Arizona keeps focus on the court through tumultuous season
BOISE, Idaho (AP) The strain of a tumultuous season could have caused Arizona’s players to cave under the pressure, coach Sean Miller to give up and walk away.
Instead, it hardened the Wildcats‘ resolve.
Off-the-court issues. Injuries. Suspensions. When the ball went up in the air, none of that mattered. Banding together and winning became everything.
”Sometimes when adversity strikes it can really rally a group of people, can bring out a closeness that maybe you otherwise would not have felt,” Miller said. ”And I believe that about our team.”
Arizona has been painfully close to the Final Four during nine seasons under Miller: A two-point Elite Eight loss in 2011; an overtime Elite Eight loss in 2014; a second straight Elite Eight loss to Wisconsin the following season; two trips to the Sweet 16, including a year ago.
This was supposed to be Miller’s best shot at finally breaking that Final Four barrier, the lone missing stanza on his resume.
Guards Allonzo Trier and Rawle Alkins opted to stay in Tucson after exploring the NBA. Serbian 7-footer Dusan Ristic was back for a chance to become the program’s all-time wins leader (he got it). Efficient point guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright returned for his senior season.
Add in the latest stellar recruiting class by Miller, highlighted by dominant big man Deandre Ayton, and the Wildcats sure looked like a team poised for a Final Four run.
It almost derailed before it began.
In September, Wildcats assistant coach Emanuel Richardson was arrested among nine others as part of a federal probe into shady recruiting practices. Richardson’s arrest cast a pall over the program and put Miller’s long-term future in the desert in doubt.
The hits kept coming.
Alkins, Arizona’s emotional and energy-boosting leader, sat out the first nine games with a foot injury. A 0-for-3 trip to the Bahamas knocked the Wildcats from No. 2 in the AP Top 25 all the way out of the poll – a first since Louisville in 1986-87.
Late in the season, Trier, a veteran leader and go-to scorer, tested positive for the same banned substance that cost him 19 games last season. He missed two games before being reinstated.
Miller’s immediate future at Arizona came into doubt the penultimate weekend of the regular season, when an ESPN report alleged that he was heard on an FBI wiretap discussing a $100,000 payment to get Ayton to attend the school. Miller sat out one game and three practices, his career in Tucson appearing to be over.
In a monumental shift, Miller made a statement strongly denying the report and the university president announced later that day he would remain as coach.
The tumult and the claims against their coach fueled an us-against-the-world mentality. The 12th-ranked Wildcats closed out the regular season and won three games at the Pac-12 Tournament, blowing out Southern California to become the second team in conference history to sweep both titles in consecutive seasons.
On Thursday, they open the NCAA Tournament against Buffalo in the South Region, the first step toward reaching their goal of a Final Four and, possibly, beyond.
”(We’re) not worried about what anybody is saying or what’s going on off the basketball court, trying to put together our best basketball and see where it takes us,” Trier said. ”That’s what we care about. That’s what we’re worried about.”
But the turmoil has already had an impact. Miller’s latest recruiting class, once among the best, has dissipated as recruits have backed out of commitments, including Shaquille O’Neal’s son, Shareef.
Miller could still bounce back and pull together a solid recruiting class now that he’s held onto his job. If not, this could be the Wildcats’ best shot for that Final Four breakthrough for some time.
Arizona appears to be peaking at the right time.
The defense, once heavily lamented by Miller, has come around. The Wildcats are playing as a unit and with an effort missing early in the season, dominating teams at times.
Ayton has become an unstoppable force and Miller has taken advantage by getting the ball to him more in the post. The Bahamian big man had 32 points and 14 rebounds in the Pac-12 semifinals, following that with one of the most dominant games in championship game history, finishing with 32 points and 18 rebounds on his way to being named tournament MVP.
”I think we’re playing our best basketball as we enter this tournament,” Miller said. ”That doesn’t mean we get a chance to stick around or we’re automatically going to win because of that. But I think our team has shown a lot of resolve. And it’s been through some of those obstacles that we’ve had to overcome.”
More AP college basketball: https://collegebasketball.ap.org; https://twitter.com/AP-Top25 and https://www.podcastone.com/ap-sports-special-events