Changing of the guards: Sean Miller looks to go small this season
Arizona men's basketball head coach Sean Miller shouts a call to his team in the Colorado-Arizona Quarterfinal game at the 2018 Pac-12 Tournament on Thursday, March 8 in T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Nev. The Wildcats won against the Buffaloes 83-67.
Arizona men's basketball coach Sean Miller has made a name for himself by fielding teams that are hard-nosed, tough and big. Those teams, more often than not, resemble the very personality of the rust belt-raised coach.
But things seem to be shifting as Miller looks to accommodate a roster that is uncharacteristically shallow in its front-court.
"The way of playing moving forward for us is to have more wings and guards on the court at the same time, and have more spacing and quick movement," Miller said.
"That doesn't mean that a lot of the things that we have done, like rebounding (is going away). It's not a fun thing to talk about, but it's the thing the we have done best over my nine years here. It wins a lot of games."
During those nine years at Arizona, Miller’s traditional blue-collar teams didn’t rely on one person to thrive, no matter how spectacular a player was. Instead, they relied on a collective unit to slowly but surely grind down the opposition with its size until they wilted under its iron will. With increased emphasis on the two front-court players to set the physical tone for the entire team, on both ends of the court.
Miller has enjoyed a good amount of success using this model, with players like Derrick Williams, Aaron Gordon, and Lauri Markkennen being selected in the top half of the lottery in the last nine years. Deandre Ayton looks to be added to this list shortly, potentially being Miller’s highest ever draft pick as he almost certainly looks to go No.1 overall to the Phoenix Suns.
The list above doesn't even include Pac-12 first-teamer Ryan Anderson, Arizona’s all-time winningest player Dusan Ristic, or Kaleb Tarzewski, who was unanimously regarded as a top-5 overall recruit coming out of high school and was a key part of two Elite Eight teams during his time in the Old Pueblo.
Miller’s bully-ball has been causing West Coast coaches headaches for almost a decade (with Arizona winning three of the last four conference titles), yet he hasn't to be able to fully translate his inter-conference dominance into four consecutive wins in the NCAA tournament, reaching one game short of the elusive Final Four on three separate occasions.
The 2001 Final Four banner hanging in McKale is a point of pride that is slowly but surely turning into a reluctant reminder of how long it's been since the 'Cats have reached the heights they had once become accustomed to.
With the last three trips to the NCAA tournament ending to teams with double-digit seedings, Arizona was downed by smaller teams that killed them from three-point range while also being able to neutralize Arizona’s dominant big men long enough to keep them out of rhythm offensively.
Miller now seems to understand this and is aiming to bring that same strategy to Arizona.
“When you get to the NCAA Tournament, having more shot-makers, more ball-handlers, more players that at the end of the clock can get their own shot, that’s something that wins out,” Miller said.
The number of versatile guards and playmakers that are arriving in this latest recruiting class, such as top-100 recruits Brandon Williams and Devonaire Doutrive as well as grad transfer Justin Coleman, give Miller the option to be able to have the shot-makers and ball-handlers to be able to help the Wildcats take the next step in March.
“That’s what you do as a coach. You take inventory of how the game’s changing,” Miller said. “What are the things you can do better that you can control? Then you try to take advantage and make those changes.”
Miller has been able to weather a storm of an FBI investigation and de-commitments from star recruits over the last few months. He managed to keep the roster filled with talent of other recruits and transfers that can compete in the top end of the Pac-12 in this upcoming season.
Adapting to your immediate surroundings is what seperates the good coaches from the great, and if Miller wants to take the next step in his career, keeping in step with the trends around him is essential to his ascension. And he's doing exactly that.
Follow David Skinner on Twitter @davidwskinner_