Sean Miller kicked off his final postgame press conference of the 2020-21 season by praising his players for gutting through a grueling COVID campaign, saying he has never been prouder of a group of guys.
He lauded them for following the health and safety protocols to a tee, going the whole season with a coronavirus case. He raved about how much he loved coaching them and the progress they made throughout the year, becoming a team that “no one was licking their chops to face,” citing the road win over USC and close losses to conference-leading UCLA and Oregon.
In some ways it sounded like a somber farewell. Miller spoke in a hushed, reflective tone, like someone who knew he may have just coached his last game as a Wildcat.
If it was, it certainly won’t be his call. Miller eventually shifted his focus toward the future and explained why he’s so excited about leading the program forward.
Unlike the three previous seasons when Arizona had to replace its entire starting five, Miller is expecting a “lion’s share” of the team to return next season. Maybe all five starters. The only two players who definitely won’t be back are seniors Ira Lee and Matthew Weyand.
Miller believes that continuity will be a big advantage. “Trust me,” he said a couple weeks ago.
Miller blamed himself for Arizona not having it in recent years, alluding to his targeting of one-and-done prospects and the FBI investigation that still has the program (still) awaiting NCAA discipline.
Miller thinks this year’s team can be a bridge to a brighter, more sustainable, future. A restart, if you will. He noted that none of the current players had anything to do with the sanctions that could be coming their way.
And even though Arizona was one of the most inexperienced teams in the country, they finished with a top-20 offense and a 17-9 record. Had they been a little bit better on defense and had Jemarl Baker Jr. and Kerr Kriisa for the whole season, Miller suspects they would have won at least two more conference games and competed for a Pac-12 championship like they used to earlier in his tenure.
“11-9 in the Pac-12 and 17-9, you always want to do better, but I have the peace of mind that we battled hard in all 26 games,” he said. “The fact that we sit here with 17 wins, I can make a strong argument that it could have been a lot worse based on where we were in August.
“I think we did a lot of great things on offense with such a young group. Defensively, I wish we were better. Some of it is youth, some of it is inexperience. Some of it is some of the players that we have are more talented on offense than they are on defense. We have to fix that. We can do that through recruiting. We can do that through the weight room, maturation, experience, and then always you’re trying to reflect on what we can do better in terms of a scheme, in terms of our tactical part of things. So we’ll take a look at all that, but I think that we’ll be a much better defensive team moving forward.”
Miller went on to applaud almost every rotation player and how they’ve improved since arriving at the UA. Like James Akinjo emerging as a top scorer and distributor in the Pac-12. Like Benn Mathurin shooting above 40 percent from 3. Like Azuolas Tubelis becoming an obvious All-Freshman Team talent. Like Christian Koloko showing flashes of being a defensive anchor.
“We have some very good young players, we have some guys that are able to return that had outstanding seasons and now we just have to meet with them,” Miller said. “And then the other part of it is we have to be recruit with an effort level and an intensity that we’ve been at for a long, long time around here.”
Of course, Miller can’t do that until he receives some clarity on his contract. He is entering the final year and coaches normally don’t work on any expiring contract for recruiting reasons. How can prospects commit to a coach when his own employer won’t?
Miller expects to meet with UA athletic director Dave Heeke and president Robert C. Robbins soon. He will have to convince them that the program’s future is as promising as he thinks it is. The recent past isn’t on his side. He’s well aware of that.
“Before I ever showed up here as the new Arizona coach, and I think I was the fourth coach in four years, Arizona’s record in the Pac-10 was 17-19. In the first two years with us in the Pac-10, we went 24-12. And then we kind of rebuilt and we sustained excellence, and right now 11-9 isn’t what anyone wants to sign up for moving forward,” he said.
“I’ve just got my head down and really just trying to do the best that I can leading and really looking forward to hopefully an opportunity to get us back on top of the mountain. We were there. And when you’ve been there and you’ve been off of it, you sometimes have a real hunger to get back there. And hopefully that day will come.”