Two games in and it is difficult to know exactly which way Arizona is headed this season.
Will the Wildcats rally around the fact that Hall of Fame head coach Lute Olson decided to retire from that position, ending his 24-year tenure six days after practice began, following his sabbatical last winter because of a stroke? Or will they fall apart under interim coach Russ Pennell, who was promoted from being a Wildcats' assistant to interim head coach after spending the past two seasons as the color commentator on Arizona State radio broadcasts?
Pennell, a head coach for the first time in his career, does not profess to have an answer yet. Arizona is 1-1 going into its game against Northern Arizona on Sunday. The Wildcats went 1-1 in hosting a regional of the Preseason NIT, beating Florida Atlantic 75-62 then losing to UAB 72-71, leaving them 170th in the Pomeroy Ratings.
"I don't know what this season is going to hold," Pennell said. "I'm optimistic. I know we're going to do everything in our power to keep this team together, keep on the same page."
Whether that happens and Arizona runs the longest current streak of consecutive NCAA tournament appearances in the nation to 25 remains to be seen, though the Wildcats seemingly have the talent to do so. However, one thing for certain is there is turmoil surrounding the program.
Olson's decision to walk away for a second straight season stunned the Wildcats. Then assistant coach Steve Dunlap turned down the opportunity to become interim coach, leaving athletic director Jim Livengood to turn to Pennell, who had been an assistant at Mississippi and Arizona State under Rob Evans. Highly touted freshman center Jeff Withey then asked to be released from his scholarship so he could transfer.
That came after a tumultuous offseason in which assistant Kevin O'Neill, the interim coach last season when Olson stepped aside, left the program to become an assistant coach with the NBA's Memphis Grizzlies. O'Neill had an agreement with Arizona to eventually become Olson's successor, but the two then had a falling out.
"I think that the best thing that can happen is for us to get into our schedule, so things can finally level off," Pennell said.
Arizona has been led so far by their returning trio of junior starters, forwards Chase Budinger and Jordan Hill and guard Nic Wise.
Budinger is averaging 24.0 points, 5.5 rebounds and 3.5 assists while Wise is averaging 16.0 points, 9.0 assists, 4.5 rebounds and 2.0 steals, and Hill is averaging 10.0 points, 16.5 rebounds and 2.5 blocks. All three had strong seasons last winter when the Wildcats went 18-14, finishing among the national leaders in tempo-free statistics as Budinger was 74th in percentage of minutes (87.3) and 103rd in percentage of shots (29.7), Hill was 39th in effective field goal percentage (62.0), 80th in defensive rebounding percentage (22.3), 152nd in offensive rebounding percentage (11.4) and 156th in percentage of blocks (5.6) and Wise was 42nd in percentage of steals (4.2) and 103rd in assist rate (29.2).
"The one good thing about being the interim head coach is we have pretty good players here," Pennell said. "The thing about Arizona is there are so many people who care deeply about this program, that's the one thing that's really hit me since I was asked to become head coach. The passion is so great and I hope we can keep the passion going. I feel we're putting a product on the floor that is capable of competing at a high level and be entertaining, the kind of team our fans can get behind."
Pennell, 47, also realizes this is the opportunity of a lifetime for a career-long assistant coach, even if it comes under odd circumstances.
"I was driving to work and got a phone call to go see the AD," Pennell said. "That moment in time will always stick with me. My heart started racing. Anybody who has ever been an assistant coach wants to be a head coach. There a lot of guys who can really coach who never got this opportunity. Whether it's just for five months or not is really irrelevant. It's a real honor and a humbling experience."
Pennell does not plan to do things much differently than Olson, who led Arizona to four Final Fours including a national championship in 1997, did.
"Philosophically, I lean toward Coach Olson," Pennell said. "He loves motion offense and giving the players the freedom to do some things. I'd like to keep the pace like Arizona has been used to playing, go up and down the floor with pressure defense. I feel that's what works, especially with the group of players we have."
While O'Neill and Olson had a frosty relationship, Pennell has reached out to his predecessor.
"He's called me and he knows that he is always welcome at our practices and our games," Pennell said. "I think right now, he wants to leave us alone and let us forge our own identity but Coach Olson is always going to be a large part of Arizona basketball."
Pete Newell Dies
College basketball lost one of its legendary coaches this week when Pete Newell died at age 93 in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif. Fitting he passed away at the home of Earl Shultz, one of the players on the 1958-59 California team that Newell coached to the national championship.
Newell compiled a 223-124 record in 15 seasons with San Francisco (1946-50), Michigan State (1950-54) and California (1954-61) before becoming the AD at Cal and then a professional general manager with the San Diego Rockets and Los Angeles Lakers. While many coaches have more wins, few impacted the sport like Newell did.
"Three coaches had the most influence on college basketball in terms of tactics, both offensive and defensively: Clair Bee, Hank Iba and Pete," said ESPN analyst Bob Knight, the winningest coach in college basketball history. "I think Pete had the great total grasp. He really studied it and kept abreast of it, both professional and collegiate. He was truly remarkable."
Newell was especially noted for his work with post players and long held a summer camp for college basketball's best centers. One of Newell's player sat California was Darrall Imhoff, who was the center on the national championship team and then had a long career in the NBA.
