Miller looking to lead Arizona back to NCAA tournament in Year 2

Publish date:

For Arizona senior Jamelle Horne, who was recruited by legend Lute Olson and subsequently has played for three other head coaches in his tumultuous time in Tucson, familiarity has never felt so good.

"It's nice seeing [coach Sean Miller's] face for the second straight year," Horne said.

Arizona's fans likely are saying the same thing about the former Xavier coach who arrived in Tucson before last season to finally end a tortuous transition phase after personal and health issues brought an end to Olson's tenure in 2008.

When Olson first took a leave of absence in the fall of 2007, assistant coach Kevin O'Neill was handed the job. It was subsequently announced that December that Olson would return for the 2008-09 season and O'Neill was named his designated successor, but neither happened. In a bizarre twist, O'Neill was jettisoned in April 2008 and Olson returned, only to retire for good that October. Newly hired assistant Russ Pennell took over and helped the Wildcats squeak into their 25th straight NCAA tournament (and then make the Sweet 16) before he, too, was relieved of his duties and Arizona hired Miller to be the long-term replacement for Olson, who still casts an obvious and significant shadow.

"I think to embrace and be the very best we can be going forward, as a new coaching staff and me as a new coach, it's so important for us to believe in and cherish and respect the past," Miller said. "It's not just Coach Olson and all the things that he personally did, but it's all the great players and teams he's put together."

Arizona may have a wonderful tradition, but Miller did not inherit a great team or many great players after both Chase Budinger and Jordan Hill left for the NBA. He salvaged last season (and jump-started the program's recovery) by nabbing forward Derrick Williams late in the recruiting period and reeling in USC decommits Solomon Hill and Lamont Jones. Still, the Wildcats went just 16-15 and missed the NCAA tournament for the first time in 26 seasons.

"'The Streak' is something that had to be addressed in your own mind before you ever decided to come here," Miller said. "My perspective was always long-term. It was much more beyond just that first year. If you're really looking at that under a microscope, than this probably wasn't the right place to come to."

Miller may not have to wait too much longer for normalcy to return to the desert. Williams, a first-team All-Pac-10 talent, is the gem of a strong sophomore class that gives Arizona a good chance to start a new NCAA tournament streak this season. And if that doesn't happen, Miller also has lined up one of the nation's best recruiting classes for 2011, so more help is on the way. Miller credits the Tucson locals with being extremely knowledgeable as well as understanding of the rebuilding that was needed. But fan patience at any good program has its limits. Things will become more comfortable for Miller when the Wildcats reestablish themselves in the postseason.

"I think it will be good once they get to the NCAAs, whether that's this year or next year," Olson said. "I think Sean will. There's no doubt in my mind he'll get the thing going in the right direction again. It'll feel a lot more like it's his program and he's built it back up to getting to the NCAA tournament."

If that's to happen this season, Horne and junior Kyle Fogg will need to provide leadership for a still-young squad. Eight of the 11 Wildcats who saw double-digit minutes in Arizona's 90-42 season-opening romp over Idaho State are underclassmen, and they're also working to replace departed point guard Nic Wise, whom Miller strongly credits with holding the 'Cats together for large parts of last season. The younger 'Cats may have the talent, but Horne and Fogg have the seen-it-all wisdom and an urgency to help restore the program to the level it was when they arrived.

"No guys are going to respect older guys who have been here if they're not going harder than them," Horne said. "Even then, they might not respect you or they still might not go as hard as you're demanding of them. But over a period of time, we're all going to become leaders on the team and we're all going to be pushing each other to go harder because we want to have a successful season and get back on our winning ways."

Miller will get a better evaluation of his team on Thursday, when the Wildcats host feisty New Mexico State. And by the end of a season-opening run of six games in 13 days, he should know a lot more about this season's potential. Having now had a chance to go through a whole cycle with the program, though, Miller feels the Wildcats are already in much better shape than when he arrived.

"If you watch us now, we're better every day than we were a year ago and it's not that close," Miller said. "What that translates into in terms of winning? I'll also tell you that there's a very fine line between being better and being a little bit better, and I think all of us here are pointing toward really building on that first 16-15 season and being better this year."