Arizona's Pac-12 Tournament title gives Sean Miller a first taste of vindication
The embattled coach faced the toughest season of his career and keeps winning anyway
LAS VEGAS -- I don't know what vindication will look like for Sean Miller. But I do believe that what we saw on Saturday night was one small step in a long path that could lead the Arizona head coach there.
After Deandre Ayton sunk a jumper from the free-throw line -- his 31st and 32nd points of the evening, which combined with 18 rebounds and a couple of beautiful assists gave the soon-to-be top-three pick one more dominating game in a season full of them -- the clock ran down to zero. "U of A! U of A!" chanted the crowd at T-Mobile Arena. The Vegas Strip felt like the McKale Center.
Miller clapped his hands, gave high-fives to his assistants and then hugged senior point guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright. Jackson-Cartwright is one of two seniors on this team whose first season playing for Miller had ended in one more of Miller's long line of heartbreaking losses in the Elite Eight, that one to Wisconsin. The buzzer sounded, and the players jumped around in a circle, putting on their Pac-12 championship ball caps as the school band played "We Are The Champions."
We are reaching the culmination of the most trying season of Miller's career. It began in September, when assistant coach Book Richardson was among the four high-major coaches indicted in a federal corruption probe into college basketball. It continued in November when Arizona went to the Bahamas for the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament; the Wildcats, missing key player Rawle Alkins and playing like a sieve on defense, lost three straight. They became the first team in the history of the AP Top 25 poll to go from the No. 2 team in the nation (and getting 11 votes for first place) one week to unranked the next. Miller was frustrated with his group, seemingly unable to reach them at the level he usually reaches his players. But Arizona was able to calm right the ship and climb the polls.
Then came the ESPN report in February, which accused Miller of being caught on an FBI wiretap discussing with an agent's runner a $100,000 payment to secure Ayton's commitment. While this report's accuracy has been called into question (and while ESPN issued two corrections related to the timing of the wiretapped calls but stood by the report), Miller briefly stepped back from coaching his team, allowing assistant Lorenzo Romar to take the reins.
He returned to coaching his team with a press conference in which he claimed he would be "vindicated": "Let me be very, very clear: I have never discussed with Christian Dawkins paying Deandre Ayton to attend the University of Arizona. In fact, I never even met or spoke to Christian Dawkins until after Deandre publicly announced that he was coming to our school. Any reporting to the contrary is inaccurate, false and defamatory. I'm outraged by the media statements that have been made and the acceptance by many that these statements were true. There was no such conversation."
And here we stand: Sean Miller is Arizona's head coach, still, and he's coaching an incredibly talented team, the winners of both the Pac-12 regular season title and the Pac-12 tournament. The cloud of suspicion lingers; it's already destroyed his excellent recruiting class for next season.
Miller does believe this season's trials have made this team stronger in a basketball sense. For other NCAA tournament teams that is a very scary thing.
"When you're the head coach you represent your players, you represent the families of the players," he said after the trophy ceremony. "You want to protect them. You want them to have success. You want them to really enjoy their experience. (And) we stuck together. You hear it all the time, that adversity can bring out the best in a group, bring a group closer together. And in some ways that really is the identity of our team. We fought all year. And hopefully we can continue to fight for a couple more weeks."
On Saturday night in Las Vegas, Miller stood by himself on the court for a moment, soaking it in. His wife came up to them; they hugged, then they stood side by side as well-wishers shook their hands. Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott offered his congratulations. Players climbed the ladder and cut down the net. When the net was down to one sliver that attached it to the basket, Romar passed Miller the scissors, and he climbed the ladder. The crowd roared. He took the net, thrust it in the air, and then threw it at his players like a garter at a wedding.
Can basketball success offer Miller the sort of vindication he's looking for? Would his first Final Four vindicate him? Or a national title that will further the case that he's a future Hall of Famer?
Or is he looking for something more, a vindication that has nothing to do with basketball and everything to do with his good name?
I asked him a form of this question Saturday night.
"I'm living my life one day at a time," Miller replied. "The two factions of people that I cherish and love every day are our players and the families of our players. We're around each other. We're trying to accomplish something special. And I don't want any of these guys walking out the door feeling like we left something on the table. And then your own family, three sons, a wife, a mom and dad. They care a lot about how things are feeling. For me it's about having that type of focus and belief and really controlling the things you can control."
Vindication can be a difficult thing in 2018 America. Scarlet letters can last a long time, whether they are based in truth or not. Perhaps Miller will be vindicated through winning basketball games. Perhaps he'll be vindicated through definitive reports that he's run this Arizona program clean. Perhaps he'll be vindicated from our evolving view of amateurism, that the billion-dollar-a-year amateur sports business can't really survive "amateur" in any sense of the word.
Perhaps he won't be vindicated at all.
I don't know what vindication will look like for Miller, or if it will come at all.
But I do know this: America loves a winner. And America loves a winner with a redemption story.
So continuing to keep winning this March could mean a lot more than Sean Miller shedding his title as the best coach to never make a Final Four. It could mean a slice of that personal vindication that he's yearning for.
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