Wildcats out of the wilderness and back in the Pac-10 title race

Russ Pennell could have lost Arizona early this season.

Not only was he the interim coach, he was not even the first choice to replace Hall of Fame coach Lute Olson. The former rival assistant from Arizona State turned radio man was thrust into a situation that spelled doom from the beginning. Olson had to abruptly retire before the season began because of a stroke that occurred sometime in the previous six months, with the effects becoming clearer once practice started. Mike Dunlap, the hand-picked top assistant last offseason, opted not to take the interim job. Pennell was next on the ladder. He had no choice.

In the second game of the season, the Wildcats lost an NIT Season Tip-Off second-round game to UAB, as poor late-game management resulted in the Wildcats' fouling on a desperation shot, putting the Blazers at the free throw line to give them the win.

Arizona, meanwhile, went to Athens, Ga., for games against Mississippi Valley State and Santa Clara in the consolation round in games played in front of mostly friends and family.

"There may not have been 50 people there in the stands," Pennell said Saturday night by phone. "We were staying in this little bitty hotel, and found ourselves with no one around, no glamour, no glitz that we had experienced two days before we played UAB. It was a real sobering time. But we gutted out the win over Santa Clara. Something clicked then. We still weren't playing well, but it changed our mindset."

The Wildcats certainly weren't through getting accustomed to Pennell and Dunlap. And it showed. They lost games at Texas A&M, at UNLV, at Cal, at Stanford, at UCLA, at USC and at home to rival Arizona State. But that's not to say the Wildcats haven't gotten plenty right as well. Since that humbling trip to Athens in November, the Wildcats have collected three of the best nonconference wins in the Pac-10 with victories over San Diego State and Kansas at home and against Gonzaga in Phoenix. They also beat Houston at home in overtime after Chase Budinger got stepped on, topped Washington in a 106-97 track meet at home, swept a road trip to the Oregon schools and came home this past week to beat USC on Thursday and UCLA 84-72 on Saturday.

Not bad. Not bad at all. Now, a team led by Pennell and anchored by a lottery pick in Jordan Hill, a potential first-round pick in Budinger and a solid college guard in Nic Wise (27 and 26 points in the sweep of the L.A. schools this week) is on the verge of an NCAA tournament berth.

Chasing the Pac-10 title isn't out of the question either, now that the Wildcats (18-8, 8-5) are two games behind Washington with a win over the Huskies. The Wildcats go on the road for three straight -- at Arizona State, at Washington State, at UW -- before ending the season with Cal and Stanford at home.

"I'm really hoping we keep the edge we have now," Pennell said. "We're flying under the radar but that's going to be harder now."

Pennell told the team after Saturday's convincing win over the Bruins that they can't lose their approach. That attention to detail and their hunger came after losing at UCLA by 23 on Jan. 15. Pennell said the Wildcats spent more than two hours the following day, during their Friday practice before the USC game, going as hard as they had all season. They had overstayed their time slot at the USC practice gym and were asked to leave, according to Pennell. However, poor late-game management once again came back to haunt Arizona against USC, as a mental mistake in the closing seconds cost it the game in a 65-64 loss. But something was different with the Wildcats.

Even though they lost the next game to ASU, too, their edge was in place. A sharper Wildcats team finally showed up in the comeback win against Houston three days later.

"We're playing with that edge and we've become more of a blue-collar team instead of playing pretty," Pennell said.

To get the Wildcats to the point where they are a tourney team and a real threat to win games in March, Pennell said he had to appeal to the players early and often. He told them after Olson retired that he had moved his family to Tucson because of Olson. He said he knew the players had come to play for the Hall of Fame coach.

"None of us chose this, but we have to make the best of the situation," Pennell said in remembering his speech. "I know it sounds trite, but they believed in it and I knew we could be demanding and be fair."

Pennell said he was fortunate to take over a job with a few potential pros. He said Hill and Budinger played like they were on an NBA track this week and Wise performed like a "better-than-average college point guard."

"The cupboard wasn't bare, but we've taken the pieces and put them in place to be successful," Pennell said.

Despite the Wildcats' success, Pennell said he understands he's not the choice to be the full-time coach. He has known that from the day he accepted the interim job.

