Miller has Arizona hoops back to Lute levels

SAN FRANCISCO — Kevin O’Neill was one of Lute’s chief lieutenants in the early stages of Arizona’s ascension to national prominence, so he knows what elite program-building looks like. He sees it happening again under Sean Miller, and he is not the only one.

"Absolutely," O’Neill, who now works as a college basketball TV analyst, said Thursday at Pac-12 media day.

"They are right back where they were in the best of times in their history, back-to-back 30 win seasons, Elite Eight appearances. If he (Miller) stays in Tucson, he will win multiple national championships. He is the whole package. He recruits. He coaches hard. You can tell by watching their teams that they make defense a priority."

Arizona was a near-unanimous pick by the media to finish No. 1 in the Pac-12 this season, receiving 31 of the 32 first-place votes, despite losing NBA draftees Aaron Gordon and Nick Johnson.

The Wildcats are ranked No. 2 in the preseason USA Today coaches poll, behind Kentucky and ahead of Duke and Wisconsin, the team that ended their 33-5 season with an upset 64-63 overtime victory in the West Regional final last season. Miller is 129-48 (.729) in five seasons at Arizona, a percentage that compares with that one built by Olson, who was 589-188 (.758) in 24 seasons at UA and won the 1997 national championship.

Like O’Neill, who was the interim head coach at Arizona in 2007-08 when Olson was on a medical leave of absence, other outside observers are just as bullish.

Near the level Olson established?

"I think it is already there," Arizona State coach Herb Sendek said.

More Wildcats

"Some believe they’re the No. 1 team going into the season," Washington coach Lorenzo Romar said. 

He meant in the nation. 

About the only guy not prepared to proclaim the climb complete is the guy who kick-started it, Miller, who was the fourth Wildcats coach in four seasons when the UA moved past the Olson Era in 2009-10.

"I think we are heading in that direction," Miller said Thursday.

"Time will tell, because you have to do it over a longer period of time. I think we have re-established that we can compete for the top prize and a Final Four. You may say, ‘Well, you haven’t yet.’ We’re proud of the fact that we have knocked on the door a couple of times. But sustained excellence is the real test, and I think this year, next year, the year after, that’s where we are trying to be, that same type of team year in and year out, even though different faces come in."

It is exactly for that reason — the quality of new faces that will replace the old — that Sendek believes Arizona is back, and will stay back.

"Right now, the three programs in the country that seem to be on their own unique plane with recruiting would be Kentucky, Arizona and Duke," Sendek said. "I’m trying to put in perspective the amazingly talented aggregate that Arizona is continually putting together. They’ve done an amazing job of attracting great players one after another. They’re deep and they’re talented."

Johnson and Gordon were Arizona’s leading scorers and top defenders in 2013-14, and it stands to reason they will be missed as Miller looks to defend the Pac-12 regular-season title. But not only will forward Brandon Ashley return — the Wildcats were 21-0 before he suffered a season-ending foot injury last year — but 6-foot-6, 225-pound freshman wing Stanley Johnson was ranked as one of the top 10 high school recruits last season, as Gordon was the season before.

Arizona tops Final Four picks

The recruiting turnaround began with the unexpectedly strong season of Derrick Williams, who arrived at Arizona with little fanfare but left two years later as the No. 2 selection in the 2011 NBA draft. Players noticed, and recruiting doors that had been shut the previous five years or so began to re-open.

"We have a tradition that allows us to get in some of those doors, but it takes a lot of hard work to make it happen," Miller said. "To be at the top of college basketball, it is repetitive recruiting. Year in and year out. Five to seven players every year, just because the better they are, the more they leave. 

"None of them were open when we first got here," Miller continued. "Although everybody loved the tradition and respected Arizona basketball, it wasn’t as if we had recruited Mike Bibby. I was also Arizona’s fourth coach in four years. So it was a very, very awkward time. I’m glad that period of time is over."

Former Stanford and Cal coach Mike Montgomery fought Olson’s UA teams on an almost equal footing for several years in the late 1990s and early 2000s when he was with the Cardinal.

Asked is the Arizona program has returned to that level, Montgomery said, "Well, yes," before adding a caveat.

"The measurement any more, though, is the NCAA Tournament, so it doesn’t matter whether they are better in the regular season or not better. If you don’t advance in the NCAA Tournament, get to a Final Four, then common wisdom right now is that you are not as good, when in reality you could very well be as good."

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