Miller in rebuilding mode at Arizona

BY foxsports • September 17, 2010

Sean Miller didn't come to Arizona for immediate gratification. He could have had that at Xavier, a program he had built into an NCAA tournament fixture.

Arizona represented more of a long-term enterprise, a chance to rebuild a once-proud tradition that had gone a little haywire the past couple of years. If success came right away, great, but it wasn't going to be the sole consideration.

''When you worry about instant success, that was an easy choice for me; we had a team built for a Final Four and they almost did it without me,'' Miller said. ''Coming to Arizona, it's not about six months, nine months or a streak. It's about where can we be several seasons from now, can we return this great program to that championship level that everyone here has grown to be accustomed to.''

After a 12-year, five-school run as an assistant coach, Miller had proven himself as a program-builder at Xavier, taking the Musketeers to the NCAA tournament his final four years in Cincinnati, including the round of 16 the last two.

His task in Tucson was more program-repairing than building.

Arizona, once one of college basketball's elite programs, had tumbled from prominence, competitively and perceptually.

Revered coach Lute Olson's leave of absence and eventual retirement left the program scattered and a series of NCAA violations left it handcuffed with sanctions.

Miller was hired as head coach in April 2009 and tried to make something of the murky mess, but it was always going to be an uphill struggle.

Arizona labored through a losing nonconference schedule that included the worst defeat in McKale Center history against Brigham Young and, despite an impressive run midway through the Pac-10, ended its streak of NCAA tournaments at 25, two short of the all-time record.

Miller will go down as the coach who was at the helm of the streak-busting team, but it's tough to place the blame squarely on him. The Wildcats lost Jordan Hill and Chase Budinger to the NBA, had just two upperclassmen and, worse yet, a bare recruiting cupboard.

''When you get to a new place, especially with what we had at Arizona with consecutive interim coaches and the odd transition, one of the things that gets lost in the shuffle is there wasn't a lot of recruiting being done for a couple-year period of time,'' Miller said.

''I don't care what program you are, the great tradition you have, when that's missing, whoever comes in is starting from scratch on a number of fronts.''

Miller did his best to pick up the recruiting scraps in his first jump-into-the-fire offseason, pulling together a solid class that should help the Wildcats this season.

This summer, Miller went grass roots, racking up frequent-flier miles while hitting more AAU tournaments than just about anybody, including many that other coaches wouldn't think about attending.

Miller's diligence has already proved fruitful with commitments from shooting guard Nick Johnson of Gilbert and New York forward Sidiki Johnson, both considered top-10 recruits at their positions, and several other big-name recruits still on the hook.

''More than anything, people need to know who the head coach is,'' Miller said. ''Everybody here knew who the head coach was for so many years and they have to get a chance to know who I am.''

They certainly knew Olson, the Hall of Fame coach who led the Wildcats to a national title in 1997 and four Final Four trips during his 25-year run in the desert.

The tradition he had built started to unravel in 2007, when the school announced 10 minutes before the opener that the coach would be taking an indefinite leave of absence and Kevin O'Neill would be the interim coach.

Another strange twist came before the next season, when Olson was set to return to the bench. After seeming upbeat during the team's preseason media day, the coach announced his retirement two days later, which was later attributed to a stroke he had suffered earlier in the year. That left the Wildcats with another interim coach, Russ Pennell, after O'Neill and Olson had a falling out.

The two jobholders did their best to hold the program together, getting the Wildcats to the NCAA tournament both years, but the downward spiral had begun.

Adding to the on-court struggles, Arizona was hit with NCAA sanctions for violations centered around an AAU tournament, including 19 vacated wins from the 2007-08 season, the loss of two scholarships and cutbacks in recruiting visits.

Now, it's Miller's turn to clean it all up, get Arizona back to its place among college basketball's elite with a step-by-step foundation-rebuilding plan.

''One of the reasons is Arizona has had so much success is they had great depth, great talent, they had diversity in players and that's what we're trying to do,'' he said. ''You just can't do it all in 12 months.''

If it works out, the gratification will come later.

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