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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


Attention to detail: Miller’s approach more intracate than X’s and O’s

Simon Asher
Arizona head coach Sean Miller gestures to his team during the Arizona-North Dakota game on Thursday, March 16.

Arizona men’s basketball head coach Sean Miller is a man who beats to the tune of his own drum. He is at the helm of one of the premier basketball institutions in the country and perhaps the best coach that has yet to reach a Final Four. It would be easy to write off Miller as an underachiever due to his team’s success late in the NCAA Tournament, however, that would be the coward’s route.

In 2009, when the skies were gray and a proud program was turned down by Tim Floyd of all people, it was Miller who gave it a second chance. Miller has succeeded at a school that was ripe for a floundering. Able to take the reins of the basketball program and restore it almost completely to its past glory, Miller has kept hoops a relevant part of Tucson life.

His gyrations on the sideline can mislead you into thinking the ship is sinking or that some poor player’s soul is about to be ripped from his body and sacrificed to the gods of victory. The fact of the matter is he is a coach that would do anything for his players, and often times at the sacrifice of his personal life and family.

Such instance came recently during the last home game against UCLA when Miller’s son, Cameron, scored his 1,000th career point while playing in the state title game against Shadow Mountain. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime moment that he will never get back; this is the sacrifice of leading a big time program.

“I think the gift and the curse sometimes of being a college basketball coach is: The gift is you’re able to take your kids to places and do things a lot of young people don’t get to do,” Miller said during an interview with Jim Rome. “The curse is you miss a lot, and for me I wasn’t able to be at that state championship game. … I am proud of him.”

Miller has had his share of adversity to deal with this season. From Ray Smith to Allonzo Trier, he has had to deal with more than most while leading his team to the Sweet Sixteen in San Jose. 

Part of dealing with that many issues is being true to who you are under any circumstance; for that Miller is always on target.

There haven’t been many situations where Miller has been caught off guard or taken aback by a question or situation. It is as though he has prepared for each question before you even entertained the thought. He simply has an answer for everything. He is as meticulous in his approach to the game as he is about the smallest details that surround him. Hearing him speak to a recruit on the phone within the confines of McKale Center and trying to instill confidence in the player from a thousand miles away is one of the many reasons kids commit to Arizona.

“I think all of us as coaches we try to be ourself,” Miller said. “If you’re not who you really are, I don’t think it works. For me, I am more of a passionate type of person or coach, kind of put all the eggs into that one basket.”

Nothing has been more evident about a coach’s demeanor than Miller’s approach following the Oregon loss this season when the Ducks obliterated the Wildcats by 27, nearly going perfect from 3-point range in the first half. It was reminiscent of a darker time in 2015 against Wisconsin when the Badgers were just as hot in the second half, beating the Wildcats and moving on to the Final Four. In both instances Miller’s approach never changed. He tipped his hat to the victor and rested on his team’s play, knowing that some days just aren’t yours. 

“He’d say just keep knocking on the door, you’re right there, they’re hitting shots but we’re playing good defense,” said former Arizona and current Philadelphia 76ers guard T.J. McConnell. “The thing he says is just do what we do … do what we do on defense and we’ll breakthrough.”

Related: Plenty on the line for ‘Cats in the Sweet 16

Miller’s intensity has never been questioned, on a scale of one to 10, he is a 32,765. No other coach in the country appears as visually engaged and as passionate about the game of basketball than the Pittsburgh native.

“I mean I wouldn’t say scared but his intensity, sometimes you are just taken back, and you’re like, ‘wow, this guy wants to win just as badly as we do,’” McConnell said. “You respect it at the same time; it is pretty awesome to see—just his passion for the game, the way he prepares us for games, his intensity and will to win is second to none.”

McConnell spoke with high regard for Miller, going to such lengths as to make sure his former coach was one of the first to receive an invite to his upcoming wedding in September. He isn’t the only former player to have that feeling about their former coach. Former Wildcat and current Brooklyn Nets forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson has the same outlook on Miller.

Hollis-Jefferson mentioned he still speaks to Miller and assistant coach Book Richardson on a regular basis. He credits them to getting him where he is today, and he envisions a future Final Four for Arizona. Hollis-Jefferson had a different perspective from McConnell when it came to intensity and the way Miller approached players in situations, but said he was effective nonetheless.

“I mean, if it’s intense I wouldn’t consider it a conversation,” Hollis-Jefferson said while chuckling. “I remember one time I probably had a stupid foul or forgot to help on defense and he went off during a timeout. You build that kind of trust and that kind of responsibility with a person, so he wouldn’t come at us a certain way all the time. He definitely held everyone to the same standard.”

Miller said during an interview in Salt Lake City that every player is different and you have to learn just as much about the player as the situation itself. Sometimes tough love, just as much as encouragement, is needed, but it is about knowing the players and what makes them tick. The great coaches get the most out of their players by doing so. Miller has done just that without the backing of a Final Four to prove his worth, he doesn’t need to, the numbers speak for themselves.

Arizona is going to their fifth Sweet Sixteen in Miller’s eight seasons. He has amassed 30 wins and led the team to a Pac-12 regular season championship four of his eight seasons, two of them culminating in a Pac-12 Tournament Championship. He also has a higher overall winning percentage than legendary coach Lute Olson during his time at Arizona.

Miller and his approach are what have the Wildcats on the doorstep of ultimate success, a trip to Glendale and a spot in a national semi-final. It would be unchartered territory for him, but rest assured Miller has prepared for the moment his entire life.

Follow Saul Bookman on Twitter.

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