"Pete was a very, very special man," Imhoff told the San Francisco Chronicle. "I was struggling to make the team as a sophomore. I was still pretty clumsy and he watched me trip from line to line. He walked over, put his arm around me and said, 'Son, I've never met a person who didn't learn from a mistake--and you're going to learn a lot. Just don't make the same mistake twice.'"
In addition to winning the NCAA tourney, Newell led San Francisco to the NIT title in 1950 when it was the most prestigious tournament in the country and also coached the United States' gold-medal winning team in the 1960 Olympics. Knight and Dean Smith are the only other coaches to win all three events.
No Mercy From Mercer
Mercer has become a giant killer over the past two seasons. The Bears have already won on the road at Alabama and Auburn this season after knocking off Southern California in Los Angeles in last season's opener.
The Bears' early-season success this sason had them sitting atop the collegerpi.com ratings, though they are 66th in the Pomeroy Ratings.
Junior guard James Florence, who had 30 points against USC last season, is leading the way for Mercer as he is averaging 22.3 points, 4.7 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 2.3 steals a game.
Junior forward Daniel Emerson is averaging 15.3 points, 12.3 rebounds and 3.0 assists while sophomore center Brian Mills is averaging 11.7 points and 5.3 rebounds a game.
Mercer will have chances to knock off some more big-name competition as it hosts Georgia Tech on Saturday and also has visits to Dayton, Oklahoma State, UCLA and Iowa State before opening play in the Atlantic Sun Conference.
Auburn coach Jeff Lebo was impressed.
"They just destroyed us," Lebo said. "They are just physical and strong."
News and Notes
- The NCAA announced that New Orleans will host the Final Four in 2012 at the Louisiana Superdome, the first time the event will have been held in the city since Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005. The Final Four was last in New Orleans in 2003. The NCAA also awarded the 2013 Final Four to Atlanta and the Georgia Dome while the event will be held in Arlington, Texas at the Dallas Cowboys' new stadium in 2014, Indianapolis and Lucas Oil Stadium in 2015 and Houston and Reliant Stadium in 2016.
- While this season's EA Sports Maui Invitation tips off for the 25th time on Monday, next season's field has already been set and will include Connecticut, Kentucky, Michigan, Oklahoma, Virginia, Washington, Wichita State and host Chaminade.
- North Carolina freshman forward Lucas Zeller is likely to miss the rest of the season with a fractured wrist suffered when he was fouled on a breakaway dunk attempt during Tuesday's win over Kentucky. He was averaging 10.5 points, 1.5 rebounds and 1.5 steals a game.
- Southern California center Alex Stevenson, a transfer from North Carolina, was denied a waiver by the NCAA that would have allowed him to play this season. Stevenson was hoping to be made exempt from the NCAA rules that force transfers sit out one season because he moved back to Los Angeles to be closer to his father, who has a heart condition.
- South Carolina guard junior Brandis Raley-Ross will likely miss a month with a sprained left knee suffered during the Gamecock's season-opening win over Jacksonville State. Raley-Ross' 117.7 offensive rating was 125th in the nation last season and he also had an 8.5 assist rate in 43.4 percent of minutes.
- Mississippi junior guard Eniel Polynice will miss the season after needing articular cartilage transplant surgery on his knee. That comes two weeks after Rebels sophomore guard Trevor Gaskins was lost for the season because of knee surgery. Polynice had a 102.0 offensive rating and 24.1 assist rate last season in 70.0 percent of minutes.
- Arkansas-Little Rock junior guard Steve Moore has been suspended indefinitely because of a violation of team rules. Moore had a 102.4 offensive rating last season and ranked 57th in the nation in assist rate (32.3) and 114th in free throw rate (114.0) while playing 62.8 percent of minutes.
- La Salle sophomore guard Kyle Griffin has decided to transfer after missing the second half of last season following knee surgery. Griffin had a 102.9 offensive rating and 17.0 assist rate last season while playing 16.7 percent of minutes.
- Marquette freshman center Chris Otule will miss at last a month with a broken metatarsal in his foot.
- Wisconsin freshman swingman Ryan Evans will sit out the season as a redshirt in order to develop his skills more.
- Virginia freshman center Assane Sene is out indefinitely while the NCAA resolves his eligibility status.
Games to Watch
Five games to watch in the coming week with rankings based on the small sample size of the Pomeroy Ratings (all times Eastern):
No. 2 Wisconsin vs. No. 6 Iona at Paradise Jam Tournament at St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, Friday Nov. 21, 8:30 p.m.
No. 25 Rice at No. 1 Brigham Young in Basketball Travelers Invitational, Friday Nov. 21, 10:30 p.m.
No 32. Cal Poly at No. 1 Brigham Young in Basketball Travelers Invitational, Saturday Nov. 22, 10:30 p.m.
No. 11 North Florida vs. No. 25 Rice in Basketball Travelers Invitational at Provo, Utah, Saturday Nov. 22, 8 p.m.
No. 7 Creighton at No. 34 Arkansas-Little Rock, Tuesday Nov. 25, 8 p.m.
John Perrotto is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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