INDIANAPOLIS — This time last year, Russ Pennell was providing color commentary on basketball games for the Arizona State radio network.
Now Pennell finds himself on the sideline at ASU's main rival, Arizona, just two games away from the Final Four as he leads the 12th-seeded Wildcats into battle against top overall seed Louisville on Friday night in Lucas Oil Stadium.
Pennell joined the Wildcats' staff before the season and was thrust into the limelight with the sudden retirement of Lute Olson.
Don't let the radio gig fool you, though: This won't be Pennell's first rodeo. He has served as an assistant coach at Oklahoma State, Arizona State and Mississippi, and he participated in two Sweet 16's while in Stillwater.
"I at least have an idea of what to expect from the atmosphere, the crowds, everything else," Pennell said.
Still, on paper, it seems like a coaching mismatch: Louisville Coach Rick Pitino is 37-12 in 14 NCAA Tournament appearances, good for the third-highest winning percentage among active coaches, while Arizona's wins over Utah and Cleveland State are the only two tourney games on Pennell's résumé as a head coach.
He managed to put an interesting spin on that fact.
"Hey, I'm undefeated," he said. "Better record."
He added "No, I'm kidding," with a laugh.
Pitino said that coaching matchups are often overrated in March.
"I really honestly don't believe it has anything to do with coaching at this point. Whether you're coaching for 50 years or you're coaching for five years, the players are going to determine who wins and loses," Pitino said. "Obviously the coaching staff at Arizona has done a fabulous job getting their team to not only the NCAA Tournament but to perform so well in the first two games."
Arizona has three players who, if they're on top of their games, could pose a challenge to the Cardinals. Power forward Jordan Hill, wing Chase Budinger and point guard Nic Wise are all NBA prospects who have carried the Wildcats all season.
But the Wildcats don't have much firepower beyond those three. Arizona only goes six deep with Hill, Budinger and Wise all averaging at least 36 minutes a game. Budinger played 40 minutes and Hill and Wise played 39 in the 84-71 first-round win over Utah.
Pennell admitted that depth could be an issue.
"We've played the way we're gonna play (against Louisville) all year long," Pennell said. "We've got three guys we play heavy, heavy minutes. In fact, they were three of the top five minutes played in the Pac-10 this year. They're in incredible condition. We've been very fortunate that we've stayed injury-free. And with the long timeouts, it definitely helps us. We're going to have to ride the horses that got us here, and that's what we'll do (against Louisville)."
Pennell's ride could end at any moment; Arizona is expected to conduct a national search to find Olson's successor. But he plans on enjoying the ride while he's on it.
"I really believe that things happen for a reason in life." Pennell said. "I believe there's a purpose in life, for everyone's life. And my appointed time is to be the coach of the Arizona Wildcats, even if that's for a brief time. So the opportunity I've had, I've tried to make the best of it and do the best for the people that are underneath me."