about how the Bulldogs will rebound from the loss, especially with No. 2 Connecticut on tap for Saturday in Washington.

    “”We have to bear down,”” Few said, even wearing the signature Lute Olson ensemble of a red tie, blue blazer and khaki pants.

    Bear Down? It was too eerie.

    Bryan Roy is a journalism sophomore. He can be reached at sports@wildcat.arizona.edu

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