Wildcats embody Miller’s tough-minded style

TUCSON, Ariz. — Charles Smith remembers the eyes.

Steely. Stong. Committed. Determined.

And, oh yes, focused — as former Arizona player Matt Muehlebach, now a radio analyst, puts it.

They were the eyes of Sean Miller, Smith’s former teammate at the University of Pittsburgh.

“His eyes would get catlike, big as saucers, and it looked like he was afraid or a sign of fear, but he would just play very hard and compete,” said Smith, a senior when he played alongside Miller, who was a freshman. “He played within himself, nothing fancy, just poised. He didn’t try to impress anyone with anything extra as everyone expected.”

It’s the M.O. of a winner — do what’s necessary and essential to get the job done. Much like the team Miller now coaches — seventh-ranked Arizona.

Miller & Co. will get a chance at win No. 16 on Saturday when it faces in-state rival Arizona State at Tempe.

Despite its lofty ranking and 15-1 record, Arizona is no clear-cut favorite to go home Saturday afternoon as the state’s best college team. The Wildcats lost to a much-less-talented ASU team in Tempe last season when they were playing for their NCAA tournament lives.

Here’s Arizona’s chance to settle the score.

It’s not unusual for teams or players to take on the qualities of their coach, and that’s clearly what’s occurred with this year’s Wildcats.

“I’d hope my teams would be unselfish and tough-minded,” Miller said recently. “Those are the two things that come to mind. You want your team to be unselfish and tough . . . hardened.

“You want that because that’s what it takes to be successful.”

That would describe Arizona, in its fourth season under Miller.

“The Arizona fans can see those same big, determined predator eyes walking up and down the sideline preparing his players and now making sure the Wildcats are ready,” said Smith, the former NBA player turned CEO of the Pro Basketball Alumni.

Miller coaches with the intensity and moxie he demonstrated as a four-year starter at point guard in the brutal Big East during its heyday.

“Heck, when I was a freshman, I was just trying to order a bowl of soup,” Muehlebach said. “And here he is starting as a freshman in the Big East. That’s more than precocious; it’s big time.”

Miller expects the same from his players.

Miller often talks about limiting turnovers to fewer than 14. He talks about playing together. He talks about being organized.

He talks — or at least hopes — of his team plays with poise and assurance. It’s how he played more than 25 years ago at Pittsburgh.

“You could see how he carried himself,” Muehlebach said.

It’s how he expects his team to play in big games.

Smith recalled the game against Georgetown when he approached the freshman Miller to offer some encouragement.

“He told me just two words while he looked me dead in my pupils with those eyes again: ‘I’m ready,’ ” Smith recalled. “Those eyes coupled with the words became a look of a real Panther backing into a corner getting ready to charge forward.”

Early in the game, Miller had a couple of turnovers, Smith recalled.

“Sean appeared just to be mad at himself in the huddle, (but) there was no fear and no backing down in him,” Smith said. “I think this was just the first time he faced this type of running and jumping pressure defense, so he had to make his own adjustments. And that he did.”

Smith recalled Miller slowing the game down and adjusting his speed with his prolific dribbling. Then the leader emerged.

“He would the simply accelerate and with a quick step he’d beat the defense and make the right passes,” Smith said. “As the game progressed, he progressed. There was literally no quit in Sean. He became vocal and began telling me how he could deliver me the ball in certain game situations. I now looked into the eyes of a predator. We won the game, and Sean Miller had truly arrived in the hearts of Panther fans and his teammates.”

More than two decades later, Smith still watches Miller and sees the same traits in his team — in such players as Mark Lyons, Nick Johnson, Solomon Hill and Kevin Parrom. He sees the Wildcats somehow refusing to panic, maintaining their focus and continuing to scrap to the final buzzer when their on the ropes against the likes of Florida and Colorado and Oregon.

“Sean is destined for greatness,” Smith said.

That’s to be determined. First, can Arizona win on Saturday? And can it make a deep run in March?

It might depend on whether Miller can continue to get his team playing like its life depended on it.

“The best compliment I can give him is that I think it would be really fun to play for him,” said Muehlebach, the only player in Wildcats history to go undefeated (64-0) in McKale Center and the player with the best record for a career, 121-17. “It’s because of his approach. It’s his focus and how he does it. It’s a grittiness. That’s how the game is supposed to be played.”