The advice from Russ Pennell for Arizona’s next head coach is simple: Go get some players.
He might as well shout it from the McKale Center rooftop. That will be priority No. 1 for the next coach, who will be the program’s fourth in four years.
“The University of Arizona is a basketball icon and has been for 25 years,” said Pennell, in his final days as UA’s interim coach after guiding the Wildcats to a Sweet 16 appearance and a 21-14 record
“There’s tradition so (why not) tap into that tradition?”
Pennell did just that this season as UA went on a journey of hot-then-cold-then-hot-again play before ending its season with a 103-64 loss to No. 1-seeded Louisville in Indianapolis on Friday.
Once he was given the title of interim coach two weeks into practice, he embraced the position and took advice.
From associate head coach Mike Dunlap to assistants Reggie Geary to Pennell’s father, Dewey Pennell, to former players (Jerryd Bayless and Jason Terry) who came through the door.
The next coach should do the same, including staying in contact with Hall of Fame coach Lute Olson.
“Embrace Lute Olson and what he’s done,” Pennell said. “That’s one of the smartest things anyone could do. It always bothers me when a legend retires and people go an entirely different direction from him and don’t want to give them any credit for that.
“Whoever comes in has to understand what Lute built and build on top of that. They don’t have to pay homage to him every day or mention his name, but there (are) a lot of people in Tucson this is very special to. You need to pay respect to that.”
That said, the next coach, big name or not, must land talent.
It’s not like he won’t have scholarships. He could have as many as six or seven to dole out right away, depending on who returns and what comes of an NCAA investigation into the program.
Juniors Jordan Hill and Chase Budinger are presumably going to make themselves eligible for the NBA draft. Both are projected as first-round picks.
Junior guard Nic Wise said he’ll “most likely” test the NBA waters to see where he stands in the draft. If one, two or all three leave the program, UA will need an overhaul.
Only two starters and four fringe reserves might return from Arizona’s 25th straight squad in the NCAA Tournament.
“What it will do is give the other guys an opportunity to grow,” said sophomore Jamelle Horne, who could be one of the most looked to players next season. “The big three did their deal this year. They definitely (did their part). It’s time for the new wave to come in to show what we have.”
But with so little depth and no incoming recruiting class, save for an unknown junior college player in Tremayne Johnson, Arizona could be headed to its first losing season since 1983-84, Olson’s first.
The players seemingly are prepared for what’s ahead.
“We’re going to be young, depending on what happens to all of them,” Kyle Fogg said referring to the three juniors. “All the young guys, we’ve talked. We know we had haters (critics) this year so we know people will be talking bad about us next year. We know we’ll have to come and play.”
Fogg said he’ll take a week off and then get back into the gym and get ready.
“I’ll just keep doing what I have been doing and just double it,” said Fogg, arguably the most-improved Wildcat over the course of this season. “I’m going to try to be really good next year.”
So will Horne, who may have been the most-up-and-down player all season.
“I can’t wait for next year to begin,” he said. “I don’t like the way we lost (last week) but we went out there and battled. What I need to be is more consistent. I’ll have a lot of pressure on me, but that’s part of maturing as a player.”
Zane Johnson hopes to do the same in as much as he, along with Horne, will be one of only two juniors on the team in 2009-10.
Johnson said he needs to become a better defender and a more aggressive offensive player. He said he’s looking forward to being one of the team leaders.
“We talked about it,” Johnson said. “It’ll be interesting. We might even have a bunch of walk-ons. But we’ll be ready to play. When the new coach comes in we’ll play hard for him, just like we did for coach Pennell.”
Freshman 7-footer Alex Jacobson will be the team’s lone big man. He’s improved considerably, having to go against Hill every day in practice.
But he’ll need to get stronger and get more active around the basket.
Phoenix product Brendon Lavender, a sophomore next year, said he’ll work on his all-around game.
“I want to get better; I know I can,” he said. “No one knows (how good he is). No one has even seen me play. Whenever I (did) get out there it was (with) a little chance to do something. It hasn’t been good for my confidence, but I’ve been working. I’ve kept with it.”
He added it was “up in the air” if he’d stay with the program but that he’d figure that out in the coming months.
It’s not clear what will happen to freshman D.J. Shumpert, who received a scholarship at the last minute this season. It’s possible that if he returns next season he could be a walk-on.
He said in an earlier interview he’s had a great time with the team, although he played only 11 minutes all year.
As for freshman guard Garland Judkins’ future? Who knows? He’s been off the team for more than a month after being suspended. It’s not clear if he’ll return.
So many questions. So many spots to fill, including the head coach position.