Sean Miller is in his 12th season as coach of the Arizona Wildcats, and 17th season overall as a college head coach.
In all he has won 294 games, been to the NCAA Tournament 11 times, won numerous conference titles and conference tournaments and had teams finish ranked in the AP top 25 more often than not.
Yet, with all that he has accomplished there are people who still wonder if he’s a quality coach.
We’re all about to find out.
The news that Arizona was self-imposing a one-year postseason ban due to the various issues that have plagued the program was a surprise. The Cats were 7-1 and coming off a resounding home win over Colorado. And though expectations were muted heading into the season, optimism had undoubtedly been rising.
How good was the team? Better than many thought.
How far could they go in the postseason? No one knew, but the conversation had certainly turned from wondering if they’d even make it at all.
By way of the ban that discussion is now moot, as Arizona will not play in both the Pac-12 Tournament nor the NCAA Tournament. There will be no success in Las Vegas and the team’s NCAA Tournament victory drought will stretch to at least five years.
The only championship the team has to play for is the one that comes with winning the Pac-12, and for a team that pretty much always plays with bigger prizes in mind that will have to be enough.
Which brings us back to Miller.
This season was, for all intents and purposes, about laying a foundation. The coach has been under fire recently, and unlike most seasons, few saw this one as a “Final Four or Bust” kind of campaign.
In reality, the goal for this season was always to show that the program is back on track. The roster was filled with intriguing players but very few were guaranteed stars. A deep tournament run was not so much expected as it was hoped for, and even then many things would have to go right for the Cats to contend.
Early on it seemed as though it may have been happening. James Akinjo was every bit the bulldog point guard the team needed him to be, Jordan Brown was a steady force down low, Jemarl Baker Jr. took a massive leap forward and the team’s freshman class has been productive even without a pair of its more highly-thought of members, Daniel Batcho and Kerr Kriisa.
They had the look of a team that needed a bit more time to grow, but if the pieces fell into place they’d be very dangerous come March.
The news that their season would end March 6 with a home game against Arizona State had to be devastating, and it was fair to wonder how the players would respond knowing that there would be no postseason no matter how well they played and how many games they won.
In a press release announcing the ban, Miller was quoted as saying he understood and supported the school’s decision, before adding, “Our team will remain united and aggressively compete to win a Pac-12 championship.”
Of those two concepts, supporting the decision and remaining united to continue competing, the former seems unlikely and the latter is uncertain.
Whether Miller really agreed with the ban or not, though, if he can guide the team to a conference title it will say everything about his abilities as a coach.
Sure, most of the players are hoping to one day move on to the NBA or some other professional league. But before that, the goal is to reach the NCAA Tournament and then make a deep run in it. That out of the picture, you had to wonder just how much the players would give and, in turn, if the team would stay together.
More talented Arizona teams have struggled without any kind of postseason ban.
In the two games since the ban, Arizona has done everything you could have hoped for. They cruised to an easy win over a bad Washington team before gutting out a double overtime victory over Washington State. Their record is now 9-1 (3-1 in the Pac-12) and the Wildcats are on the precipice of cracking the top 25.
Both players and coach admitted the ban was tough to swallow, but so far it appears neither are being deterred by it.
Brown said after the Washington win that the players still have a chip on their shoulder.
“If anything it gives us even more of a job to play hard,” he added. “We got a lot of hungry guys and we look forward to competing, just to show them what type of team we have and what kind of guys we got.”
Indeed, a strong season that ends with a Pac-12 championship would tell everyone that the Cats are in a good place. Most of the roster is projected to return, so this could be the appetizer to an incredible main course next year.
That’s the hope, anyway.
There is still plenty of basketball left to be played, and with it will come tougher opponents, including this week’s in USC and UCLA. Yes, the team could falter either due to a lack of talent or motivation. But for now, at least the sudden loss of any kind of postseason does not appear to have sent the team into any kind of spiral.
Credit the players, yes. Even without a tournament their professional dreams are attainable if they play well during the regular season.
But also credit Miller. Even before the ban it would have been impressive for him to get a team with as many new faces as this one to gel and compete in a conference they were predicted to finish in the middle of. That task was made even more difficult once Batcho got hurt and Kriisa was deemed ineligible to play until February.
Now the coach needs to do all that with a roster that has had the rug pulled out from under them. You come to Arizona to get better and hopefully turn pro, yes, but also to play on the sport’s biggest stage.
That includes the NCAA Tournament, except this year the NCAA Tournament will not include Arizona.
That may be enough to deter some teams, and it very well could this one. But if Miller can keep the team playing hard and together, perhaps culminating with a conference championship, it will once and for all prove how good a coach he really is.