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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


Column: Was this season Sean Miller’s best coaching job at Arizona?

Jesus Barrera
Arizona basketball coach Sean Miller shouts at his team during the first round of the NCAA Tournament in Providence, Rhode Island on Thursday, March 17. Miller led Arizona to a 25-9 record this season.

Ten minutes into Arizona’s game against Wichita State, Sean Miller was sweating so profusely that he looked like he received a pre-game Powerade bath.

Miller’s Wildcats were down to the Shockers. He was coaching as hard as possible; being active on the sideline, yelling, clapping, directing and doing anything to guide his team back on track against a Wichita State team that was derailing Arizona in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

It was emblematic of the work Miller has put in this season, and though Arizona received an early exit from the tournament, this season could arguably be one of Miller’s best as a head coach.

Since his arrival on campus over six years ago, Miller rebuilt an Arizona program that was spoiled with rich history, but had suffered through some rough years. He gave the team a defensive-minded culture and identity, which he used to lead them to three Elite Eight appearances.

But take a look at the challenges Miller and his team have overcome this year. A lot of misfortune has fallen on Arizona.

To start, look at the turnover this team has had compared to last season.

Four of the five starters from last year’s Elite Eight team left for the NBA Draft. That was a team who, aside from Stanley Johnson, had all played with each other for two or three years. All of a sudden, Miller had to replace these guys with new faces.

But even for the new guys, the road wasn’t smooth.

“You have to understand the combination of so many different things that hit us this year,” Miller said after the loss to Wichita State. “From Ray Smith, who never was able to play. [Smith] could have been maybe our most talented freshman [and we] lost him for the year with an ACL. We lost Allonzo [Trier] for about seven games in the Pac-12 [Conference].”

Arizona had seven new players suit up this season—including walk-on Paolo Cruz—and eight if you include Smith. Already, two-thirds of Miller’s team was brand new.

Ryan Anderson and Kadeem Allen sat the bench last season, but there is still a learning curve.

He had two of his brightest young stars suffer injuries during critical points.

Trier’s injury occurred right in the middle of conference play and Smith never saw the court. These are the kids he has to mold for Arizona’s future, but that’s difficult when they are knocked out of the game for extended periods of time.

The injury bug extended to the veterans as well. Kaleb Tarczewski injured his foot in Los Angeles when the Wildcats faced Santa Clara early in the season.

“You have to remember, Kaleb barely played in the non-conference season,” Miller said.

And injuries weren’t the only thing affecting the Wildcats this season.

“We lost Elliott Pitts, who’s really a big defender for us; could’ve helped us,” Miller said.

Pitts sat out for 18 games with an undisclosed personal issue, before it was officially announced by Miller that he decided to walk away from the team.

“We had a lot of different things hit us, but I think the resiliency and character of our senior group carried us to this point,” Miller said. “As much as I would like to say, ‘Hey, I wish we could’ve won 30,’ we might have ended up right where we should have been.”

Also read: Sean Miller, his ride to college basketball elite and the roller coaster that is the Arizona sideline

What Miller did with this year’s team is impressive. It can’t be overlooked that Arizona ranked in the top-20 nationally in scoring, won 12 games in a deep conference while also earning an upset victory on the road at Gonzaga.

The Wildcats never dropped out of the AP Top-25 poll.

While usually a defense-first team, Miller did his best to adjust with what he had.

Kudos to Miller for the work he did with this team. They didn’t end with the result they wanted, but it cannot be ignored that Miller coached harder and compiled a good season with a team that was essentially brand new.

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