Last week Sean Miller led the Wildcats to Hawaii where Arizona won the Maui Invitational for the first time since 2000. Five years ago, Sean Miller also led the Wildcats to Hawaii for the Maui Invitational in his third game as Arizona’s head coach. Here’s a look back at some common storylines that illustrate how things have changed (and a few that have stayed the same).
In the opening round of the 2009 Maui Invitational, Miller faced Bo Ryan and the Wisconsin Badgers in a hard fought game that went down to the final seconds. Wisconsin won 65-61 and handed Sean Miller his first loss at Arizona. Wildcat fans need no reminder that the same coach and team handed Miller and Arizona their most recent loss.
Arizona’s second game was an overtime thriller against Colorado, where Nic Wise scored 30 points, most of them coming in crunch time, to give Arizona its only win in Maui. Arizona has had it’s share of tough games against Colorado since then, capped off by the improbable comeback victory at home two seasons ago.
In 2009, Arizona finished 16-14(10-8 in conference), with 5 of those losses coming at home and missing the post-season. Of course, the following year Arizona would win 30 games, going undefeated at home, and coming within one shot of the Final Four. And Arizona accomplished all three feats again last season.
In November 2011, Arizona lost to San Diego State in Tucson in a game SDSU controlled from start to finish. That loss snapped a 22 game home winning streak for Arizona, but that was the last victory for SDSU in what has developed into an intense matchup. The next season Arizona would win the Diamondhead Classic by a point on a Nick Johnson block. Last year, Arizona won both on SDSU’s home court early in the season and then knocked them out ofthe NCAA tournament in the Sweet 16. And of course, most recently Arizona defeated SDSU for the Maui Invitational championship.
Miller headed into his first conference season with a 6-6 record, with two of those losses coming in Maui. Since then, Arizona is 45-6 in non-conference regular season games. Put another way, Arizona lost as many such games in Miller’s first season as it has since then. The last of those losses was to Gonzaga in Seattle in December 2011. This week, Arizona will get a chance to avenge that game as top ten ranked Gonzaga comes to McKale.
In Miller’s first season, Arizona was crushed by BYU in Tucson, losing by 30 in one of the worst losses in McKale history. Since that season, Arizona has gone a whopping 64-5 in home games, twice going undefeated at home.
When Miller took over at Arizona, he inherited a depleted roster thanks to the coaching turmoil. Miller brought with him a solid recruiting class, but one lacking any star power as far as recruiting hype is concerned. That recruiting class would wind up producing two NBA first round draft picks. And since then Arizona’s recruiting success has even outshined its success on the court. Miller has dominated California and secured commitments from top east coast players as well. Arizona added two more NBA draft picks to Miller’s resume last season with Aaron Gordon and Nick Johnson, for a total of 5 thus far. That number is expected to skyrocket at the end of the season, when four potential draft picks will decide their future plans.
Miller entered his first season with senior point guard Nic Wise running the team. Since then, the point guard position has been a revolving door, with a new player taking the reigns every year, and then leaving after the season. This season finally brings some stability to the position as TJ McConnell returns for his second and final season as Arizona’s point guard.
In Miller’s first season, it took a heroic Nic Wise performance on senior night to finish above .500 in the conference (10-8). Since then, Arizona has gone 53-19 in conference, claiming two conference championships and capped off by last year’s 15-3 domination of the league.
In Miller’s first season, Arizona predictably missed the NCAA tournament, marking the first time that happened since many of us can remember. Since then, Arizona has made the tournament three times, along with one NIT appearance. When Arizona makes the tournament they have done well, advancing to two Elite Eights and 1 Sweet Sixteen, with all losses coming down to the final possession.
Miller’s first season ended with a first round exit in the Pac-12 conference tournament. Since then Arizona has made the finals three times, albeit losing a close game each time.
It has been well documented that Sean Miller has turned around the Arizona program (or at least the version of it he inherited), reclaiming its position as a recruiting forceand a championship contender. Expectations have skyrocketed, as coming just short of the Final Four twice has made Arizona fans even more desperate for a deep tournament run. But Arizona’s performance, particularly out of conference, since that first trip to Maui has justified those expectations. Not many teams can claim victories over Arizona since Miller got things rolling in Tucson.
The journey is far from over, but the progress is worth reflecting upon, especially as Arizona returns to McKale as Maui Invitational champions. A far cry from the return home in 2009.