NCAA Tournament 2017: Those writing off Arizona's Miller ignore other coaches' histories

The final buzzer hadn't stopped ringing through the air in San Jose when some clever college basketball fan stole into the Wikipedia page of Arizona coach Sean Miller and updated his career record to reflect his team’s performance in the 2017 NCAA Tournament.

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It was kind of funny.

Too predictable, though.

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This is what they do with so many of the great coaches if the road to the Final Four is longer than preferred.

Jim Calhoun was assailed through much of the '90s for his inability to get Connecticut to the Final Four, even though their history included a single Elite Eight before he arrived. After Calhoun at last made it in 1999, he won that one and then two more titles before he retired.

Gary Williams coached in six Sweet 16s and 10 NCAA Tournaments — and was ragged on for it mercilessly — before at last reaching a Final Four in his 23rd year as a coach and then winning the championship a year later.

If you remember Kansas’ 2008 Midwest Region final victory over Steph Curry and Davidson, four previous trips to the Elite Eight and a couple of KU first-round defeats to double-digit seeds led to Bill Self breathing a sigh of relief when Jason Richards’ attempt at a buzzer-beating jumper rolled away from the rim. There was no joy; but there was no more pressure, either. Finally over that hump, Self led KU to the title that year.

STATS: Xavier-Arizona Game Center


It is this way, though, even for coaches who’ve reached the Final Four if the national championship is elusive. It took Dean Smith six trips spread over 20 years before his North Carolina Tar Heels at last claimed a title. Roy Williams never got there at Kansas, despite four Final Fours, and at last won at North Carolina in his 17th season. I remember talking to Mike Krzyzewski’s wife in the hallway of the RCA Dome and her telling me she’d been introducing herself as “Mickie ‘I’ve Never Won The Big One’ Krzyzewski.” That was after her husband finally had, in his fifth Final Four.

What occurred Thursday night in San Jose will not go down as Miller’s finest 40 minutes as head coach, which is interesting because so many had viewed this season as the best coaching job of his career. He’d been without his top returning scorer for 19 games because of an NCAA suspension but fashioned a team with three freshman starters into a 17-2 start. Even as the return of Allonzo Trier forced a readjustment of the rotation, and as that adjustment led to some unsettled moments, the Wildcatslost only twice more in the final 14 games of the season and shared the Pacific-12 regular season title and won the league tournament by defeating UCLA and Oregonon successive nights.

Against Xavier, Arizona struggled terribly to defend the Musketeers’ beautifully designed man-to-man offense; Xavier shot 52.5 percent from the field. The Wildcats yielded only 6 of 16 from 3-point range, but two of those came after Arizona had built an eight-point lead with 3:45 left. In a 71-all tie inside the final minute, the Wildcats ignored Trier and All-American Lauri Markkanen and ran a post-up play for Dusan Ristic, who had made 7 of 9 from the field but was poorly positioned on the catch and wound up air-balling his attempt.

Arizona never found an acceptable answer for Xavier’s zone defense. The Wildcats mostly shot 3-pointers over it and connected on just 7 of 27.

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Miller acknowledged he was “disappointed” in his performance.

“You know, our team never really ever established great confidence against the zone,” he said. “And I think in some ways that was the reason, defensively, that we weren’t as good as we usually are … because the game never really felt good. And that’s on me.

“Your job when you get to this area, when you get to this level of college basketball, your best players have got to be confident. We have to get them shots. I don’t care what defense they’re playing — 1-3-1, 2-3, man-to-man — and I don’t feel we did that tonight. And that’s probably the worst feeling you can have as a coach.”

There are, no doubt, fans and commentators who would be only too pleased to try imposing a worse feeling upon Miller following this defeat. He’s the one, though, who has to work another 358 days to take his next shot at that elusive breakthrough.


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