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State of the Hoops Program: Arizona

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  • State of the Hoops Program: Arizona

    State of the Hoops Program: Amid NCAA uncertainty, Arizona looks to regain championship form


    By Doug Haller Aug 28, 2019

    TUCSON, Ariz. — This was unfamiliar territory for Arizona coach Sean Miller.

    For just the fourth time in his 15-year career as a head coach, Miller didn’t reach the NCAA Tournament last season. It gave him time to evaluate and reflect.

    The Wildcats limped to a 17-15 finish, losing 11 of their final 15 games and falling in the opening round of the Pac-12 tournament. Miller has no regrets. The outmanned Wildcats battled. On the court and through injuries. As he sat in his office recently, Miller said everyone on staff and in uniform did their best under difficult circumstances.

    But it’s time to move on. From a lot of things.

    “This has been an offseason of a lot of reflection and at the same time, a renewed sense of energy to come out of this period of time and never look back,” Miller said as he approaches his 11th season in the desert. “To become better than what we’ve ever become. I’m not naive enough to think that you just snap your fingers and a couple of short months after a 17-15 season and all that we’ve gone through that we’re back, that we’re fixed. But I do think that we have a great plan. And I think we’ve learned a lot about ourselves — and that can be a really powerful thing if it’s used properly moving forward.”

    A significant hurdle in this movement: the NCAA investigation that hangs over the program. Since the FBI opened an investigation into the sport two years ago, Arizona has been front and center, a poster child for college basketball malfeasance. From the start, Miller issued a strong statement, denying a flawed ESPN report that alleged he was caught on a federal wiretap discussing illegal payments to center Deandre Ayton.

    For legal reasons, the university advised Miller to decline additional comment, which led to tense news conferences last season. That hasn’t changed this summer, but during an hour-long interview, the Arizona coach sounded more motivated than concerned, like a man who knew the worst was behind him.

    “I’m not able to comment on a lot of things right now,” Miller said. “I look forward to the day that I can.”

    Perhaps the most surprising element of all this: Despite the NCAA uncertainty, Miller has recruited at a high level, which is the ultimate sign of program health. According to the 247 Sports Composite rankings, the Wildcats’ 2019 class — featuring McDonald’s All-Americans Nico Mannion and Josh Green — ranked sixth nationally. Miller also signed high-profile transfers Jemarl Baker Jr. of Kentucky and Jordan Brown of Nevada. In addition, seasoned point guard Max Hazzard of UC Irvine signed as a graduate transfer, giving Miller a top-25 roster that should compete for the Pac-12 championship.

    Asked how he has done this amid the investigation, Miller provides two reasons. One is tradition. Go outside his office in McKale Center, Miller said, and look at the team photos from Arizona’s past. Teams Lute Olson built and developed. That foundation of success remains relevant today. Miller understood this much from the time he took the job: If he didn’t recruit well, he wouldn’t last. With that motivation, he has landed eight top 10 recruiting classes in 11 years.

    “I’m going to start with that,” he said. “Bringing people to Tucson, bringing people to this conference, McKale Center, being able to sell both the history of the individual player success and also the team success. It’s not nearly as hard as everybody makes it out to be. We have a lot to sell — and that hasn’t changed at all.”

    The other reason: perception vs. reality.

    What has been reported in the news media the last two years hasn’t always reflected Arizona’s reality, Miller said. In dealing with recruits and their families, he and his staff have gone to great lengths to untangle fact from fiction. In addition, they have made other university personnel available to answer questions. Last November, Mannion’s father, Pace, told The Athletic he questioned compliance officials before his son signed with the Wildcats.

    “It’s taken a lot work, there’s no question about it,” Miller said. “I have great peace of mind, with the dialogue we’ve had with all of the families we’ve recruited. The way we’ve gone about this process is genuine, truthful and pure, and I think what they came here to get out of their (college) experience they’ll be able to get.”

    Despite the loss of sophomore guard Brandon Williams, who will miss this season while recovering from knee surgery, Arizona has balance and depth. It has NBA potential in the backcourt and a ton of size inside. From top to bottom, this might be one of Miller’s better rosters.

    “Everything’s in place to get back,” he said. “That’s the goal. That’s what we think about, and that’s how we have to think. To put one foot in front of the other and just keep going. To look forward to a future and understanding that when you go through tough times, there’s a great opportunity to grow and learn. I believe both things have happened here.”

    The big question

    In 2014, Miller had the best defensive team in the country. Guards T.J. McConnell and Nick Johnson were a nightmare for opposing backcourts. Forwards Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Aaron Gordon were athletic and versatile.

