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Sunday, July 27, 2014 | Last updated: 11:20pm

Miller not to blame for Arizona basketball's deficiencies



As the buzzer sounded, Missouri guard Phil Pressey’s desperate heave fell short and Norfolk State completed an improbable upset of the No. 2-seeded Tigers. My seven buddies and I watched in awe from an Irish pub in the Las Vegas City Center as our brackets were officially busted.

As we stood there, a man in his mid-30s with a receding hairline and Firestone IPA on his breath approached a buddy of mine, who was wearing Arizona basketball gear.

This wasn’t a time to talk Arizona basketball. The Wildcats’ season was over — no NCAA Tournament, not even a run at the NIT — but the stranger insisted on sharing his point of view on the season and the program as a whole.

He was born and raised in Tucson. He grew up during Lute Olson’s glory days and all he knew was NCAA Tournament appearances. His frustration about missing the tournament was clear. The Tucson community is used to watching college basketball in March, and, aside from a rising football program, Arizona basketball is all Tucson really has.

About halfway through the conversation, I was still listening, hearing his frustration and fan perspective — until he said this: “Sean Miller doesn’t command respect.”

He went on to blame Miller for an inability to prepare his players for the Pac-12 Tournament Championship game against Colorado and the Wildcats’ first-round NIT matchup against Bucknell. He said Miller doesn’t recruit players with heart like Olson did. Yes, this was one slightly intoxicated man’s opinion, but it wasn’t the first time I’d heard fans question Miller for the Wildcats’ missing the NCAA Tournament two out of their last three seasons.

That needs to stop.

To say Miller doesn’t command respect is ignorant. Ask any coach or analyst around the country and they’ll rave about Miller’s intensity and attention to detail.

“He can operate anywhere — on a basketball floor, in a boardroom, you name it he gets along with everybody,” ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said earlier this season. “He’s demanding while at the same time allowing his players the freedom to perform. He’s trying to build a foundation of how to do things the right way every day and I think he’s doing a really great job of it.”

To blame Miller for the Wildcats starting an extremely undersized frontcourt, having to throw two freshmen to the fire or losing Kevin Parrom to a gunshot wound and broken foot is almost laughable.

Yes, the freshman class didn’t perform exactly as planned. Sidiki Johnson’s lack of focus could be partially on Miller for recruiting him, but every great coach gets a bad apple from time to time — see Ben Howland and Reeves Nelson.

Sure, Josiah Turner couldn’t stay on the floor due to off-the-court issues, but it’s not like Turner was out shooting up clubs — Miller has continued to back his point guard in saying he’s a kid with a good heart and some bad habits.

While two freshmen may have flopped, Miller nullified those misses with Nick Johnson, who should have a huge sophomore year after gaining big-time experience as a freshman, and Angelo Chol, who showed flashes of what he can do with more time on the floor.

After the season, Miller said he’s “disappointed” and that he knew “a long time ago when I came to Arizona that it was going to be a great challenge, and it is.”

Of course it is. Miller took over for Tucson’s savior, like Mike Brown for Phil Jackson, Bill O’Brien for Joe Paterno or Gene Bartow for John Wooden.

Olson’s departure left the program more or less in shambles. Miller faced the toughest task of arguably any coach in the country. And despite popular belief, Miller is actually ahead of schedule.

He coached a team that didn’t have the talent or experience of a 20-win squad to 23 wins. He shocked the country by taking Arizona to the Elite Eight a season ago, and developed an unheralded recruit in Derrick Williams into a No. 2 overall pick.

Just ask Williams what Miller meant to his development.

“It meant a lot, especially when I first got there. He told me I could be a really, really good player one day,” Williams said. “He said listen to what I say and that’s exactly what I did. I trusted him and once you earn a coach’s trust, he’s going to put the ball in your hands and that’s what he did for me.”

See how former Wildcat and Olson product Chase Budinger feels about Miller’s coaching.

“They’re in good hands though because Sean Miller’s a great coach,” he said.

And ESPN recruiting analyst Dave Telep?

“When you take a look around college basketball, he’s a guy who combines excellence as a coach, developer of players and a recruiter,” Telep said. “What he’s done is he’s stacked his classes on top of each other. I think they have a good foundation for a very, very deep tournament run.”

Miller will finally have all of his guys on the floor next season. When Brandon Ashley, Gabe York, Grant Jerrett and Kaleb Tarczewski set foot in McKale Center, Miller will have officially transitioned away from the Olson era.

He’ll continue to demand respect yet relate to his players and continue to create a culture — something that’s difficult when you’re the new guy in town trying to live up to a legend. With a full team of his recruits in place, Miller most likely won’t deal with off-the-court issues, gunshot wounds and injuries next season.

And I won’t have to deal with that Tucson native’s blabber about Miller’s lack of discipline. Instead, Arizona will be on the big screen instead of Mizzou and Norfolk State. The Wildcats’ lost 2011-12 season will be an afterthought and that man will drown himself in more IPAs until he forgets those comments he once made at that Irish pub.

— Mike Schmitz is a marketing senior. He can be reached at sports@wildcat.arizona.edu or on Twitter via @WildcatHoops .


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