"It's liberating as a coach, you're almost given keys to a Ferrari and you can drive it as fast as you want," Pennell said. "It's a neat deal. I'm here to take care of it, protect the guys. We've won seven in a row, beat UCLA and that's magical. But I've got to stay grounded and be careful that it can be fleeting. But we're still going to enjoy the milestones."

What else did we learn Saturday?

The first-team All-America slots are filling up. Oklahoma's Blake Griffin is going to be the consensus player of the year. He'll collect every vote. That is a projection to the folks at the Wooden, Naismith and Oscar Robertson awards that I don't see being wrong. Griffin clinched the honor with a few weeks left in the season with as dominating a performance as anyone has had this season, putting up 40 points and grabbing 23 rebounds in the Sooners' 21-point win over Texas Tech.

Hasheem Thabeet should win Big East Player of the Year honors and settle in next to Griffin as a first-team All-American. Thabeet scored 25 points, grabbed 20 boards and blocked nine shots in yet another game-changing performance, this time in a UConn win at Seton Hall.

Davidson's Stephen Curry sprained his left ankle in a win over Furman. That came with eight-plus minutes remaining. He already had 25 points to keep his nation-leading average at 29.1 points a game. Not since Adam Morrison and J.J. Redick has the nation's top scorer also been a candidate for player of the year and a lock as an All-American.

That's two spots not being taken. Kentucky's Jodie Meeks is making a strong case for one of the two remaining first-team All-America spots. Meeks scored 45 points, making an efficient 17 of 24 shots (7-of-12 3s), while also grabbing seven boards and picking up three steals in Kentucky's 79-63 win at Arkansas. He did this in the first game the Wildcats had to play without their inside scorer and rebounder, Patrick Patterson, who is out with a sprained ankle. He suffered the sprain against Florida, in a game that Meeks won with a 3-pointer to finish off a 23-point outing. Meeks also lit up Tennessee, as you might remember, for 54 points in one of the better road wins in the SEC this season.

It's hard not to include James Harden on this list as well. Even though he doesn't play until Sunday (against USC) Harden had 15 points and a career-high 11 assists and was in control in the Sun Devils' win Thursday over UCLA, which gave them a rare sweep of the Bruins. ASU is in contention for the Pac-10 title because of Harden -- no one else. He's averaging 21.6 points and 4.3 assists.

Syracuse was on the verge of collapsing. Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said after his team's loss at Connecticut earlier in the week, the Orange would be fine as long as they protected their home court against Georgetown. Everything looked great with a 16-point lead with eight minutes left. "Then Georgetown started to play fast and we couldn't stop them," Boeheim said later Saturday by phone from his home in Syracuse.

The Orange got pushed to overtime and were heading for a slide that could have sent the team "in a downward spiral," Boeheim said. The Orange had lost six of eight and thoughts of missing the NCAAs for a third straight season wouldn't have been out of the question. Instead, the Orange survived, winning their seventh Big East game and 19th overall.

Villanova is up next, which is hardly a reward but presents another opportunity for a quality win. "We needed to win, we were struggling," Boeheim said. "But we showed a lot of character to hang on and win that game." Boeheim said the Hoyas (13-10, 4-8 Big East) could go on a run and are an NCAA-capable team. He also pointed out that West Virginia, which crushed Villanova on Friday night, could do the same now that the Mountaineers are 6-6 in the Big East. Boeheim said the same is true for Notre Dame, which humbled Louisville earlier in the week to climb up to 4-7. "It's crazy," Boeheim said. "What are you going to do if Georgetown and Notre Dame are 8-10?" That'll be up to the selection committee, not me, and the answer may just be to put them in the tournament if the eight league wins are against the right teams.

Missouri is an NCAA tournament team, Nebraska is not. The Tigers followed up their win over Kansas on Monday with an impressive 70-47 win over Nebraska. The Tigers have found their groove under Mike Anderson and have won 22 games. Nebraska, which has done an admirable job this season despite being limited with height and overall talent, is 15-8 (5-5 Big 12).

