Arizona Athletics hosted its Road Tour stop at Culinary Dropout/The Yard in Tempe.
Asked about the end of last season, Sean Miller instead started with the beginning, detailing everything in which Arizona basketball accomplished. Another strong showing at McKale Center, another Pac-12 regular-season title (this one shared with Oregon), a three-day run in Vegas that ended with a conference tournament title.
By all measures, it was another banner season in Tucson – with the exception of how it ended. Picked as a favorite to make the Final Four in Glendale, Arizona instead collapsed in the Sweet 16 to 11th-seeded Xavier, denying Miller another chance to reach the national semifinals.
“In the NCAA Tournament, it’s not a given to get to the second weekend,” Miller said at Wednesday’s Arizona Road Tour stop at Culinary Dropout/The Yard in Tempe. “Villanova – who I have as much respect for as any program – if you look at how well they’ve played over the last five or six seasons, they got to the second weekend once. It just so happened that when they did they went all the way.”
So the big picture here is important. And so is perspective.
“Everybody wants to win every game at Arizona, and I get that,’’ Miller said. “They want us badly to get to the Final Four, and I get that, and they should be disappointed. For me, if you’re a coach or player that is uncomfortable with that, then you need to leave and go somewhere else where it’s easier. … If you keep knocking on the door, eventually you break through.”
Miller is 220-66 in eight seasons at Arizona. He has been to three Elite Eights during that stretch. Entering last season, he shared the title of “Best Coach Never to Make the Final Four” with Gonzaga’s Mark Few. After the Zags broke through in April, it’s a title Miller now holds alone. In a recent interview with SI.com’s Seth Davis, Miller said that Few called him from Phoenix and said that even though he had made the Final Four, nothing felt different.
“I bet he hung up and said, ‘Poor bastard. He has no idea how good I feel right now,’” Miller joked to Davis.
Miller told Davis something else that was interesting.
He said he was considering dialing back his intensity in big moments, that maybe the environment is simply enough. Understand that with Miller, intensity is a muscle. It’s part of who he is. Part of what got the Wildcats – who withstood adversity all season – to the top of the Pac-12.
Asked Wednesday about dialing it down, Miller said first and foremost he has to be himself.
“The minute you try to be somebody you’re not, it’s a disaster,” he said. “That’s who I am. But I think as long as the season is and you have those big, big moments in a high-pressure environment, single elimination, and at times, you have to be aware because sometimes the game itself and the moment itself is intense enough. And at that time, your players just need a partner.”
Arizona basketball coach Sean Miller discusses the expectations on his team.
It’s not always what it seems, Miller added. Sometimes fans or media might think his intensity always is directed at his players. Not so.
“That’s the furthest thing from the truth,” he said. “We’re really all into this together. But I think you look at all of those things when a season ends. About what you can do better.”
Athletic Director Dave Heeke – hired in February – understands the Final Four expectations. Like Miller, he embraces them.
“We’re not afraid of that,’’ Heeke said. “We want to be on that national stage. With that, it’s a very difficult road and we have to recognize that fact and know that getting into that mix is a big deal. I don’t think we should ever for a minute, though, take away from what an incredible run (last season) was.”
The good news: Expectations shouldn’t be as high next season.
“Point well taken,” he said, noting the sarcasm.
Actually, the Wildcats already have been pegged as national-title contenders. Although they lose Kadeem Allen, Lauri Markkanen and Kobi Simmons, guard Allonzo Trier returns. He’ll be an All-American candidate. In addition, Miller has lassoed another top recruiting class, led by 7-foot center DeAndre Ayton, considered one of the nation’s top players.
Miller made it clear: Next season’s team shouldn’t shoulder the Final Four pressure. The returners will learn from last year’s experience. The newcomers will learn as they go.
“You can’t get to the finish line before you get to the starter’s mark,” Miller said. “It’s a process. You’ve heard it time and time again in sports. … Everybody wants to fast forward to March. That’s a long, long way from now. Thank God, by the way.”