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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    ‘Cats staying humble

    Michael Ignatov / Arizona Daily Wildcat

Arizona meets Washington in an NCAA basketball game at McKale Center in Tucson, Ariz., Thursday, January 29, 2009.
    Michael Ignatov
    Michael Ignatov / Arizona Daily Wildcat Arizona meets Washington in an NCAA basketball game at McKale Center in Tucson, Ariz., Thursday, January 29, 2009.

    Arizona at Washington State

    If you told Russ Pennell, when he was named Arizona’s interim head coach in late October, that his men’s basketball team would be 18-9 overall with five guaranteed games left in the season, he would have said, “”I’ll take it.””

    But having that record now, with an 8-6 Pacific 10 Conference record, Pennell knows that there’s more work to be done, starting tonight at 7 p.m. against Washington State (14-13, 6-9 Pac-10) in Pullman, Wash.

    Even after the Wildcats’ emotional two-point loss at No. 14 ASU on Sunday, Arizona is in fifth place in the conference and just two-and-a-half games behind league leader: Washington.

    “”It wasn’t like I didn’t think we could (be in this position), but one of the things I really wanted from these guys was to have some success, to have this community embrace them, to have the opportunity to play in postseason,”” Pennell said. “”And all those things are right there in front of us. It’s not done. It’s right there and the table’s been set.””

    It wasn’t that Pennell doubted the team’s abilities or his own coaching strengths that helped put the Wildcats in the position they’re currently in. But when he first took over for retired coach Lute Olson, he just didn’t know what he had in front of him.

    “”I had no background with these guys; they had no background with me,”” he said. “”Even our staff was learning each other. There were just so many unknowns.””

    Now, much more is known, specifically about the team’s capabilities following its seven-game winning streak leading into the Wildcats’ bout with the Sun Devils. With a few more wins -ÿand a chance at a conference title – Arizona could be set in position for a bid to its 25th consecutive NCAA Tournament.

    “”There’s a lot of motivation,”” said point guard Nic Wise. “”We know we haven’t played as well as we wanted in the beginning of the Pac-10 and still have a chance to be at the upper echelon of good teams in the Pac. It gives us that much more energy and fight to come out and win every single game.””

    Not having a guaranteed berth into the postseason is unsettling, but not too much so, because of the squad’s confidence in itself, at least for Pennell, who came into this season with a proverbial blindfold on.

    “”We certainly hope for the best and work for the best, but to me, that’s been part of the thrill of this ride, not knowing what’s going to happen, and having some of those victories along the way that just kind of lift everyone,”” Pennell said.

    The Wildcats will certainly fight until their very last opportunity this year. They’ve proven that consistently in individual games, finding themselves down by a large sum and then fighting back.

    The best example of this was when they were down by 10 points with less than a minute to go against Houston; and the Wildcats came back and won in overtime.

    Arizona tried to duplicate that against ASU, clawing back from 17 down to take the lead, but were defeated in the end.

    “”We are getting better down the stretch,”” Wise said. “”I’ve dropped a couple toward the end, but we work on end-of-game situations every day in practice and we are getting better. You’re not going to win every one, so you’ve just got to put yourself in the best situation to win.””

    Even though Arizona is 2-7 on the road this season, it doesn’t have much choice other than to play the best it can before time runs out. The Wildcats must be able to translate their surges down the rest of their games to the final stretch of the season.

    “”We’ve really got to bounce back,”” said guard Kyle Fogg. “”We’ve (still) got a lot of opportunities.””

    Pennell says tonight’s game is Arizona’s biggest of the season. He’ll continue treating each game that way until there are no more left to play. With every ebb and flow of the team, America will continue to keep its eye on what could be this year’s Cinderella, but the squad will do everything in its power to stay levelheaded.

    “”I think it’s interesting that we’re right here at this point, with an opportunity to do something real special, but we haven’t done it,”” Pennell said. “”And that’s where we have to temper things and make sure we’re on focus today and not get ahead of ourselves.””

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