Dan Bickley and Jay Dieffenbach discuss the parity in the NCAA Tournament and Dan picks two Pac-12 teams reaching the Final Four in Glendale. Also: the latest Cardinals moves. Video: azcentral sports
A nightmare scenario is looming for Arizona State fans. They could be forced to endure the sight of rival Arizona reaching the first Final Four ever staged in Glendale. The Sun Devils would be the April fools once again, at least when it comes to college basketball.
Will you cheer against the Wildcats? Or can you recognize the collective good, that the name on the front of their jersey would bring glory to State 48? It’s a question I’ve raised numerous times over the years, and always met with a resounding dose of hatred and ill will.
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So let’s try this another way: What if Arizona head coach Sean Miller worked in the Valley? Would he be labeled as angry and vengeful? Petty and overly sweaty? Or would he be one of our biggest stars?
The same warped prism once applied to Lute Olson, who built a kingdom out of sand in Tucson, reaching the NCAA Tournament for 25 consecutive years. Yet ASU fans found him aloof and condescending, a reputation that paled badly to his national perception.
So it goes inside the cauldron of a hate-fueled college rivalry.
“Sean is as talented a coach as there is in the game today,” said Greg Byrne, former Arizona athletic director. “He’s a relentless recruiter. He’s a guy that players play hard for, and they have great respect for him. And at the same time, Sean is as genuine and as good a person as you’ll find in college basketball.”
This much is certain: Miller, 48, is the best coach to never reach a Final Four, even if he remains something of an enigma. His combative press conferences can get sideways from the opening statement. His timeout with an 11-point lead and 0.9 seconds left against UCLA in the Pac-12 Tournament was over the top, and you wonder how many other perceived slights fill his psyche.
He has also been very difficult to embrace, rebelling against his school’s marketing efforts in the Valley. In recent years, Arizona has worked diligently to expand its brand in the greater Phoenix area. The school has advertised on Valley billboards, and its football team took on Brigham Young at University of Phoenix Stadium in 2016.
Miller has made very little effort on these fronts. Unlike Arizona football coach Rich Rodriguez, it’s possible that Miller realizes that he doesn’t need to recruit Valley athletes to succeed. Or maybe he feels that his status as an impact coach in college basketball is all the promotion he needs.
To be fair, he can be neighborly and generous. He scheduled a game against Grand Canyon University, something ASU refuses to do, and spent his post-game press conference lauding their head coach (Dan Majerle) and their rabid fan base. He’s even heaped praise on ASU head coach Bobby Hurley, who is working under much different circumstances in Tempe. But Miller doesn’t care about image or likability, and to the contrary, he seems to prefer the omnipresent chip on his shoulder and the insular mentality that marks his program.
Miller has always been goal-oriented and driven, obsessed with achievement. A childhood friend says that Miller was the one practicing his left-handed dribbling while the rest of the kids were playing Wiffle ball. He had charts in his basement monitoring his improvement, from jumping rope to shooting free throws.
This year should be Miller’s crowning achievement. His Wildcats are peaking at the right time, earning the No. 2 seed in the West behind the weakest top-seed in the tournament (Gonzaga). His team is balanced and deep, and Allonzo Trier could be one of the breakout stars of March Madness. The potential prize is cutting down the nets in ASU’s backyard, on the 20th anniversary of Arizona’s improbable NCAA championship in 1997.
It’s also a pivotal time for the program’s reputation. Miller has restored the recruiting standards that existed under Olson, but Wildcats fans are delusional if they still think Arizona is a top-tier program. That won’t be the case until they reach another Final Four, which hasn’t happened in 16 years. And in Miller’s tenure, they’ve never had a better draw or the allure of something close to a home-court advantage in the Final Four, which commences on April 1.
If you’re an ASU fan, Miller and his Wildcats won’t command your support. But he’s suffered enough. He’s lost four times in the Elite Eight, where one team sobs in the locker room while the victors celebrate on the court, cutting down the nets and making travel plans for the sport’s pinnacle event. It’s the toughest defeat a college basketball coach can endure. Like him or not, Miller doesn’t deserve that kind of monkey on his back.
And in a state that doesn’t have a surplus of national acclaim, is it so wrong to cheer for the return of an elite college basketball program inside our borders, setting a standard for everyone?