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After top-to-bottom rebuild, Miller has Arizona back among elites

by | College Basketball Insider
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TUCSON, Ariz. -- Sean Miller had just completed his introductory news conference at Arizona, and as he walked down to the locker room to meet his new team, Miller caught himself for a brief moment reflecting about the group he had just left behind at Xavier. Jordan Crawford, Tu Holloway, Mark Lyons and possibly Derrick Brown. Instead, he inherited a program in complete flux and disarray.

There sat, on the left side of the room, Jordan Hill and Nic Wise. Hill was already a part of Arizona's past, having declared for the NBA Draft. Wise had one foot out the door, in his mind headed overseas after learning Miller would be his fourth coach in four seasons in Tucson. Then Miller took a glance to the other side. There sat Jamelle Horne, Garland Judkins, Zane Johnson, D.J. Shumpert, Kyle Fogg, Brendon Lavender and Alex Jacobson -- for the most part, a bunch of guys who weren't talented enough to ride the bench back in Lute Olson's heyday.

With the sight of that daunting task, it's just a hunch that Miller had second thoughts about his decision.

"I knew it was going to be difficult," he admitted. "That it was going to take some time."

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Wise wound up coming back for his senior season, but "The Streak" ended with this group of primarily mid-major players that finished 16-15 and just as easily could have been 12-19. Olson had taken the Wildcats to 23 consecutive NCAA tournaments, and fill-ins Kevin O'Neill and Russ Pennell (with the help of Mike Dunlap) had each kept it alive over the previous two seasons while Olson battled health issues. Now The Streak was no longer hanging over Miller and the program. With all the uncertainty surrounding Olson's future, current players, commits and signees opted to explore other options (examples: Jeff Withey, Brandon Jennings, Abdul Gaddy, Mike Moser, Emmanuel Negedu). And recruits who would have chosen Arizona decided to look elsewhere.

Miller inherited a similar situation to what Tom Crean experienced at Indiana, but he received a bit of good fortune when he was the beneficiary of Tim Floyd's departure at Southern California. He picked up a trio of ex-Trojan commits: Derrick Williams, Solomon Hill and Lamont "MoMo" Jones. Led by a sensational season from Williams in Year 2 of the Miller rebuilding job, Arizona came one shot away from advancing to the Final Four. Those in Tucson proclaimed Arizona basketball back -- and after a quick glance at the 30 victories and the Elite Eight appearance, it was an easy sell. But it wasn't accurate. This was a team led by a college superstar and a bunch of role guys. Arizona was just visiting.

"We were a little early," said Arizona athletic director Greg Byrne.

"We overachieved," admitted current Wildcats senior Kevin Parrom.

Williams bolted for the NBA -- and Arizona fans had to watch the NCAA tournament as bystanders for the second time in three years under Miller. It was a disaster a year ago, as the additions of talented point guard Josiah Turner and New York big man Sidiki Johnson caused friction and instability in the locker room. Both were jettisoned and it cost the Wildcats, who finished fourth in a sub-par Pac-12 and earned a trip to the NIT.

While the Wildcats were struggling to regain their foothold atop the Pac-12, Miller and new AD Byrne were making progress off the court. Miller had worked tirelessly and made inroads on the West Coast, an area he had minimal familiarity with before taking the Arizona job. He had landed his first target after getting the job, athletic shooting guard Nick Johnson, as well as Turner -- who came in as one of the elite point guards in the nation. He also added Johnson and San Diego's Angelo Chol, a pair of Top 100 big men.

But Miller was frustrated soon after taking the job. He came from Xavier out of the A-10, where the Musketeers enjoyed charter flights and had facilities that stacked up favorably to most high-major schools. Olson was operating in the ice age in Tucson, with virtually no charter flights, no private plane time in order to be able to shuttle back and forth between practice and recruiting. The McKale Center's locker room and basketball offices were all completely outdated. Byrne, who has the ability to raise money and also hire quality coaches (see: Rich Rodriguez), immediately went to work after coming aboard. Now Miller and the Wildcats charter just about everywhere, and Miller is able recruit in Los Angeles and return in time for practice. The offices and locker room have been upgraded and there's a new weight room in the practice facility. A major renovation project for McKale, at a minimum of $80 million, is also set to begin soon.

There were rumblings that Miller wasn't altogether happy in Tucson shortly after taking the job, that his family was having a difficult adjustment. Byrne became nervous when Miller, coming off the Elite Eight appearance, met with Maryland athletic director Kevin Anderson. Just about everyone close to Miller felt as though he was history and Byrne was looking carefully at his list, the one he has prepared for just about every sport just in case. However, Miller spurned Maryland and decided to remain in Tucson.

Maryland was a dream job of sorts for Miller, an opportunity to go back east and coach in the ACC, a chance to take over another top-10 program -- one that has no shortage of talent in its own backyard. But he had made progress in his time in Tucson, both in the community and also with the notable AAU programs west of the Mississippi. He had begun to put together a stellar recruiting class that included three of the elite big men in the nation: Brandon Ashley, Grant Jerrett and Kaleb Tarczewski, along with top-50 guard Gabe York. While Turner ultimately didn't work out, his initial commitment to Miller was a sign that the new Arizona coach could be effective in West Coast recruiting circles.

