Sean Saves the West

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How a former Pennsylvania prodigy has revitalized the Pac-12 and could end a long championship drought at Arizona.

When it was officially renamed the Pac-12 in 2011, the premier college basketball conference on the West Coast was in some dire straits. In their first season with 12 schools, there were no teams in the conference ranked in the final top 25 AP poll, and only two schools made the NCAA Tournament, one of which (new member Colorado) only got in because of an automatic bid by winning the Pac-12 Tournament. The conference was so bad that the regular season champion, the Washington Huskies, did not make the tournament, an unprecedented case of mediocrity. That same season, the Pac-12’s R.P.I. ranking as a conference overall was a distant 10th place. This past season, that ranking was 6th, well behind a different conference in the same region, the Mountain West. A conference that had averaged 4 to 5 NCAA Tournament teams since 1989 had only garnered two in 2010 and 2012.

These examples of conference futility signified a steep fall from grace. Once upon a time, the Pac-12 Conference went by names like the Pacific Coast Conference, the Athletic Association of Western Universities, the Pacific 8, and the Pacific 10. In an era where only one conference representative could play in the NCAA Tournament, the conference had already won three national championships before the 1960’s: Cal-Berkeley in 1959, Stanford in 1942, and Oregon in 1939. But it was in the 60’s that the conference truly found its bell cow in the late John Wooden’s UCLA Bruins, perhaps the most dominant dynasty in the history of American sports. From 1964 to 1975, UCLA, led by college legends Walt Hazzard, Gail Goodrich, Lew Alcindor, Sidney Wicks, and Bill Walton, won nine of the twelve available national championships. It was in that final year of 1975 that UCLA defeated Kentucky to win their ninth title that the Wizard of Westwood walked off into the California sunset and retired.

Even after Wooden’s exit, the Bruins remained a powerhouse for years, but did not win another national championship until 1995. It was with the decline of UCLA’s dominance that there was more room to thrive for other Pac-10 schools like Southern Cal, Oregon State, Stanford, and Washington. But one school that really took the bull by the horns in the Pac-10 from the late 1980’s onward was the University of Arizona, led by a white-haired North Dakota native named Lute Olson. While the Bruins struggled to recapture its championship ways and other teams fell in and out of the elite, it was the Wildcats who took the lead in short time. Arizona had only been in the conference for five seasons and had only won 4 games in the 1982-83 season before Olson was hired away from the University of Iowa to be the pioneer for what had previously been a nothing program. In every year of his 25-year tenure as Arizona’s head coach except for his first, Olson led the Wildcats to an NCAA Tournament appearance. By 1988, Olson had put together a team led by Sean Elliott, Steve Kerr, Kenny Lofton, Jud Buechlor, and Tom Tolbert that reached its first ever Final Four. From 1986 to 1994, Arizona won seven Pac-10 regular season titles and won three of the four Pac-10 Tournaments that had ever been played.

Although the program’s fast rise to the top of the national rankings carried the Pac-10 through its leaner days, the story of Arizona basketball is full of bitter disappointments and not living up to raised expectations. The Wildcats reached the Final Four in 1988 and 1994, but lost both times. The ’92 and ’93 seasons were particularly painful when they had five NBA players: Chris Mills, Damon Stoudamire, Brian Williams, Sean Rooks, and Ed Stokes. They were a 3 seed in ’92 and lost in the first round to East Tennessee State. They topped that shocker a year later when as a 2-seed they lost to Santa Clara and a young point guard named Steve Nash. By the time they lost to Miami (OH) in the first round in 1995, early exits became par for the course for Olson. They earned 1-seeds in 1998, 2000, and 2003, and failed to reach the Final Four each year. They went to the national title game in 2001 but lost to Duke. I think by now that any college sports fan is already familiar with what happened to Arizona in 2005 when they suffered a legendary collapse in the Elite Eight against Illinois. Every milestone that Olson hit on the way to nearly 800 wins as a head coach seemed to be tarnished after falling short so often. Fans would cynically embrace this stigma when after every tournament loss, they would say that the Wildcats got “Lute’d.”