Texas still can't be right. Colorado scored nine points in the first half against Iowa State in its previous outing. The Buffaloes nearly buffaloed Texas into a tailspin. Texas had to go to overtime to beat the Buffaloes 85-76 in Boulder. The Longhorns are 6-4 in the Big 12 and will be in the NCAAs, but defensively they don't have the same lock-down mentality Rick Barnes' teams have had in the past.

Kansas isn't fading. The Jayhawks got managed by Missouri in the final possession in a thrilling game on Big Monday. Kansas State was rolling and feeling mighty good about itself with good reason. But KU didn't flinch, went into Manhattan and kept pace with Oklahoma after beating the Wildcats 85-74. The Jayhawks are a game back of the Sooners with a Feb. 23 date looming in Norman.

Maryland won't quit. If Mickey Rourke is looking for another comeback role he might want to play Gary Williams. Not too many coaches have as much fight in them as Williams. Battered by chirping rumors that his job could be in jeopardy, Williams is still swinging. Maryland got housed by 27 against Georgetown in November, and by 41 against Duke in January, and still isn't done. The Terps beat Virginia Tech by 10 on Saturday to climb back to 5-5 in the ACC, 16-8 overall. The ACC must love to see Williams suffer. His next three games are at Clemson and home against North Carolina and Duke. He still has to face Wake Forest in College Park, too. But win one or two of these games, and Maryland will add a late-season quality win that would be hard to ignore.

Wake Forest is still a threat to win the title. Just when it was time to rethink the Demon Deacons' status as an elite team, they go out and throttle upstart Florida State by 23.

Purdue can win with Robbie Hummel playing and not scoring. Hummel missed three straight games with a stress fracture in his back. Purdue lost two of them. Hummel returned to play 24 minutes against Iowa and scored just two points, and the Boilermakers still won 49-45.

Oklahoma State's James Anderson will be a pro. More than one NBA executive told me to watch Anderson's growth this season. Expect him to be watched closely if he declares for the draft. Anderson, a sophomore guard, scored 27 points and grabbed 10 boards in a win over Iowa State. The Cowboys lost at Texas earlier in the week, but it wasn't because of Anderson. He scored 35.

Don't sleep on Creighton just yet. The projected favorite in the Missouri Valley crushed Southern Illinois 82-60 on Saturday, winning its sixth straight to move to 21-6 overall, 11-4 in the Valley, and just one game behind Northern Iowa. The Bluejays split with the Panthers with each team winning on the opposing team's home court. But if Creighton wins the Valley tournament, the Bluejays could turn out to be a tough out in the NCAA first round, as originally predicted.

Picking an SEC East champ is pointless now. Florida lost at previously winless Georgia on Saturday. South Carolina needed a tip-in at the buzzer to beat dysfunctional Alabama. Kentucky needed a Meeks 3-pointer to beat Florida earlier in the week and an epic performance to beat Arkansas. Tennessee is hardly reliable. As it stands on Saturday, the Gators are 6-4, South Carolina, Kentucky and Tennessee are all 7-3. Any of the four could win it. Ultimately, though, all four may make the NCAA.

LSU will be the only NCAA rep out of the West. Mississippi State's loss to LSU and subsequent defeat Saturday to Auburn put even more distance between the two schools. LSU is 9-1 and could coast to the SEC West title and a tourney bid.

Tyreke Evans should win national freshman of the year. Evans' move to the point has made Memphis a potential Final Four team. The Tigers won their 52nd straight Conference USA game and 16th straight win overall this season, and are coasting to the NCAA tournament with a 22-3, 10-0 record. Evans scored 19 points. He's averaging 16.8 points and 5.3 rebounds, has a nearly even assist-turnover ratio (3.7-3.3) but is shooting nearly 45 percent from the floor and 71 percent at the free throw line, and is exuding confidence with each possession.

The Pac-10 title race is wide open. Washington holds a one-game lead over Arizona State, Cal and UCLA, two over Arizona. But Washington plays at UCLA on Thursday. Win and the Huskies may just win the title. Lose and the two teams split the season series and the path to the title becomes less clear. Arizona State, which swept UCLA, still goes to Washington. So, too, does Arizona. Cal still hosts UCLA but is done with the Huskies after sweeping them to gain an edge if they were to tie. If Washington loses to UCLA, the champion may not be known until March 7.

Andy Katz is a senior writer for ESPN.com.