The quartet of Ashley, Jerrett, Tarczewski and York arrived in Tucson this past summer, along with Xavier one-year transfer Mark Lyons, who opted to spend his final season suiting up for the coach who initially signed him instead of heading to Kentucky or Kansas.

Arizona stole one against then-No. 5 Florida on Dec. 15, trailing virtually the entire game before pulling out the win on a Lyons game-winner with 7.1 seconds remaining. It was a combination of the Gators choking the game away in the waning minutes and also the Wildcats showing enough resilience to remain within striking distance and come away with the victory. But there were still skeptics. The game was at home and Miller's squad hardly performed like an elite team.

The Wildcats got another opportunity, on Christmas Day, just after being elevated to No. 3 in the country, against No. 17 San Diego State in Honolulu in the championship game of the Diamond Head Classic. This was a neutral contest against an Aztecs team that's expected to compete with UNLV for the Mountain West crown. Again, it wasn't a work of art, but Arizona found a way to win, with Lyons knocking down a pair of free throws with 13 seconds remaining and Johnson coming away with a game-saving, last-second block of Chase Tapley.

The Wildcats have returned to the nation's elite for the first time in nearly a decade. They are one of five unbeatens left in the country, ranked in the top five of both polls for the first time since 2004 and are 12-0 for the first time since the magical Final Four run back in 1987-88 when Sean Elliott put the program on the national map. This team isn't a fluke, either. In fact, it's just scratching the surface with Lyons a dozen games into his new role, the young, freshmen big men still trying to adjust to college ball and Parrom still working his way back from a brutal season -- both on and off the court -- a year ago.

Arizona basketball is finally back.

"Sean's done a remarkable job," Olson said at halftime of the win against Florida. "He's one of the best coaches in the country, is a family man and has really worked to get the program back to where it can compete at the highest level. The talent level wasn't there recently, but now it's back."

Does that mean this Arizona team will make a trip to Atlanta, the site of the Final Four? Not necessarily. The Wildcats still lack a pass-first point guard with the ability to bring the talented freshmen along quickly. Lyons has been thrust into the role of the floor leader after spending his Xavier career playing shooting guard. But if this team were to advance to the Final Four, it would hardly be considered a shock -- as was the case a couple years ago.

"We haven't even scratched the surface yet," Johnson said. "We know the talent we have, but we have to prove it."

Miller's one of the top young coaches in the nation. Just 44, he already has more than 200 wins on his résumé, has been to the NCAA tournament five times in eight seasons and advanced to the Elite Eight twice and the Sweet 16 once. Much like other great coaches, he combines the ability to recruit at a high level, connect with his players and also thrive as an X's and O's guy. Byrne and Miller didn't know one another before Byrne's arrival from Mississippi State, but he consulted with two of his good friends in the business, Mark Turgeon and Tad Boyle, and was immediately impressed.

"Sean is the greatest example of a modern basketball coach, someone who understands every aspect of the program to be successful," Byrne said. "Recruiting, player development, academics and the public relations side."

"I don't want to work with another basketball coach for the rest of my career," he added.

Often, that's just the politically correct line for an athletic director -- especially regarding a coach he never hired. But it's clear Byrne and Miller -- two rising stars in their respective professions -- have formed a bond over the past couple years. Byrne is a football guy at his core, but he has seen what Miller has done on and off the court. He follows recruiting closely and is well aware that Miller and his staff continue to thrive in that arena, with the addition of potential McDonald's All-American Rondae Jefferson and also sitting among the final two of three, along with Washington and Kentucky, for arguably the best big man in the nation, Aaron Gordon.

A year ago, Miller had no choice but to play 6-foot-6 Jesse Perry in the middle. Fogg turned into a nice player, but he wouldn't have even cracked the rotation years ago and he wound up leading the Wildcats in scoring. Most of the starters were able to coast in practice due to the lack of quality depth. Now Miller has an assortment of options, the ability to play a mammoth frontline or also go small -- as he did with Hill at the power forward spot for key stretches against Florida and San Diego State. This team has at least three future NBA players, maybe more, and its depth is best illustrated by the fact that York can't find his way onto the court.

"If I don't play well, I'm going to lose my spot," Johnson said. "There are times you want to take off plays in practice, but then you look around and rethink that pretty quick."

Arizona is now in a position of sustainability. Lyons, Parrom and Hill will also graduate, but the entire front line should return, could add Gordon and will have a pure point guard in Duquesne transfer T.J. McConnell to run the team. Johnson will be a junior, Jefferson can make an immediate impact and York could also be ready to contribute.

Miller takes a glance around his office and he smiles when his eyes catch a photo of that starting group following the team's thrashing of Duke in the Sweet 16 just two seasons ago. There sits Perry, Williams, Hill, Jones and Fogg.

"That was one heck of a ride," Miller said.

But this one's built to last.

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