    In 2015, the Wildcats ranked third in adjusted defensive efficiency. In each of the next two seasons, they were 29th. Since then, however, Arizona has slipped. In 2018, Miller used a lineup featuring 7-footers Ayton and Dusan Ristic — strong offensively, but perhaps Miller’s worst defensive team. The Wildcats ranked 83rd that season. They were 63rd last year.

    “That’s the biggest thing that’s left our program,” Miller said. “It’s a reminder to me of how hard it is to coach defense, to hold everybody accountable.”

    Some of this might stem from simple continuity issues. Strong team defense is a program pillar, a part of Arizona’s culture, but the constant change has made it difficult to maintain. Of the 60 players Arizona has signed during Miller’s tenure, only seven have come in as freshmen and left as seniors. (They are Solomon Hill, Kevin Parrom, Jordin Mayes, Kaleb Tarczewski, Gabe York, Parker Jackson-Cartwright and Ristic.)

    This certainly isn’t unique to the Wildcats, but it might help explain their defensive decline.

    “It’s something that blows my mind,” Miller said of the turnover. “I’ve triple-checked it. I think it just goes to show how hard it is to do things consistently year in and year out.”

    The Wildcats feature eight newcomers — four freshmen and four transfers — this season but they have strong individual pieces. Senior wing Dylan Smith has grown defensively throughout his career and will be expected to lock down the opponent’s top perimeter scorer. Green, the standout freshman, possibly can guard three positions. Inside, senior Chase Jeter is among the best in the country at defensive positioning and taking charges, while junior forward Ira Lee has the foot speed to defend ball screens and the athleticism to challenge at the rim.

    It provides a starting point.

    “I believe this,” Miller said. “We’ll be judged this year on: Were we able to return toward being a much better defensive team than we’ve been over the last two years.”

    Roster analysis

    Guards: Per 247 Sports, Miller has signed 17 five-star high school prospects at Arizona. Only two have been pure point guards: Josiah Turner in 2011 and Nico Mannion.

    The 6-3 Mannion, last season’s top high school point guard, has uncommon maturity and skills. He’ll have a lot of responsibility from the start, but Miller is confident the freshman can handle it.

    Losing sophomore Brandon Williams is a blow. Miller believed a Mannion-Williams backcourt would’ve rivaled the best he’s had in Tucson, along the lines of T.J. McConnell and Nick Johnson. As a freshman, the 6-2 Williams battled knee pain but still produced 11.4 points and 3.4 assists per game.

    “My concern isn’t for our team as much as Brandon himself,” Miller said. “He’s a very young guy to go through as much as he’s gone through with his knee, and hopefully he’ll be able to make a return.”

    Arizona has insurance with graduate transfer Max Hazzard. The grandson of former UCLA star and coach Walt Hazzard, the 6-foot point guard played a key role on UC Irvine’s NCAA Tournament team last season, averaging 12.5 points and shooting 38.7 percent from the 3-point arc. On Dec. 15, Hazzard made 10 3-pointers and scored 32 points (in 21 minutes) in a win over Denver. All told, Hazzard made 93 3-pointers, more than twice as many as any Wildcat had last season.

    “One thing about Max, just working with him this summer, is you forget the advantage of experience,” Miller said. “He’s not only older and played for an excellent coach for four years, but he comes from an incredible winning program.”

    Kentucky transfer Jemarl Baker Jr. and sophomore Devonaire Doutrive round out the backcourt. The 6-4 Baker, a former four-star recruit, played in 28 games last season, averaging 2.3 points in 9.1 minutes. He’s expected to sit out this season because of NCAA transfer rules.

    The 6-5 Doutrive (3.3 points per game last season) was going to transfer but changed his mind. He’s most remembered for scoring on a put-back rebound in the final seconds to beat Oregon State in February.
    Last edited by Ryno; 08-28-2019, 11:28 PM.

  • #2
    “Working with Devonaire this summer, it’s a reminder for everybody who’s here how it feels when someone comes in as a freshman and comes back as a sophomore,” Miller said. “It’s night and day. They’re older, they’re wiser, they’re bigger and stronger.”

    Wings: Josh Green most likely will be among the country’s most impactful freshmen, but he’s spent most of the summer recovering from surgery. The 6-foot-6 wing injured his left shoulder at the Nike Hoops Summit in April and has been working his way back.

    “He’s really worked with us all summer,” Miller said. “He’s been able to lift weights. Most importantly, he’s been able to get 100 percent healthy. We didn’t rush that process, so he’s never really done anything competitively other than just skill (work).”

