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Midwest regional

Arizona's Pennell living in moment

By Michael Marot
Associated Press / March 27, 2009
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INDIANAPOLIS - Arizona coach Russ Pennell will play this weekend by the book. Rick Pitino's book.

He's savoring every moment, from the open shootaround to the usually dreaded news conferences, fully understanding tonight's game against top-seeded Louisville could be his first and only chance to lead a team into a regional final.

So the man with the interim title spent yesterday blunting questions about his uncertain future by focusing on the present. Or what Pitino once described as the precious present.

"Just the opportunity to walk through this journey this year is incredible," Pennell said. "If this is the only opportunity, so be it. Life goes on."

At Arizona, basketball success has exceeded all expectations this March.

The tumultuous season began in October with the retirement of Hall of Fame coach Lute Olson, a move that suddenly put a career assistant, Pennell, in charge of a program with 24 straight tournament appearances.

Arizona opened the Pac-10 season 2-5, and many thought the longest streak of NCAA appearances in the nation would end after the Wildcats lost five of their last six games heading into Selection Sunday.

Instead, they were one of the final teams chosen and proved they deserved the bid by beating fifth-seeded Utah and 13th-seeded Cleveland State in Miami.

Now Pennell faces Pitino's Cardinals (30-5), a team that looks a lot like Arizona.

"It's the closest I've ever seen two teams in the type of pressure [defense] they apply," Pitino said. "They do one thing different - they bring their center out to the corner sometimes. But it's almost identical to what we're trying to accomplish."

In a Midwest Regional packed with tradition and familiar coaches, Pennell is the exception. A year ago, he was still doing color commentary on Arizona State radio broadcasts.

The four teams playing in Indianapolis have combined for eight national titles and three of the coaches here - Pitino, and Michigan State's Tom Izzo and Kansas's Bill Self, whose teams meet in tonight's second game - have won national championships. Pennell has not.

Despite the possibility that tonight could be his last game with the Wildcats, Pennell isn't worrying about what could happen.

"The great thing about life in general is that it can change quickly," he said. "Sometimes it's for the best, and this year it's been that for me."

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