Lute Olson and the Arizona bench celebrate the Wildcats' overtime victory over Kentucky to win the 1997 national championship.
Lute Olson and the Arizona bench celebrate the Wildcats’ overtime victory over Kentucky to win the 1997 national championship.

That is why it is one of the greatest ironies in college basketball history that in the 1996-97 season, a year in which they returned only two starters, finished 5th in the conference, and lost 4 of their last 7 games in the regular season, the dream actually came true for Olson and Arizona. After a 25-9 season, Arizona was seeded 4th in the Southeast Region, but unlike every other season that the school has been known for, the magic happened. Led by star guards Miles Simon, Mike Bibby, and Jason Terry (as well as another NBA player in Michael Dickerson), the Wildcats had to rally comebacks against South Alabama and College of Charleston just to get to the Sweet Sixteen. It was there that the Wildcats, in a stunning 85-82 upset, took down the Kansas Jayhawks, who had lost only one game in the regular season and had been ranked first in the country since December. After that huge win, the Wildcats had to fight off a talented Providence team in overtime to get to the Final Four. Unlike their other trips to the national spotlight, it was in Indianapolis that Arizona fooled the doubters and made more history. They defeated North Carolina in the semi-finals 66-58, officially ending the Hall of Fame career of Dean Smith. Then in the battle of Wildcats, Arizona defeated defending champion Kentucky in overtime 84-79, ending Rick Pitino’s reign at Lexington when he took a job with the Boston Celtics after the loss. Before and after countless seasons loaded with NBA talent that never reached the promise land, it was a then-unlikely group led by Miles Simon that won it all for Arizona. To show how close they were living on the edge that season, the Wildcats won every tournament game by 8 points or less.

That “One Shining Moment” in 1997 remains Arizona’s only national title and the last time that a school on the West Coast has raised the championship trophy. Much has been made over the years about the fact that the Big Ten Conference has not won a national title since Michigan State did it in 2000, but the Pac-12 has suffered an even longer drought at 16 years and counting. UCLA won it all in 1995 and had a strong run under Ben Howland from 2006 to 2008 thanks to talents like Jordan Farmar, Arron Afflalo, Darren Collison, Kevin Love, and Russell Westbrook, but the closest they came was a one-sided 73-57 loss to Florida in the 2006 title game. The closest a team in that region has come as of late to winning it all was Rick Majerus’ Utah Utes, who were still in the WAC when they blew a second-half lead to Kentucky in 1998. The team that wound up being the first to win it all since the UCLA dynasty ended in 1975 was not even a Pac-10 team. It was Jerry Tarkanian’s UNLV Runnin’ Rebels out of the lesser-known Big West Conference. Long story short, it has been quite a while since the conference that lived off of John Wooden’s golden touch for decades has come even remotely close to housing a national champion. In the two seasons after that epic loss to Illinois in the 2005 Elite Eight, Arizona never went further than the second round and Olson suddenly left the program in 2007, citing health concerns. After a swell of controversy over a succession plan involving Kevin O’Neill and Russ Pennell, both of whom served as interim coaches in 2008 and 2009, Olson officially retired in October of 2008. For the first time since the early 80’s, there would be an Arizona Wildcats team without its most familiar face.

It was in Pennell’s interim season in 2009, however, that indicated to Arizona fans that not all was lost just yet. Despite a 19-13 season, Arizona was one of the last teams invited into the 2009 Tournament and thanks to star players Chase Budinger and Jordan Hill, they were still able to reach the Sweet Sixteen without a stable head coaching situation. Arizona got blown out by Louisville and Pennell was not retained by Arizona A.D. Jim Livengood, creating a vacancy for what was now one of the most attractive coaching jobs in all of college basketball. There were plenty of candidates like USC’s Tim Floyd, Gonzaga’s Mark Few, and Pittsburgh’s Jamie Dixon, but history somewhat repeated itself. Just as Arizona had done in 1983 when they hired the head coach of Iowa to come to Tucson, the man whom Arizona wound up hiring for the job was a vaguely familiar name who had quietly made his name as a relentless head coach at the Xavier University way out in Ohio. His name was Sean Miller.