    At his best, Green reminds Miller of Nick Johnson, the 2014 Pac-12 Player of the Year. They’re similar athletically. They’re similar in how they move. The biggest difference is Green is four inches taller.

    “The thing that I love about Josh is he’s a two-way player,” Miller said. “His toughness. His talent. He has a 6-foot-11 wingspan. That allows him to be an equally adept defender as well as an offensive player.”

    Senior Dylan Smith, who started his career at UNC-Asheville, enters his fourth year in the program. In addition to defense, the 6-5 wing provides perimeter shooting. Last season Smith shot 40.5 percent from the arc in Pac-12 play. Perhaps his best attribute: “Dylan at 22 years old,” Miller said, “he’s been there, done that.”

    Bigs: Arizona was shorthanded in the post last season. That shouldn’t be the case this year. Led by returnees Chase Jeter and Ira Lee, Miller has five frontcourt players who can contribute in various ways.

    The 6-foot-10 Jeter, who began his career at Duke, battled back issues but still averaged 10.9 points and 6.6 rebounds last season. “He got banged up, but that was the first year he ever played college basketball,” said Miller, referring to Jeter’s limited role during his time with the Blue Devils. “We want him to be healthy, more consistent. And he’s worked really hard on his body to make it bigger, stronger and more durable. He’s in a good place.”

    The 6-7 Lee had a rough start to last season — he was suspended for the opener after a DUI arrest — but finished strong. His best effort: contributing 16 points and five rebounds in a February win over Stanford. Lee averaged 6.6 points and 4.2 rebounds.

    “Off the court, Ira went through a ton of tough times,” Miller said. “As much as you just get past it, it’s tough for a young person to deal with all that. But he’s a junior now. He’s an upperclassman. He’s got a great attitude, and from an athletic perspective, he gives you that offensive rebounder and finisher.”

    The newcomers bring versatility. Grad transfer Stone Gettings arrived around Christmas, but he didn’t play. A 6-9 stretch forward, Gettings spent three seasons at Cornell, where Miller called him a “matchup nightmare” because of his ability to stretch the court. In 2017-18, Gettings averaged 16.7 points, 6.6 rebounds and 2.9 assists, earning All-Ivy League second-team honors.

    Freshmen Christian Koloko and Zeke Nnaji provide size. The 7-foot Koloko, a three-star center from Chatsworth, Calif., has been the surprise of the group. Eight out of 10 times, Miller said, an incoming freshman isn’t as good as advertised. Not that the player won’t develop; it just requires more time. Koloko has been the opposite. He has been better than expected.

    “Love everything about him,” Miller said.

    The 6-11 Nnaji, a four-star prospect from Minnesota, was among the final players cut from this summer’s USA Basketball U19 World Cup squad. Nnaji can play power forward and center, Miller said. All he needs is for his experience to match his talent. Something that could accelerate the process: going against sophomore forward Jordan Brown in practice. A five-star high school prospect, the 6-11 Brown transferred after one season at Nevada and will sit out this season because of NCAA rules.

    “The bigs can all play together, and as you look at our guards, you could say the same thing,” Miller said. “It’s a matter of us keeping it simple.”


    • #3

      Miller expects Mannion, a pure point guard, to have an immediate impact. (Joe Camporeale/USA Today Sports)

      Spotlight on: Nico Mannion

      The freshman point guard has all the skills. He’s big, strong and athletic. But the quality that impresses Miller most: Mannion’s mindset.

      “I’ve never been more impressed with a kid’s love of the game and work ethic than I’ve been with him,” Miller said. “He works on his game around the clock. Lives in the gym. Loves it. And he’s also a great teammate. He’s willing to learn.”

      Part of this stems from Mannion’s parents. His father, Pace, a former Utah standout, played parts of six seasons in the NBA. His mother, Gaia, was a professional volleyball player in Italy. Both showed Nico what’s required to excel at basketball’s highest level, Miller said. The process began early.

      As an eighth-grader, Mannion and his highlight videos went viral. As a 15-year-old, he was profiled in Sports Illustrated. In February, Mannion led Phoenix Pinnacle High to its second straight state championship. This doesn’t mean he won’t face an adjustment in Tucson, Miller said. All freshmen do. But he might be better equipped to handle it.

