Wildcats working harder than ever to stay on top

Arizona coach Sean Miller praised transfer point guard T.J. McConnell as one of the newcomers who helped add 'humility and a work ethic' to this year's Wildcats, who are ranked No. 1 in the country.

TUCSON, Ariz. — The Arizona players got the message early this season that Sean Miller wasn’t going to be the same Sean Miller he was the year before. Sure, the 2013 season was a good one, but it was clear from the beginning that this one had the potential for so much more.

Success begets success, and finishing in the Sweet 16 wasn’t enough last year after a 27-8 finish.

"Coach told us at the beginning of the year he wasn’t going to make the same mistake twice," Arizona reserve guard Gabe York said on Monday. "Around this time is when our team started to disintegrate, I guess, and sort of part ways. This year he said he’s not going to let that happen."

No, this year everyone will be on the same page: common goals, better attitudes and eyes on the prize. So far, so good — at times very, very good.

Top-ranked Arizona has won a school-record 18 straight to begin the season and will go for No. 19 on Thursday when Colorado visits McKale Center.

While Miller acknowledges that many of his players have the talent and aspirations to play beyond college — "and rightfully so because it’s part of coming to Arizona" — those are secondary to the team theme. Those same players back up their NBA hype with a willingness to learn and an eagerness to get better.

"The daily grind isn’t as much as a grind," Miller said.

Miller admits that there were times last year when he’d have to "force it on them and beg them" to get through it. This team, on the other hand, is more focused.

Last year it was a little shaky at points where he wouldn’t hold people responsible. He was the first one to admit that, and this year he said he wouldn’t let that happen.

Arizona guard Gabe York on coach Sean Miller

"He said he was going to keep his side of the bargain," said York. "He’s someone who is always going to make you responsible for whatever you do or who you are. Last year it was a little shaky at points where he wouldn’t hold people responsible. He was the first one to admit that, and this year he said he wouldn’t let that happen."

Read into that what you want, but a year ago this week, the Wildcats were 16-1 and ranked sixth in the nation. They proceeded to lose three of their next seven. The threads on the spool got a little looser. There was a hint of players performing for numbers.

Miller said York was referring primarily to defense and playing through mistakes. There were times when he allowed players to play through a lack of concentration, execution and effort.

"It started to become the way instead of getting better at it," Miller said. "(It’s) being more aware (that) when that happens, we will correct it then and there. If that means less playing time or a change, that’s what we will do. We have to back up what we talk about — we want to be an outstanding team."

Added York: "This year practices are more intense, and he’s more intense when he’s yelling at you. Everything gets intensified."

This team appreciates it, doesn’t shy away from it. In fact, it embraces it.

"That motivates us to go even harder," said freshman forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. "It’s kind of like us letting him down — well, not letting him down, but it makes us want to go harder … it ramps up practices times 10. I ramp it up times 20."

That’s not a good sign for other teams in the Pac-12 or for tournament opponents come March.

York said that even though the practice-makes-perfect talk sounds cliche, it applies to Arizona: "We get better every day in practice, but the way everyone practices is ridiculous to see how hard we go. Not everyone gets to see behind the scenes in practice and see how hard we go. The ceiling is just going to keep going for us because of how hard we are working. We’re not focused on being 18-0 but focused on going 1-0 in the next game."

Miller said he credits the newcomers — transfer point guard T.J. McConnell, Hollis-Jefferson, freshman phenom Aaron Gordon, Matt Korcheck and others — for adding "humility and a work ethic" to the team in order to be "part of something bigger than just my own roles."

Miller said the veterans have helped with that, too, as they’ve learned from experience.

"(They) recognize that the minute you pull back in practice and you start to feel good about what you’ve done — and that was a long time ago — there is always that next game that will remind you that this is really hard."