Sean Miller shows his amazing ball skills as a boy in a halftime performance for the McDonald's All-American Game.
Sean Miller shows his amazing ball skills as a boy in a halftime performance for the McDonald’s All-American Game.

The story of Sean Miller and his notoriety goes even farther back than the day that Lute Olson first moved to Arizona. The son of famous high school coach John Miller in Elwood City, Pennsylvania, Sean grew up just as devoted to the game of basketball as his dad was. Along with his hoops-loving brother Archie, Sean and his dad would practice countless drills in the gym. Sean would go to basketball camp and learn tricks from a famous ball handler named “Crazy” George Schauer. Miller dove right in to this craft and had become known locally for his amazing dribbling skills when he was still in second grade. He was discovered by Pennsylvania businessman and future shoe mogul Sonny Vaccaro to perform at halftime for his Dapper Dan Roundball Classic in Pittsburgh. He was such a hit that his act made the rounds in Hollywood and made a cameo appearance dribbling three basketballs at age 10 in the Julius Erving cult classic “The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh.” (Watch for him at around the 3-minute mark when an amazed man jokes, “How tall is your mother?”). The climax of his showcase occurred at age 14 when he appeared on two segments of “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” in March of 1983.

But by the time he reached his teenage years, the younger Miller was more than ready to bypass the sideshow acts and focus on playing for the older Miller at Blackhawk High School in Beaver County. He remained diligent in becoming an all-around basketball player and wound up becoming one of his dad’s best players as a point guard for the Cougars, averaging 27 points and 11 assists as a senior. A man who had close ties with the Miller family was another Pennsylvania native named John Calipari, who had played at nearby Clarion and was now an assistant coach at the University of Pittsburgh. Calipari recruited Miller, who committed to play for the Pitt Panthers in 1987 under head coach Paul Evans. While his career stats were forgotten by many, he was on the Big East All-Rookie Team as a freshman and was the starting point guard for one Pittsburgh’s best teams. It was in 1988 on that team that Miller had another brush with fame, as his pretty no-look pass off a fast break led to Jerome Lane’s backboard-shattering dunk against Providence, which remains to this day one of ESPN’s most beloved highlights.

Miller as a starting point guard for the Pitt Panthers back in the late 80's and early 90's.
Miller as a starting point guard for the Pitt Panthers back in the late 80’s and early 90’s.

After five years at Piitsburgh, three of which included NCAA Tournament appearances, and a gold medal with USA Basketball in the 1991 World University Games, Sean Miller immediately followed his father’s footsteps in his quest to become a coach, and he quickly made good connections. He began as a graduate assistant for the University of Wisconsin in 1993 under head coach Stu Jackson. Jackson recommended him to one of his former colleagues while he worked under Rick Pitino at Providence named Herb Sendek, who had just become the head coach at Miami of Ohio. Miller became an assistant to Sendek for two seasons at Miami before going back to his alma mater Pittsburgh to coach under Ralph Willard in 1995. That year, Sendek was hired as the new head coach at North Carolina State and wanted Miller to re-join him as his assistant. Miller accepted the offer and coached at N.C. State for five seasons. One of the other newly hired assistants at Miami of Ohio along with Miller back in 1994 was Thad Matta, and when Matta took over as the head coach of Xavier University, he offered Miller to return to Ohio in the distinguished position as the Associate Head Coach.

