Regardless of whether his team makes the NCAA Tournament, Sean Miller has been an exceptional coach and mentor this season. Faced with an extreme amount of adversity, even before play got under way, the Pittsburgh native has been able to guide Arizona to a respectable record and has the team peaking at the right time.
It was clear that the 2011-2012 season was going to be a challenging one long before the Cats stepped on the McKale Center floor to play their first game, a loss to Seattle Pacific. In late September, junior forward Kevin Parrom was shot in the leg and hand while visiting his dying mother in New York. It would have been perfectly understandable if Parrom had left Arizona right then and there to be closer to his family, but behind the support of his father, Miller and his mother, he put all of his energy into rehab so he could get back to playing basketball as quick as possible.
On October 16, just six days before the Red-Blue game, Parrom’s mother passed away from cancer. While this could have been the breaking point in his life, the former South Kent (Conn.) star knew that she would have wanted him to move on and get back to focusing on basketball.
There had to have been many tearful moments between Parrom and Miller in the weeks that followed but one that everybody got to see was on November 13, less than two months after getting shot, Parrom played for the first time and scored six points. As he walked to the bench in the final minute, he was received with a giant hug from Miller.
Unfortunately Parrom had another setback when he broke his foot in a close loss to Washington, a game which Arizona really needed his presence in the second half. However, he hasn’t let the injury slow him down and hopes to be granted a medical hardship waiver by the NCAA that could give him another year of eligibility.
Parrom’s saga alone is more than what some coaches have to handle in a season. For Miller, this was only one of many dilemas.
When Josiah Turner arrived to Tucson last summer, he was likely thinking that he would play only one season at Arizona and that his high school accolades could make him an exception to some of the coaching staff’s rules. With that kind of attitude, Turner quickly found himself riding the bench early in the year and following a suspension in the Cats’ biggest non-conference game of the season, a trip to the then-12th ranked Florida Gators, rumors began to swirl that Turner might leave the program.
After some tough love from Miller, Turner has figured out how to be a better teammate as well as a more improved player. Perhaps his best performance of the season was last Thursday against USC when he scored 16 points, dished out six assists, and had no turnovers. When Turner is playing at his best, he is one of the better point guards in college basketball but his slow start will likely prevent him from being in the upcoming NBA draft. Of course, that could help both Turner and Arizona down the road.
While Miller was successful with one freshman, he was not able to change highly touted Sidiki Johnson. Only a month into the season, Johnson was indefinitely suspended and soon withdrew from Arizona. Since then, he has announced he will continue his career at Providence.
His departure along with Kyryl Natyazhko’s lack of improvement created a huge whole for Arizona in the paint that has been exploited time and time again this season. Mississippi State’s Arnette Moultrie and Florida’s Patric Young had great performances against the Cats and a sub-par UCLA team convincingly beat Arizona in their first meeting, by primarily running their offense through the Wear twins.
In the last couple weeks, the Cats still haven’t found a true presence down low but they have been able to at least slow down the opposing team’s big men. Just last Saturday, the same Bruins that wreaked havoc against Arizona in their previous meeting were not nearly as successful scoring in the paint. Miller has also stressed perimeter defense, an area in which the Cats lead the nation, holding teams to just 27.1%.
Offensively, the team has struggled all season to find a grove but behind the play of Solomon Hill and Kyle Fogg, as well as Turner, Arizona is beginning to find a little more consistency. It seems that every game gets off to a poor start but the second half is usually a different story. The Cats’ offense relies on a high percentage of three pointers so when they aren’t falling, it almost certainly spells trouble, especially since there is no Derrick Williams to feed the ball to inside. Somehow, Arizona has managed to outscore their opponents in eight of the last nine games.
Arguably Miller’s greatest strength is proven in the sentence above. He knows how to get his teams to peak at the right time and this can be traced back to his years at Xavier where the Musketeers won or split the Atlantic 10 title in each of his last three years as head coach. Right now, the Cats are playing some of their best basketball of the season. The chemistry on the court is incomparable to the non-conference season and they have learned to win close games. Scoring and post play will always be a problem when they take the court but they have found a way to play winning basketball.
At 21-9 and 12-5 in Pac-12 play, Arizona is sitting squarely on the bubble. One renowned “bracketologist” has them in the field of 68 while another has them out. The Cats will more than likely beat Arizona State in their regular season finale to earn a crucial first round bye in the conference tournament. From there, they will probably need at least one win in Los Angeles to feel comfortable on Selection Sunday but Miller will undoubtedly be looking to win the tournament and earn an automatic-bid.
Even if Arizona falls short of making the Big Dance for only the second time in the last 28 years, Miller deserves to be commended for how he has handled this year’s team. It also won’t hurt his popularity, in Tucson at least, that he is bringing in the top recruiting class in the country. The next few weeks will ultimately determine the successfulness of this season but considering all that has happened, from Parrom to insubordinate freshmen and an unpredictable team, Miller has done a truly admirable job of coaching this season.