Arizona coach Sean Miller eyes final four breakthrough

0:38 | College Basketball
NCAA Basketball Year in Review
Wednesday May 3rd, 2017

Arizona coach Sean Miller was still smarting from his team’s loss to Xavier in the Sweet Sixteen the week before when he got a phone call from Mark Few. The two men have become close friends over the years, bird-dogging the same top recruits out west and working as colleagues with USA Basketball. Few was calling Miller from Phoenix, where his Gonzaga team was getting ready to play in the Final Four for the very first time. “I just wanted you to know that I don’t feel any different,” Few said. “I’m happy we’re here, but really, nothing has changed.”

Miller appreciated the gesture, but he didn’t totally buy the sentiment. “Honestly, he was probably lying,” he said with a laugh as he we spoke by phone Sunday evening. “I’ll bet he hung up and said, ‘Poor bastard. He has no idea how good I feel right now.’ ”

Few was far from the only coach who reached out to Miller after his No. 2-seeded Wildcats were bounced by 11th-seeded Xavier, denying him a chance to reach his first Final Four. He heard from just about everyone he knows, including former Florida coach Billy Donovan, who is now with the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder. “Coaches stick together because I think all of us have been in those moments,” Miller says. “So many guys reached out and told me, ‘Don’t let your last game define you.’ I have a good perspective on this, maybe because I’ve experienced it a number of times now. We went 32 and 5 and we’ve knocked at the door [of the Final Four] very hard. We just have to finish better.”

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Miller, in fact, has knocked very hard at the door four times by reaching the Elite Eight  – three times at Arizona and once at Xavier. During his seven seasons at Arizona, he has taken his team to the NCAA tournament’s second weekend five times. Now that Few has gotten his own long-awaited breakthrough, Miller is the unquestioned owner of the damned-with-faint-praise label of “best coach never to have made the Final Four.”

That label, however, may not stick for long, because Miller’s Wildcats are emerging as the team to beat heading into the 2017-18 season. He has been so close so often that it is easy to forget he is only 48 years old. It feels inevitable that someday soon he, too, will break through and reach the season’s final weekend. In the meantime, he is going to have to endure some scrutiny and second-guessing, much of which is coming from within.

Though many coaches decline to watch a video of the game that ended their season, Miller watched the entire game later that night on the plane ride home. It was not easy to watch his team fritter away an eight-point lead with three minutes to go and lose, 73-71. As if watching it again wasn’t tough enough, Miller put himself through the same exercise a few days later. “I’m not crazy enough to keep watching it. I’m good now,” he says. “Give all due credit to Xavier, but I never felt good about that game once it started. For whatever reason, we didn’t have that confident look in our eyes that we had had all season.”

Figuring out why that was the case won’t be easy. One question he must consider is whether the specter of getting him to that elusive first Final Four is weighing on his players. The Wildcats were noticeably more nervous and disjointed against Xavier than they had been for most of the season. It was particularly troubling that their best offensive player, 7’0” freshman center Lauri Markkanen, didn’t touch the ball for the final 11 minutes. “I don’t ever want our players to feel that burden,” Miller says. “Unfortunately in today’s game, often times your best players are also your youngest. As a team, we didn’t do a good job of getting Lauri the ball and getting more quality shots.”

Miller admitted to me that he has done some soul searching about his sideline comportment as well. He got to this level of success by being famously intense – who can ever forget him sweating through his white dress shirt during Arizona’s first-round game against Wichita State last year – but he is starting to wonder whether he should dial that back in critical moments. “The longer you do this, the more you realize from an intensity perspective, sometimes the environment is enough,” he concedes.

