A 'make or break' season for Head Coach Sean Miller

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Sofia Moraga | The Daily Wildcat Sean Miller, head coach of the Arizona Men's Basketball team, welcomes the fans to the Red-Blue game on Sunday, Oct. 14 at the McKale Center in Tucson, Ariz.

Arizona men's basketball Head Coach Sean Miller will be entering his 10th year with the program, which is truly remarkable considering the events the program has faced over the past decade. The Wildcats have failed to reach the Final Four since Miller’s arrival, despite annually bringing in top recruiting classes.

In addition to failed expectations on the court, the 2017 NCAA basketball corruption scandal centered around the alleged illegal pay of former players and the 2018 No. 1 NBA draft pick Deandre Ayton have brought extreme tension surrounding Miller’s job security and skepticism for the future of Arizona’s basketball program. It is difficult to predict what the future holds for Miller and the Wildcats, but it seems that this upcoming season may determine the ultimate decision.

When Miller emotionally spoke in front of the sold-out crowd in McKale Center on Senior Night after missing the NCAA tournament, many fans presumed that a change of head coach would soon be taking place.  Fortunately for Miller, he will have at least one more season to prove that he is the right guy to lead the Wildcats back to the Final Four, somewhere they have not been since 2001 when they were led by Head Coach Lute Olson.

Despite all the chaos surrounding the program as of recent, Arizona still managed to bring in the No. 6 recruiting class, according to 247Sports. This highly talented group of incoming freshmen includes Nico Mannion (No. 1), Josh Green (No. 0), Zeke Nnaji (No. 22) and Christian Koloko (No. 35). Not to mention several transfers, such as Jordan Brown, Jemarl Baker and Max Hazzard will be joining the team. With the talented mix of returning upperclassmen and younger players, Miller has the team to go the distance this year, even in an improved Pac-12.

“One thing that I love about this year’s class is that if you judge on just incoming freshmen — there’s four of them — they all have won big before they ever showed up here,” Miller stated at a press conference. “Nico won multiple state championships. Josh Green won the mythical national championship at IMG academy this past spring. Zeke won a state championship in the state of Minnesota; Christian Koloko won the California state championship.”

Acknowledging that these players have been successful in their previous situations is hard to deny, especially the hype of Mannion.

“What I would say to you about Nico Mannion is there’s a lot of high expectations for him and I have no doubt he’ll meet those high expectations, but he’s still 18 years old. He’s a small part of a big picture, and he’s a really integral part of our team this year, but he’s gonna need a lot of help,” Miller said. “I think the striking part of his game as a point guard is that he’s an excellent shooter, and he can score. He’s not just a distributor or a quarterback. He’s a quarterback who can make his teammates better, but he also will have several big nights scoring.”

The last time the Wildcats had a point guard with such an elite offensive skill set as Mannion was when Gilbert Arenas (1999-2001) helped carry the program to the National Championship in 2001.

There was doubt on whether Arizona could still manage to bring in top recruits or if their recruits would eventually de-commit. With today’s mentality for young players to enter the NBA as soon as they are ready and eligible, it seemed like a risk to join a program that has received almost nothing but negative publicity over the past year.

Miller acknowledged that passion and historic success are the primary factors that helped Arizona overcome this adversity. 

“There’s no place that replicates Tucson, AZ when it comes to supporting the college basketball passion. McKale Center is one of the iconic home courts in the country," Miller said. "There’s a tradition of not only winning, but of young players who have left and gone on to do remarkable things in the NBA.”

There is no doubt that Arizona is still considered a top basketball program in the country, but is it a 'make-or-break' season for Miller and his team?

Arizona is ranked No. 6 heading into the season, according to 247Sports, and they have successfully produced recent lottery picks: Deandre Ayton, Lauri Markkanen, Stanley Johnson, Aaron Gordon, etc. The question is: Are these recent accomplishments enough to secure Miller’s job if he does not accomplish something special this year?

Sure, Mannion and Green are projected to be NBA Draft prospects at end of the season, but the main concern is Arizona getting over the hump in March Madness. Since Miller’s arrival to Tucson, he has yet to reach the Final Four, surprising a lot of people that he has made it to his tenth year as head coach. Despite a promising start during his tenure, the results of the past four seasons are alarming. The 2015-16 and 2017-18 seasons resulted in first round exits, including a massive upset in 2018 when No. 4 Arizona lost to the State University of New York at Buffalo. The 2017 season concluded in a devastating Sweet 16 loss against Xavier University, where Miller was heavily criticized for limiting star forward Markkanen’s minutes in the second half. Then, last season, the Wildcats failed to even reach the National Invitation Tournament.

There have undoubtedly been ups and downs during the Miller Era. With the recent disappointments in March and the highly touted recruiting class with key players returning this year, there are no more excuses for Miller. The fans and the media are losing their patience, and it is time to reach the expectations he came in to fulfill back in 2009.


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