After his team’s last-second victory against Washington last month, Arizona coach Sean Miller finally felt at home.
Wildcats star forward Derrick Williams had incredibly blocked a shot at the buzzer to the preserve the 87-86 win, setting off a raucous celebration at the McKale Center. As Miller walked off the court, the intensely focused second-year coach was amazed that nearly 15,000 Arizona fans actually had worn white shirts for the game’s planned whiteout.
Before the game he had wondered if even half of them would wear their beloved cardinal shirts, a staple of Wildcats basketball. Once back in the locker room with his assistants, the rarely retrospective Miller briefly reflected on the scene before leaving to address his team.
“I know why we’re here,” Arizona associate head coach Archie Miller recalled his older brother Sean saying. “This is why we’re supposed to be here. This place right here is special.”
As has been Arizona’s surprising run to the Sweet 16 in this NCAA tournament behind Miller and Williams’ late, game-winning heroics in its first two victories. The Wildcats (29-7), the Pac-10 regular-season champions, next play Thursday night against top-seeded Duke (32-4) in the semifinals of the West Region in Anaheim, Calif.
“I’m happy to be here,” the 42-year-old Miller told reporters Wednesday. “I really am.”
But Miller nearly wasn’t Arizona’s coach. When he was first offered the job by then-Wildcats athletic director Jim Livengood in April 2009, Miller then turned it down to stay at Xavier, which had given him his first collegiate head coaching job five years earlier.
Not that Miller was the only coach to do such. Before him, Livengood said he unsuccessfully pursued Tom Izzo, John Calipari and others for the job.
Not that the rejections were surprising. Although Arizona still had a national reputation and was coming off a Sweet 16 appearance, the program was in tatters. It had gone through three coaches in 28 months as the Lute Olson era ended.
But beyond the coaching turnover, the Wildcats had a much bigger problem: a lack of talent.
“There were no players per say,” Livengood said. “There were not a lot of people just waiting around to come.”
Miller, however, had talent, with much of his Xavier team returning from a Sweet 16 appearance. He’d also made the Elite Eight a year earlier. But he had at least given Arizona a chance before declining the job.
He had flown and met with Livengood in Albuquerque, N.M., and then made an odd two-hour round-trip drive with him to Santa Fe to meet with Arizona president Robert N. Shelton.
Before Miller left, Arizona offered him the job, which he wanted to think about. So he headed home to consider leaving Xavier, moving his family across the country and taking over a Wildcats program that was in worse shape than many realized.
“It’s too much,” Archie Miller recalled his brother telling him. “It’s probably not the right move.”
Archie, then an assistant at Ohio State, knew his brother’s situation at Xavier was ideal, but also had spent a year in the Pac-10 as an assistant under Arizona State coach Herb Sendek. In that lone year, Arizona left a lasting impression on him.
“For whatever it’s worth, man, that is a serious place about basketball,’” Archie recalled telling his brother. “The great players … the Pac-10 is a conference that you can win in, and Arizona’s got such a brand and a style out west.”
Archie said he thought the Arizona job was “a no-brainer” for his brother. He thought it fit his coaching style and that the timing was perfect.
“I had just experienced it in a little different light than he did,” Archie said.
Because of Miller’s standing at Xavier, Livengood understood why he wasn’t initially interested in becoming Arizona’s coach. But the two continued talking by phone the next day.
Finally around 2 a.m., after he’d again said he wouldn’t take the job a couple of hours earlier, Miller accepted, causing Livengood to scream in celebration.
“I’m sure the neighbors still remember the shouting,” Livengood said. “Luckily, he said yes.”
By doing so, Miller had inherited what Livengood described as “really a start-over project.”
“He took a leap of faith on his own,” Archie Miller said.
Surprisingly, Miller ended up signing a top-15 recruiting class of five players for his first season, which included USC defections Lamont Jones, Solomon Hill and Williams, the Pac-10’s player of the year this season.
Sophomore center Kyryl Natyazhko, another member of Miller’s first recruiting class, committed to Arizona after Miller’s hiring without even taking an official visit. He had been recruited by Miller at Xavier.
Although Arizona had a 16-15 record in Miller’s first year and missed the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1984, Natyazhko said he never doubted Miller.
“I love him as a person. I love him as a coach,” Natyazhko said after Arizona’s upset of fourth-seeded Texas on Sunday night. “He’s just special. Games like tonight are why I came here.”
But it’s also Miller’s constant focus on winning that Natyazhko loves, to the point that he’s not bothered by receiving midnight calls from Miller. They always start with Miller asking Natyazhko what he’s doing and Natyazhko telling him that he’s about to go to sleep before Miller dives in to coaching again.
“He’ll be talking about a ball screen that you guarded like two weeks ago in practice and didn’t jump that allowed the guy to split you,” Natyazhko said. “He’s just so locked in. It’s crazy. I’ve never seen anybody like him. He really dreams about basketball.”
Even Miller’s sarcastic humor is usually basketball-related. During a practice last week in preparation for Texas, Miller was putting his team through defensive concept drills when he yelled at junior guard Brendon Lavender to steal the ball.
“Then do one of your little cartwheel backflips and dunk it,” Lavender recalled Miller telling him.
Lavender laughed. He had done just that in October to win the dunk contest before Arizona’s Red-Blue Game.
“He knows he’s being funny, but at the same time he’s trying to get his point across,” Lavender said.
At 1 a.m. Wednesday, Miller still was trying to figure out how to do that best in preparation for Duke, Archie Miller said. He was up revising his team’s practice plan for that afternoon.
“What makes him Sean Miller is he’s into basketball. Period,” Livengood said. “I know that’s not a sexy story, but that’s his life.”
And Livengood insists Arizona will only get better under Miller, who he’s stayed in touch with since being hired as UNLV’s athletic director in December 2009.
“I don’t think the people of Arizona have seen anything yet,” Livengood said.
It sounds like being Arizona’s coach might be more special than Miller originally thought.