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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    In Russ they trust

    Sweet 16: Arizona vs. Louisville

    INDIANAPOLIS – Heading into the first week of April, you knew basketball coaches would be the hot topic around Tucson.

    But not for the reason you might think.

    Around this time, maybe Arizona fans envisioned a big-name future Hall-of-Famer sitting next to UA athletic director Jim Livengood at the inaugural press conference introducing the Wildcats’ next head coach – the guy who would eventually lead the program to a deep NCAA Tournament run.

    Maybe Livengood envisioned a kick-start to the 2009-10 season ticket sales with an elusive marketing campaign that featured Olson’s official heir on billboards and commercials – hyping his next basketball coach even in today’s most difficult economic recession.

    Not so fast.

    Around this time, maybe Russ Pennell envisioned a press conference and national exposure of his own, featuring his Arizona team that stands 40 minutes away from an Elite Eight berth of its own.

    Maybe Pennell envisioned five good minutes on ESPN’s “”Pardon the Interruption”” this week – an appearance that would trump any imaginable marketing campaign aimed at placing Arizona in the national spotlight.

    Those two actually are the current reality.

    So instead, it’s the big-name future Hall-of-Famers sitting in the same stadium against Pennell’s long-shot Cinderella squad that barely survived the at-large bubble, limped into the Tournament and then jolted into the school’s 12th Sweet 16 appearance since 1988.

    The No. 12 seeded Wildcats face No. 1 seed Louisville tonight at 4:07 MST in Indianapolis’ brand new, ultra-modern Lucas Oil Stadium, home to the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts.

    “”You know, the great thing about life in general is it can change quickly, and sometimes it’s for the best, a real positive,”” Pennell said in Thursday’s press conference in Indianapolis. “”And this year, it’s been that for me.””

    Unlike recent years, when mid-majors stunned high seeds to embrace America’s feel-good story, it’s the powerhouse basketball schools that occupy all 16 slots in the Sweet 16.

    No true Cinderella stories like Davidson, George Mason and Butler have produced in years past. In fact, coming into today’s games, No. 4-seed Gonzaga is the only non-BCS conference team remaining, and it’s a proven basktball school.

    The Indianapolis region is no exception. All four teams ð- Louisville, Arizona, Kansas and Michigan State – hang dozens of banners to signify each school’s extensive résumés, led by equally as proven coaches – aside from Pennell.

    • Louisville, the Tournament’s overall top seed, led by Rick Pitino and his .744 winning percentage in 43 Tournament games – third best among active coaches. Pitino has four career Elite Eight berths, five Final Four appearances and a national championship in 1996 with Kentucky.

  • Kansas, the defending national champions, led by Bill Self, who won his fifth consultive Big 12 regular season. Self has a 376-144 career record, four Elite Eight appearances and several conference Coach of the Year awards in the Big 12 and Big Ten.
  • Michigan State, the Big Ten champs led by Tom Izzo, who brings five Elite Eight berths, four Final Four appearances and a national championship in 2000 with the Spartans.
  • Arizona, led by … Russ Pennell, the misfit in the batch of high powered, big-name proven coaches. It’s only his third NCAA Tournament game as a head coach, facing an odd win-or-become-unemployed situation as the Wildcats’ interim head coach.
  • “”In this region, certainly it doesn’t get any better in terms of talent than Arizona, Kansas and Michigan State and us,”” Pitino said Thursday.

    In a field of future Hall-of-Fame coaches, it’s hard to stand out as a guy who, just one year ago, was a radio color commentator for ASU.

    Last season at this time, Pitino brought his Cardinals to an Elite Eight. Pennell had just wrapped up broadcasting the NIT Tournament.

    Pitino, a proven upper-tier, household, basketball name, enters tonight’s Sweet 16 matchup heading Big East regular season and tournament champion Louisville sporting a 35-11 career NCAA Tournament record.

    On the other hand, Pennell brings his No. 12-seed Wildcats – the lowest standing seed in the Tournament – and a 2-0 career NCAA Tournament record.

    “”I’m undefeated. Better record,”” Pennell said jokingly.

    But Pitino, who is 8-0 in the Sweet 16, brushed off the perceived importance that an experienced coach brings to the Tournament.

    As Pennell has said before, it’s the players on the court that win games.

    “”Well, I really honestly don’t believe it has anything to do with coaching at this point,”” Pitino said. “”Whether you’re coaching for 50 years or you’re coaching for five years, the players are going to determine who wins and loses.””

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