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Russ Pennell … welcome at McKale Center any time

Russ Pennell doesn't have to feel anxiety anymore when he returns to McKale Center.
Photo by Chris Morrison-US PRESSWIRE.

For the first time since taking the Arizona Wildcats to the 2009 Sweet 16, Russ Pennell was back at McKale Center for a game last weekend.

“It almost feels like I was here a couple of days ago,” he said after the Arizona-Arizona State game.

Pennell, Arizona’s interim head coach for the 2008-09 season, watched the game from the baseline seats in front of the Zona Zoo, sitting next to ex-Wildcat Matt Brase. Brase is a graduate assistant to Pennell at Grand Canyon University in Phoenix.

Arizona officials showed Pennell on the videoboard during the first half of the game, and the fans greeted him with a nice round of applause.

“That is very humbling, and it’s very typical of Arizona fans. They just remember,” Pennell said.

Two seasons ago, Pennell stood up to take the interim head coaching job when Lute Olson retired because of health reasons. He was the right guy at the right time. He didn’t have any other agenda other than to navigate the team through a tough season — doing so with an easy-going manner that made him easy to root for.

With assistants Mike Dunlap and Reggie Geary — and NBA talent in Jordan Hill and Chase Budinger — Arizona won twice in the NCAA Tournament before being run over by Louisville.

There are only a few remnants of that team still on Sean Miller’s roster — Jamelle Horne, Kyle Fogg, Brandon Lavender, Alex Jacobson. Pennell says he has not been in contact with those players, by design.

“I have always felt that if you’re not the coach, there is a little conflict of interest,” Pennell said.

“Not that I am going to try to do anything to take them away from what they’re doing. But I just have always felt that they are Sean’s kids. He needs to coach them. … The guys that are here, when they are done, we’ll rekindle those relationships.”

Pennell said he has been in touch with former players such as Fendi Onobun (who also was at McKale Center last weekend) and with Miller.

“Sean I have talked frequently over the past year. I love what’s doing,” Pennell said. “He’s got them headed in the right direction.”

Pennell’s Grand Canyon team is Division II and has plans to move to Division I. The Antelopes are 7-5 this season and have won five games in a row.

On Saturday, Pennell, who was also an assistant at Arizona State at one time, received plenty of pats on the back for his work at Arizona.

Doug Tammaro, Arizona State’s sports information director for men’s basketball, tweeted during the game:

“How good of a guy and how great of a job did my bud russ pennell do keepin UA together? He went 0-3 vs asu and got a great ovation here 2day.”

Said Pennell: “Mostly, people came up and said, ‘Thank you,’ ‘That was so much fun,’ ‘We appreciate what you did.’

“There were a lot of people involved in making that go. And it was a special year. We will always relive that year in our minds as a time and a place that could have been gone bad, and it didn’t.

“It was a credit to the kids and the coaching staff and everyone, just making the best of a bad situation. It turned out to be a beat story, and it’s fun to be a part of.”

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