After almost every Arizona loss, especially this year, we’ve seen all the tweets about head coach Sean Miller: “Fire Miller,” “Time to move on from Miller,” “Can he win the big game?” But is Arizona men’s basketball really at that point yet? Looking back over his first nine and a half seasons, Miller has been relatively average.
There are multiple different types of games and tournaments that I looked at when deciding if Miller has been able to win a “big game,” such as games against ranked teams, non-conference tournaments, the Pac-12 tournament and the NCAA tournament.
Before we get into looking at his records in these games and tournaments, we’re going to look at some of his awards he’s earned while at Arizona. He received three Pac-12 tournament championships (’15, ’17 and ’18), five Pac-10/12 regular-season championships (’11, ’14, ’15, ’17 and ’18) and three Coach of the Year awards in the Pac-12 (’11, ’14 and ’17). He also won the Diamond Head Classic championship, NIT season tip-off championship, Maui Invitational championship and a Wooden Legacy championship.
That’s quite an impressive resume he’s been adding to, but is it enough for Arizona fans, the same fans who were used to going to the NCAA tournament every year since the ’80s until Miller’s first season? This is the same program that’s gone to the Final Four four times from 1988 until 2001, with 2001 marking the last appearance in the Final Four. Fans are certainly growing anxious.
Miller’s all-time record is 397-141, and while at Arizona, he sits at 277-94 after the win over Colorado. But Miller has been largely unremarkable when it comes to big games.
When Arizona has played against teams in the top-25 during the regular season, his record is 18-17. Against the top-10, his record is 7-7. For comparison, Bill Self at Kansas is 98-50 against the top-25 since 2003. He has seven more seasons than Miller but more than double the amount of wins than losses.
Another part of looking at how Miller has fared in big games is seeing how he’s done in the Pac-10/12 tournament. His overall record is 17-7 with three conference championships. However, his record when he’s gotten to the championship is 3-3. To his credit though, he lost his first three championship appearances but has won his last three.
Now let’s look at how he’s done in the most important games of the season: the NCAA tournament. Out of his 10 seasons so far he’s made the tournament seven times. Miller has also lost in the first round of the NIT tournament back in 2012 and has not played in any postseason tournament twice.
He has an all-time record of 17-7 but has lost some very heartbreaking games, including back-to-back losses against Wisconsin in the Elite Eight. His team also fell to Kemba Walker and the UConn Huskies back in his second season with Derrick Williams.
In 2011, in the closing seconds against UConn, Arizona had two chances in the final seconds to make a 3-pointer to take the lead, but Derrick Williams and Jamelle Horne missed both shots and the rest is history. A few years later against Wisconsin in 2014, Nick Johnson had a chance in the final seconds of overtime but couldn’t get his shot off in time. If any of those shots had gone in, we’d be looking at a much different Arizona program with potentially multiple championships by now.
Sure, there were those games in the Elite Eight, but there were also two games in the Sweet Sixteen that came down to the final seconds as well. In 2013, Arizona lost when Ohio State made a 3-pointer with two seconds left. In 2016, the Wildcats ran into an Xavier team, who shocked them and won by two after Alonzo Trier couldn’t tie the game in the last seconds.
There are many moments that define a program and coach, but these moments do not seem to be as much on Miller as they are on the players and just making shots. I understand that in 2016 Miller needed to figure out ways for Lauri Markkanen to get touches and shots, but they were still in the game until the end.
Then there are the games where Arizona was just completely unprepared for. The first of the two was in 2016 when Wichita State came out and dominated the Wildcats from beginning to end. Arizona only lost by 10, but the final score was no indication of how severely outplayed Arizona was. And then the game in 2018. We all remember it as if it were yesterday, the game against Buffalo. The first half was tight, with the Bulls winning by two, but in the second half, Buffalo looked like a different team and ran Arizona off the court, falling 89-68.
With as much skill that’s involved in sports, there also comes a healthy amount of luck. For example, being in the right place at the right time. If a half-court buzzer-beater would actually go in for Arizona and Miller, he just seems to be right on the other side of it, especially in March.
Yeah, there have been great moments, like blowing out Duke in the Sweet Sixteen or Derrick Williams working his magic against Memphis and Texas to come out just barely on top. But the fans, especially the ones in Tucson, are only going to be patient for so long, and if Miller can’t get this program to a Final Four or championship soon, that patience might run out.
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