It was at Xavier that Miller truly found his footing as a coach. In his first three seasons there, Xavier averaged 26 wins. Miller not only coached arguably the most decorated player in the school’s history in David West, but he also helped Matta coach the Musketeers to an unlikely run to the Elite Eight in 2004. Not too long after the regional finals loss to Duke, Matta left Xavier to take the head coaching job at Ohio State, and there was no argument amongst Musketeer faithful who was in line to take over in Matta’s place. In a school with coaching lineage that included the likes of Pete Gillen and the late Skip Prosser, Sean Miller was the next coach that would make a name for himself at Xavier and create his own unique identity. Miller’s teams at Xavier were a very balanced and gritty team that very much resembled the man himself. Although he inherited dazzling ball skills as a young boy, he was never afraid to continue learning and toughen himself up, constantly working on his game until the balance was just right.

Miller cut his teeth as an assistant to Thad Matta at Xavier University. Miller would eventually replace Matta as the head coach.
Miller cut his teeth as an assistant to Thad Matta at Xavier University. Miller would eventually replace Matta as the head coach.

Sean Miller was a very rare type of player: A blue-collar prodigy who could wow you one moment with a neat trick, then try to out-hustle you like a gym rat the next. He had superlative talents but knew that he had to go through the daily grind in order to be at his best, even if his best wasn’t good enough. Even his appearance was a combination of pizzaz and tireless work ethic: That innocent, boyish look to go with that pale face and bags under his eyes that made you think he hadn’t been outside in months. Those blue-collar prodigy characteristics matched his approach to molding teams in a nutshell. His Xavier teams were surprisingly athletic and unafraid to play the big boys during non-conference play, but their motif was sharing the wealth and constantly keeping the team’s equilibrium in check. In his five years as a head coach at Xavier, his top scorer for any season was Brian Thornton at 15.3 points per game in 2006. In the 2008 season, the only 30-win season in the school’s history, they did not have any player average more than 12 points per game, but had six players that averaged 9.7 points or more.

By his second season as head coach in 2006, Miller’s teams won 21 games or more. The Musketeers were the class of the Atlantic 10 Conference and won Coach of the Year in 2008. But even though Xavier has unofficially shed the label of “mid-major” to the eyes of many college hoops fans, Miller’s teams always seemed to reach their peak in the NCAA Tournament, only to fall at the hands of more talented teams. Miller had to deal with postseason letdowns as a college freshman when his highly-seeded Pittsburgh team lost in the second round in 1988 to Vanderbilt after Barry Goheen made an improbable three at the buzzer to force overtime, where Pitt eventually lost. Nineteen years later, history unfortunately repeated itself for Miller, this time as a coach. In the second round of the 2007 Tournament, Xavier had a three-point lead and a free throw with seconds to go against top-ranked Ohio State. Xavier’s Justin Cage missed his second free throw and Ohio State’s Ron Lewis drilled a three-pointer to tie the game and force overtime. The big school in Ohio beat the so-called “mid major” 78-71 in a thriller. Xavier’s 2008 tournament run was a perfect example of their strengths and weaknesses, as they banded together and rallied from a six-point deficit in overtime to beat West Virginia in the Sweet Sixteen, then got throttled two days later by a UCLA team that was far more talented than them. Xavier won 27 games in 2009 and reached the Sweet Sixteen, only to lose a close one to his alma mater Pittsburgh, which had stars like DeJuan Blair, Levance Fields, and Sam Young. That loss to Pitt turned out to be Sean Miller’s final game with Xavier.

It was shortly after that loss to Pittsburgh that Miller got the call from Arizona to ultimately follow up Lute Olson’s coaching legacy. Miller originally turned the offer down, but after a lot of contemplation, on April 6, 2009, he accepted the position. A man whose most notable venture in the West Coast was as a dribbling wunderkind on “The Tonight Show” three decades ago was now making a permanent residence in the Pac-10. Just like Olson got lucky when one of his first recruits was Tucson native and future NBA All-Star Sean Elliott, Miller was able to fall into some good fortune right after taking over the job on the recruiting trail. In June of 2009, Tim Floyd (who was considered for the Arizona job before Miller was hired) was forced to resign as the head coach at Southern Cal under the mounting pressure of an NCAA investigation over improper benefits to his players and various wrongdoings. When Floyd bolted from USC, Miller quickly worked the phones and nabbed three players Floyd had desperately tried to sign: Lamont Jones, Solomon Hill, and an unranked forward from La Mirada, CA, named Derrick Williams. Miller got all three of them to commit to Arizona and give the school a highly ranked recruiting class, coming out of yet another scrum with fascinating jewels.

