Men's hoops guide: Sean Miller building a legacy at Arizona
The basketball empires that are Duke, North Carolina and Kentucky started with a strong foundation.
Arizona also had a storied history under head coach Lute Olson, including a 1997 national championship, but now a new foundation is being laid thanks to the handiwork of head coach Sean Miller.
The fourth-year head honcho said he appreciates the legacy he’s been tasked with continuing.
“One of the reasons I sit here today is because of the great legacy you built,” Miller said to Olson at his introductory press conference.
Miller’s patience in continuing and developing what he calls a “players’ program” has the Wildcats blossoming into a team that could make an impact in the NCAA tournament.
“I think for the first time since our staff has been here that time is on our side,” Miller said, “that we truly have had the opportunity to get both feet on the ground in a comprehensive way. Things that are invisible sometimes to the outside world, you know, the infrastructure of what we do that we are more, I believe, built for the long term.”
For the first time, Miller will be playing with all of his own recruits. He will have the necessary depth and frontcourt size to contend with high-caliber teams on a consistent basis.
It wasn’t always easy for Miller, though.
He stepped into a program with a crumbling foundation left by the hiring and dismissal of current USC coach Kevin O’Neill, after O’Neill served as head coach on an interim basis for Olson from 2007-2008.
There was the short-lived Russ Pennell coaching era, which lasted one year and saw the Wildcats extend their streak of NCAA Tournament appearances to 25 years with a 19-13 record.
After Pennell, former UA athletic director Jim Livengood conducted a nationwide search for a permanent successor to Olson. Miller was brought in from Xavier after bringing the Musketeers up from a 17-12 record his first year to four straight tournament appearances and three Atlantic-10 conference titles.
“I know they’ve been through a lot,” Miller said at his introductory press conference. “I’m looking forward to providing continuity here for those guys.”
Miller had never seen the UA campus before when he accepted the head coaching position, and wasn’t sure what former Wildcat forward Derrick Williams, who was a key cog in Arizona’s Elite Eight run two seasons ago, was capable of.
That season, Miller also had to convince Nic Wise to stay in Tucson and play for his fourth coach in as many years. Without Wise, one of Arizona’s leading scorers that year, things could have been even worse.
“I’ll only say that when you are the fourth coach in four years, our record was 16-15 and I’m telling you, we were more close to winning 10 games than winning 20,” Miller said.
Williams, an overlooked recruit from La Mirada, Calif. rose to star status and led the UA to a 30-win season.
“You get that first recruiting class as a coach, you always look back on that,” senior forward Solomon Hill said. “Without that first recruiting class, who knows what happens with that Elite Eight run? It’s a great feeling to know that me and Kevin [Parrom] understand that this is our last time to make an impact on that first class and be remembered.”
It’s safe to assume that the Wildcats were buying into what Miller wanted to do, but the Elite Eight run might have been a bit premature.
“I didn’t envision the second year being as good as it was,” said Miller, citing the Wildcats’ Elite Eight run, Pac-10 regular championship and 30-win regular season. “Those are really special things … I think because that happened so early here, it was almost assumed that that is how it would be from this point on.”
Following Williams’ departure, the 2011 Wildcats’ lack of size and maturity stemmed from former freshman guard Josiah Turner, who was suspended twice before leaving the program. Arizona stumbled to a first-round NIT loss to Bucknell at McKale Center.
Don’t expect the same issues with this year’s team, though, because Miller has constructed a roster without any apparent ego problems.
“We don’t have any problems. Nobody’s been late,” Hill said.
“That’s a good feeling when you have a good team. There’s nobody that’s not willing to learn.”
Last season was just another building block in Miller’s foundation. This season offers seniors Kevin Parrom, Xavier transfer Mark Lyons and Hill a chance to leave their mark on the current era of Wildcat basketball.
“This season is very important because Coach always talks about finishing,” Parrom said. “I was here through it all, through the ups and downs. This year should be great and I’m glad to be a part of it.”
Aiding Parrom and Hill in finishing their Arizona careers in a positive light are the pieces of the championship puzzle Miller is attempting to build.
Miller landed the No. 3 recruiting class in the country this year, headed by freshmen frontcourt players Grant Jerrett, Brandon Ashley and Kaleb Tarczewski, two of whom were McDonald’s All-Americans.
His 2013 recruiting class includes Rondae Jefferson, a five-star small forward, and Elliott Pitts, a four-star shooting guard.
That’s not to mention T.J. McConnell, a transfer point guard from Duquesne, and Matt Korcheck, the junior college transfer big who will join the team next year.
Miller has built a players’ program, one in which players earn their roles based on their performance in practices and one in which players can trust their coach.
“I know he trusts me and I know that I trust him,” said Lyons, who was recruited to Xavier by Miller. “It’s easy to play for somebody you know trusts you as a player. My coach is here.”
The Miller era of Arizona basketball is no longer in its infancy, and expectations will continue to mount the longer Miller has to work with his own players.
“Some amazing things have happened if you consider that we have already been within one shot of a Final Four,” Miller said.
“As we enter our fourth year here, it’s exciting to know everyone in our program [is someone] that we’ve recruited and I think the chances of us being successful because of that are now in place.”