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Former Arizona coach: Depth caught up with Wildcats but it was still a great season

LISTEN: Russ Pennell, Central Arkansas head coach

The last coach not named Sean Miller to take the Arizona Wildcats to the NCAA Tournament’s second weekend is Russ Pennell.

Pennell guided the Wildcats during the 2008-09 season — the one prior to Miller’s arrival — as the interim coach following Lute Olson’s abrupt retirement.

That season the Wildcats won a total of 21 games.

This season, in Miller’s fifth with the team, Arizona won 33 games, their season coming to an end only when they fell to Wisconsin 64-63 in overtime in an Elite 8 game.

A guest of Doug and Wolf on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM Friday, Pennell — now the head coach of Central Arkansas — said it was sad that someone had to lose such a great game.

“It was unfortunate that Arizona didn’t get to squeeze that shot off at the end,” he said. “I think what caught Arizona it the end, I really believe was their lack of depth.

“I think those kids played a lot of minutes. I think the way they played defense this year takes a lot of energy out of you.”

Indeed, the Arizona Wildcats were not an especially deep team but they played great defense throughout the entire season.

Once Brandon Ashley was lost for the season on Feb. 1, Miller essentially went with a six-man rotation with occasional contributions from Elliott Pitts, Jordin Mayes and Matt Korcheck.

Just eight players appeared in the loss to Wisconsin, with only six seeing more than seven minutes of action.

It was the same two days before in a Sweet 16 game victory over San Diego State.

Of course, part of the reason for the slimmed down rotation was the loss of Ashley, a starting forward, and every UA fan is left wondering what this team could have done had he never been hurt.

But even with his absence the team finished the season with 33 wins, the Pac-12 regular season title and a host of individual awards. Oh, and they were essentially one shot away from a trip to the Final Four.

“They had a magnificent run,” Pennell said. “A lot of times what we do is we equate the season to they didn’t get to the Final Four. If people can win 30 games a year and that’s kind of the standard, I don’t think U of A fans should be too upset about that.”