      “One of the big challenges, with a guard especially, is seeing so many types of defenses in college,” Miller said. “You’re just not accustomed to seeing zones. Matchup zones. Zones that move differently. The size of the players. It’s far different from a high school 2-3 zone. I’m sure he’ll have an adjustment with that, as will all our younger players. And then there’s the speed of the game. These guys have played against great competition, but there’s nothing that simulates real college basketball until you do it.”


      During the offseason, Miller thought a lot about the type of player who makes his program successful. He came up with this: He wants players who love the game and love to compete. Yes, that sounds obvious.

      It’s not necessarily.

      “It has to be really important to them,” Miller said. “They want to be an NBA player. They want to win. Basketball is a big, big part of their DNA. That may sound simple because I’ve yet to recruit anyone who doesn’t say that. But there’s a far difference between, for example, Solomon Hill’s competitive spirit and love of the game versus maybe another player.”

      The competitive aspect shows up in various forms. For example, former guard Kyle Fogg, who played at Arizona from 2008 to ’12, is loved in Tucson. Why? Because he did what was necessary, Miller said. Come off the bench. Be a defensive stopper. Fogg was more about winning than himself.

      “Sometimes it’s just accepting a role,” Miller said.

      In addition, the coach wants to narrow Arizona’s recruiting focus. Yes, everyone wants to recruit nationally, and he and his staff will continue to do so. The Wildcats have had success, signing Kaleb Tarczewski from New Hampshire and T.J. McConnell from Pennsylvania.

      “There’s always those types of players we want to bring in, but where we’re located, we live in the West,” Miller said. “And to make sure that if you grow up in the West, you’re going to be recruited by Arizona. That’s our home base. If you take care of your backyard, and you recruit the West the right way … As a coaching staff, we have a great product to sell here, especially if you grew up in Pac-12 territory.”

      Miller would like to go more regional in recruiting. (Casey Sapio/USA Today Sports)

      Schedule analysis

      Arizona will play a closed scrimmage against Saint Mary’s, which is something the Wildcats have done in the past but not the last two seasons. Miller said it will be a good test to see where his team stands.

      The Wildcats open against Northern Arizona, where Miller’s new associate head coach, Jack Murphy, coached the previous seven seasons. They then have home games against Illinois, San Jose State, New Mexico State, South Dakota State and Long Beach State, the latter serving as a kickoff to the Wooden Legacy tournament

      In Anaheim, Calif., the Wildcats will face Pepperdine. Other teams in the Wooden event: Wake Forest, Providence, College of Charleston, Penn and Central Florida.

      Arizona closes its nonconference schedule with a tough December stretch: at Baylor, vs. Nebraska Omaha, vs. Gonzaga and against St. John’s in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame Game in San Francisco.

      “We could take some lumps,” Miller said, “but I believe, like a lot of teams, that you hope it happens and we’ll see if it does, we could really hit our stride after Christmas because of our youth and experience and also maybe our talent and depth.”

      The ceiling

      The Wildcats are expected to be slotted near the top of the Pac-12 along with Oregon, Washington and Colorado. Mannion and Green could take them higher.

      Miller’s best teams have been gritty. Even with NBA talent, those squads out-toughed, out-hustled and out-defended opponents. They simply played harder. At this point, it’s not known if these Wildcats have those qualities.

      If they do, a sixth Pac-12 regular-season title under Miller and an NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 run are within range.

      The floor

      A ruling from the NCAA could be a distraction, but there are signs that it might not come for a while. Public-records requests have not revealed a Notice of Allegations has been delivered to Miller’s program. For now, that might keep the focus on basketball.

      Even so, the Wildcats are not a bounce-back lock. As talented as the freshmen are, they often adjust to the college game on their own timetable. Sometimes it happens in their first season. For some, it doesn’t happen until later. Miller understands this. “Although there’s a tremendous amount of energy and excitement,” he said, “we still have a lot of unfamiliarity.”

      Final report

      For more than a year, college basketball insiders and analysts have started the obituary on Miller’s career at Arizona. And yet he’s still standing, even after missing the NCAA Tournament last season. An important factor: Wildcats fans have stood behind him.

      Miller has noticed.

      “They have had my back at a level that’s unprecedented,” he said. “There’s a lot of desperation in terms of wanting to redeem yourself, our program, to get back in the winner’s circle. But there’s no more motivation than to do it for them because they didn’t have to do what they’ve done. They didn’t have to stick by their coach when a lot of speculation was swirling, and yet they have.”

      (Top photo of Chase Jeter: Casey Sapio/USA Today Sports)
      Last edited by Ryno; 08-28-2019, 11:40 PM.


      • #4
        Fire Mller!
        Go STRONG to the mouth