Ethan Miller/Getty

To that end, last month Miller hired Lorenzo Romar as an assistant to replace Joe Pasternack, who left to take over at UC Santa Barbara. Romar, 58, was the head coach at Washington for 15 seasons before being let go this spring. He also has six additional years of head coaching experience at Pepperdine and St. Louis, and he was an assistant at UCLA under Jim Harrick when the Bruins won the 1995 NCAA championship. Whenever Miller has had a vacancy in the past, he has tended to look for young up-and-comers who are aggressive recruiters. In this case, he sought out a calming voice. “Lorenzo has an unbelievable amount of experience,” he says. “I felt like he could give us an ingredient moving forward that can be powerful.”

Like every other coach in America, Miller has had to work feverishly since the end of the season to manage the tumult of his changing roster. Besides losing senior guard Kadeem Allen to graduation, Miller is also losing two players, Markannen and 6’5” freshman guard Kobi Simmons, who have entered the NBA draft and signed with agents. Two other underclassmen, 6’5” freshman guard Rawle Alkins and 6’11” sophomore forward Chance Comanche, are still eligible to be drafted but have yet to hire an agent. (Alkins was invited to the NBA’s predraft combine next week in Chicago while Comanche was not. Players have until May 24 to make their final decision.) Miller has been working the transfer market for suitable replacements. This weekend, he is hosting one of the top graduate transfers, Pittsburgh guard Cameron Johnson, as well as a prime undergraduate target in Chase Jeter, a 6’10” forward who played his first two seasons at Duke.

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Miller got some really good news on April 13th when his leading scorer, 6’5” sophomore Allonzo Trier, announced that he was withdrawing from the NBA draft. Trier had a frustrating sophomore season; he missed the first 19 games after testing positive for a performance enhancing drug that he accidentally took through a supplement. He won his appeal with the NCAA, but he could not play in games until the drug completely cleared his system.

Trier performed well the last two months, but the experience taxed his emotions and hurt his draft status.

When Trier learned it was unlikely he would be a first-round pick, he decided to come back to school. His desire to erase the bitter memory of the Xavier game will be a major motivator. “That was a tough loss to swallow. It felt like we let one slip away,” he says. “I know how hard Coach Miller works. I know he’s chasing that Final Four. That’s something I want to be part of as a player, and I want to help him reach that as a coach.”

The Wildcats will benefit from senior leadership provided by 5’11” point guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright 7’0” center Dusan Ristic, but their biggest cause for optimism – literally – is the impending arrival of 7’0” freshman center DeAndre Ayton. The Bahamas native is a consensus top-three player in the Class of 2017. Miller acknowledges Ayton could be the best prospect he has ever recruited. “From a physical perspective, he will walk through the door unlike any freshman we’ve had,” he says. “DeAndre is 7 feet, 250 pounds, and he has never lifted weights. Think about that for a minute. And the most striking feature is that he’s not one-dimensional. He’s not just a low-post scorer. He’s clever with the ball in his hands, he can face the basket, he can make threes. His versatility and his size is a combination you don’t often see.”

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There were some other happy developments this spring. Miller got a verbal commitment from two players ranked by Rivals.com in the top 20 of the Class of 2018 – Emmanuel Akot, a 6’8” forward from Utah, and Shareef O’Neal, a 6’9” forward from California and the son of former NBA great Shaquille O’Neal. Then there was the news that came down on March 25, when his younger brother, Archie, was hired to be head coach at Indiana. Archie served as Sean’s assistant during his first two seasons at Arizona before moving on to become head coach at Dayton. Last month, when Sean arrived in Indianapolis to attend an AAU tournament, he was stopped by several Hoosiers fans who wanted to take a picture with the new Indiana coach’s brother. “I’m like man, the tables have turned,” he says.

Indeed, with each passing year, with each disappointing exit from the tournament, Miller develops a deeper appreciation for just how quickly things can change. Sure, he took a lot of heat for the Xavier loss, but he has never been afraid to let people see him sweat. “I understand we are dealing with high expectations at Arizona. People here want us to win every game and they badly want us to get back to a Final Four,” he says. “If that’s something that makes you uncomfortable as a coach or a player, then I don’t know if this is the best place for you.”

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