One of Miller's first recruits as Arizona head coach, Derrick Williams, skies in for a punctuating dunk in a 2011 tournament win over defending champion Duke.
One of Miller’s first recruits as Arizona head coach, Derrick Williams, skies in for a punctuating dunk in a 2011 tournament win over defending champion Duke.

Miller’s first season at Arizona was, like the team itself, a work in progress. Williams was clearly on the rise, but the veterans remaining on the team were not yet familiar with Miller’s all-for-one strategy and they finished 16-15, missing the tournament for the first time in 25 years. The Wildcats quickly righted that wrong, however, by winning the Pac-12 regular season title and improving by 14 wins. The balanced, defensive-minded team had six players that averaged 6 to 10 points per game, to Jones, Hill, fellow recruit Kevin Parrom, Kyle Fogg, Jesse Perry, and Jamelle Horne. But the leader of the team (and nation’s most efficient scorer statistically) was Derrick Williams, who averaged nearly 20 points and 9 rebounds while making phenomenal dunks and game-saving blocks. Miller finally had the one thing he coveted from afar when he was a head coach at Xavier: A go-to guy. And what made Williams’ story even more apropos to Miller’s ways was the fact that he was a lightly recruited unknown who blossomed into a playmaker on both sides of the court. Williams was named the Pac-10 Player of the Year and shined even brighter in the NCAA Tournament. He secured a win against Memphis in the Round of 64 with another rejection, then made a wild and-one against a strong Texas team to get to the Sweet Sixteen. He then sparked Arizona to a shocking domination of the defending champion Duke Blue Devils, including whirlwind three-pointers and YouTube-ish acrobatics. The only thing that could stop Williams on his star-making rampage was another star, as he dueled with the now-legendary Kemba Walker in a 65-63 Elite Eight loss to eventual national champion UConn. By the time we got to June of 2011, Williams was the second player picked in the NBA Draft.

After just missing the tournament again in 2012, Arizona bounced back in 2013 and the blueprint for Miller’s vision was now clearly visible from the foundation that Derrick Williams had helped establish. Solomon Hill had slowly molded himself into a jack of all trades forward as a senior while Kevin Parrom was also a leader on the team. Miller was also able to bring over a former Xavier player, Mark Lyons, to be his top guard and leading scorer while reaping from the benefits of top-ranked recruiting classes that included Nick Johnson, Brandon Ashley, Kaleb Tarczewski, and Grant Jerrett. The Wildcats did not lose their first game that season until January 10, but stumbled late in the season before gaining a 6-seed in the NCAA Tournament. It was during this season that Miller’s image got sullied by an ugly feud between himself and Pac-12 head of officials Ed Rush that culminated in the conference tournament in Las Vegas where Miller’s antics were presumably singled out by the refs under Rush’s orders. Miller’s behavior did not warrant him too much sympathy anyway, as he grew so irate with the shady calls after a loss to UCLA that he was heard calling the Pac-12 a “fucking cheating-ass conference” while going back to the locker room.  The controversy swelled as the innuendo continued to leak to the media and Ed Rush was ultimately forced to resign. Miller was reprimanded and fined $25,000 by the conference for his actions.

