His facial expressions on the sidelines and tone of voice in the timeout huddles may not have always shown it, but Arizona men’s basketball head coach Sean Miller was proud of this year’s team. In fact, it’s the proudest he’s been of any of his teams in his head coaching career.
“This is the 17th team that I've had as a head coach and I've never been prouder of a group of guys than I am of this year's team,” Miller said.
A group of guys that entered the year with 10 new faces and replacing all five of its starters from last season.
A group of guys that had their postseason aspirations ripped away from them because of an NCAA investigation that doesn’t directly involve them.
A group of guys that endured an entire season of COVID-19 testing and protocols without a single outbreak inside the program.
From the canceled games to the season-ending injuries, the list of obstacles that the Arizona Wildcats had to overcome was seemingly endless. But through all of the adversity, this team accomplished something that Miller never thought would have been possible.
“11-9 in the Pac-12 and 17-9 [overall],” Miller said. “You always want to do better but I have the peace of mind that we battled hard in all 26 games and the fact that we sit here with 17 wins. I can make a strong argument that it could have been a lot worse based on where we were in August."
With the self-imposed postseason ban taking place following the conclusion of this season, the Wildcats had no choice but to shift their focus away from the trophies and, instead, towards internal player development and finishing the season strong.
Arizona didn’t exactly accomplish that goal as well as they would have liked, finishing the 2020-21 season with an 80-69 loss to the Oregon Ducks on Monday, March 1. The Wildcats did, however, end the year by winning three of its last four games, including a sweep over the Washington schools and an upset victory over the once then No. 17-ranked USC Trojans.
“I just feel like our guys, every day from the beginning to the end, tried hard,” Miller said. “We're not perfect. We make a lot of young mistakes. Sometimes you feel like, on drives against our freshmen, they just don't have enough resistance on defense. But I couldn't, like I said earlier, be more proud of a group of guys.”
A 11-9 in conference play isn’t what Arizona men’s basketball is typically accustomed to. The Wildcats have yet to make a Final Four appearance during the Sean Miller era and haven’t been to the NCAA tournament since 2018.
Miller and the rest of the coaching staff knew that a change in its recruiting strategy was needed and that the days of one-and-done five-star recruits in Tucson had to get placed to the side. This past offseason, the Wildcats compiled a roster full of project players that wouldn’t see their true potential bloom until their second, third or even fourth season of their college basketball careers.
“I think for the first time … we’re poised to return a lion’s share of this year’s team,” Miller said. “To bring in a new group in addition to that and instead of replacing five starters, that experience, my hope is more towards our advantage.”
It was a 2020-21 season full of growing pains that resulted in nine conference game losses and quite possibly one of the worst defensive teams, statistically, in Arizona’s recent memory.
Miller pointed out that his team lost several games because of its poor defense but noted that its efficiency on the offensive side of the ball — paired with the potential to return almost off of its players next season — leaves a lot to be hopeful for in the future.
“I would like to tell you, everybody, 'oh this guy’s coming back, this guy isn’t,' but I think you know what I’m going to say,” Miller said. “They’re all able to come back, but I think the lion’s share will, but that’s really up to them … I think I have a pretty good sense of who’s going to come back, and I think it’s exciting to think about.”
The outcome stemming from the NCAA’s investigation still looms over the heads of Miller and the entire men’s basketball program. Adding to the pressure, Miller’s contract with the Arizona Wildcats also expires after the 2022 season.
Miller said that he will have the opportunity to negotiate a potential contract extension with UA President Dr. Robert C. Robbins and athletic director Dave Heeke when the time comes but is currently focused on integrating next year’s recruiting class and getting this team back to being one of the most dominant basketball programs on the west coast.
“I believe that we can return back to the top of the mountain,” Miller said. “It doesn't happen overnight. But you know what? I came here 12 years ago … . The two previous seasons before I ever showed up here as the new Arizona coach, I was the fourth coach in four years. Arizona's record in the Pac-10 was 17-19. In the first two years with us in the Pac-10, we went 24-12, and you kind of rebuilt and we sustained excellence. Right now, 11-9 isn't what anyone wants to sign up for moving forward, but I do think it's a great bridge from a lot of things that have happened to a promising future."
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