Arizona claws its way back into contention
by Eric Prisbell, USA TODAY Sports
TUCSON, Ariz. – Long before Sean Miller ventured to the desert to rebuild the once proud Arizona basketball program, he was a ball-handling prodigy who always tried to follow one of his father’s credos: Be the hardest working fourth-grader in the country.
“As he grew up, he became that guy,” says Miller’s father, John Miller, a longtime Pennsylvania high school coach. “We will sneak up on you. Don’t say anything. We will outwork you.”
Without much fanfare, Miller has successfully conducted one of the most unique rebuilding projects in the nation since 2009. He inherited an Arizona program that, despite reaching 25 consecutive NCAA tournaments, was in worse shape than many at the time realized.
Less than four years later, Miller has the Wildcats for the first time resembling the teams that were stewarded for nearly a quarter century by silver-haired Lute Olson, who made playing in the NCAA tournament a rite of spring. And when No. 8 Arizona runs onto the court to face No. 5 Florida at the McKale Center on Saturday, it will mark the first high-profile game in which all of the competing Wildcats will have been recruited Miller.
Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon, a close friend of Miller who also coached at Northern Arizona, says, “I always thought that was an interesting thing, they went to the Sweet 16 [in 2009] and needed to be rebuilt.
“Twenty-five straight years in the NCAAs? That is an incredible number. Their tradition was so good, the guy (Russ Pennell) went to the Sweet 16 and they didn’t give him the job.”
Expectations remained high when Miller arrived, but the road back to elite status was laden with potholes. In addition to winning games in an age when patience is scarce, the biggest issue was keeping Arizona’s infrastructure on par with other elite programs nationwide.
Arizona did not charter for road trips. Early in his tenure, that meant a 17-hour trip back from Pullman, Wash. And unlike some other elite programs recruiting against the Wildcats, Kansas and Kentucky among them, Miller did not have use of a private plane for recruiting.