Despite the Ed Rush dilemma, Arizona reached the Sweet Sixteen once again, but it seemed like the postseason curses shared by Miller at Xavier and Olson at Arizona combined to give the school another stinger of a loss. Not only did Miller lose to his old friend Thad Matta and the Ohio State Buckeyes once more, but the dagger was a three-point shot with seconds to go from LaQuinton Ross. The loss to Ohio State was yet another lyric in the melancholy song of Miller and Arizona’s legacies: Close but no cigar. But as the stars aligned and the talent added onto Miller’s program going into the 2013-14 season, it seems like that cigar is within reach now more than ever. This season was expected to be a strong one for Arizona since the springtime, when super-talented high school recruits Aaron Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson committed to play there. They were joining Tarczewski (whose nickname is “Zeus”) and Ashley to create maybe the most dominant frontcourt in all of college basketball. The backcourt was nothing to sneeze at, either, as leading scorer Nick Johnson was being joined by T.J. McConnell, a star guard from Duquesne who grew up in Miller’s old stomping grounds of Pittsburgh.

Miller slaps hands with star freshman Aaron Gordon. This season's Arizona group is Miller's best team yet.
Miller slaps hands with star freshman Aaron Gordon. This season’s Arizona group is Miller’s best team yet.

The 2013-14 Arizona Wildcats is not only a perfect blend of the even-keeled balance that Miller has mastered as a head coach, but is without question his most talented team. Although they are distantly absent from the leaderboards in terms of scoring, rebounding, three-pointers, or tempo, they are a top team in offensive efficiency, and they are one of the most devastating defensive squads in the country. Aaron Gordon has not so much surpassed his much-ballyhooed hype as an NBA lottery pick as he has bypassed it, instead focusing on being a teammate and hustling to make the right play instead of worrying about his draft stock. He is no Derrick Williams in terms of explosive performances and mind-numbing stats, but for the best player on the team to be third on the team in scoring, first in rebounding, fourth in assists, and second in blocks goes to show why he is Miller’s ideal player: An unselfish superstar.

It is Gordon alongside four other projected NBA draft picks and loads of experience that Arizona has taken college basketball over in the first few months of the regular season. The Wildcats are undefeated after beating the likes of Duke, Michigan, and San Diego State, all away from home. They reached #1 in the rankings for only the sixth time in the school’s history and for the first time in over a decade. Their wins are not pretty or full of blissful highlights but bear the markings of a gritty group of kids who just so happen to be blessed with pro-level talent. It is the type of synergy that eventually creates a national champion in the month of April, and Sean Miller is the main reason behind that. Since Kevin Love and Russell Westbrook went to the NBA in 2008, we have yet to see a Pac-12 team as talented and prepared to take the national spotlight as this Arizona team seems to be. But along with Arizona’s #1 ranking also comes a resurgence throughout the Pac-12 Conference the likes of which we have not seen in five years. Arizona has already been joined in the top 25 this season by UCLA, Colorado, and Oregon, who is having their best season in years. There is almost certain to be at least four tournament bids coming out of the conference not even counting contenders like Stanford, Cal, and Arizona State.

The Pac-12 is no longer the scorched earth of college hoops that it was properly criticized for becoming in years past, but Sean Miller’s Wildcats stand tall as the conference’s best chance at getting to the Final Four and winning the trophy that John Wooden had brought home so many times before. Sean Miller and his scratch-and-claw personality have become quickly accepted in the tidy, sunny atmosphere of Tucson, AZ, and he has assembled a group so individually talented and meticulously fused together that it would be shocking to not see the Arizona Wildcats in Arlington, TX, come April. Miller may be reluctant to open up these days about his youthful skills that surpassed the ordinary, but those memories might come full circle because if he brings a national championship back to Arizona, his boyhood dream will be fully realized. And so will the long-dormant dreams of Pac-12 supremacy.

Author: Andrew Riche

Andrew Riche is a Place To Be columnist for sports and pop culture. He is a fan of Louisiana sports and currently resides in Mandeville, LA. He knows nothing about cars and has no shame in watching Dawson's Creek episodes. Send Andrew an email