For Sean Miller, Christmas may be the first holiday of the season.
“I don’t even remember Thanksgiving” the Arizona basketball coach said last week, “for a lot of reasons.”
He delivered that one with a slight grin, and it was obvious why. Of course he remembers Thanksgiving.
He and his Wildcats will never forget it: Then the No. 2 team in the country, Arizona coughed up an improbable 0-3 showing in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in the Bahamas.
The Thanksgiving week disaster also memorably split into thirds the UA’s nonconference season, which it finished up Thursday with a 73-58 win over UConn.
While Miller says he annually judges his seasons in four parts — nonconference play, conference play, the Pac-12 Tournament and the NCAA Tournament — this year he could subdivide nonconference play into pre-Bahamas, Bahamas and post-Bahamas.
The first built the Wildcats up in hype not seen before during the Miller era, the second was a stunning decapitation, and the third featured some successful regrowth in both mind and body.
Here’s a look back at each:
Those “too early” Top 25 predictions started the hype back in April, with the Sporting News declaring the Wildcats No. 1 even before Allonzo Trier and Rawle Alkins had decided they were coming back to college. In the late summer, there were three major preseason publications that picked UA No. 1 and, after an FBI investigation surfaced publicly, the AP Top 25 still had the Wildcats at No. 3.
Then there were three early season opponents that did nothing to humble the Wildcats.
Arizona opened with NAU, an RPI-draining opponent the Wildcats are semi-obligated to play every year or two to keep regents and fans happy. Then it was UMBC, a weak opponent who came as an add-on to the Battle 4 Atlantis, and Cal State Bakersfield, a normally strong mid-major program that has already lost seven times, including once to NAU.
Arizona won all three games by an average of 30.3 points, while showing off the sublime talents of freshman 7-footer Deandre Ayton and the dogged scoring ability of junior Allonzo Trier.
The Wildcats did so even as Rawle Alkins was sitting out with a broken foot, freshman guard Brandon Randolph was sitting out the NAU game with a concussion and as the UA levied a rash of suspensions that left it with just one full-time assistant coach on the sidelines (Lorenzo Romar) and a seven-man rotation for its first game.
The UA suspended reserve forward Keanu Pinder for the NAU game and assistant coach Mark Phelps (for NAU and UMBC) because of unspecified NCAA violations, while reserve guard Dylan Smith also sat out the NAU game because of an unspecified team violation.
But Trier, who was suspended for the first 19 games of last season after testing positive for a PED, nearly made up for it all by himself. Against NAU, he shot 10 for 13 from the field and hit 10 of 11 free throws, averaging 30.0 points over the first three games and picking up the Pac-12’s first Player of the Week award.
“I mean, the guy on the opening night of college basketball … was very efficient,” Miller said after the NAU game. “Allonzo has put in as much work on the game of basketball as any player we’ve had. He’s fought through his own adversity. I think it’s helped him. It’s allowed him to grow up. He’s more mature. He’s the best teammate he’s ever been.”
Miller also heaped praise on Ayton, not only for his unusual combination of size, skills and athleticism, but also for his personality and mental approach.
“I really like to talk about him in terms of how smart he is, how he has done things we’ve asked him to do both on and off the court, to be in a structured environment,” Miller said. “He hasn’t fought us at all. His talent speaks for itself, but what I’m so impressed with is how fun he is to be around. ... Just watching his competitive spirit it’s fun to see that with a guy that young and also that talented.”
But despite all the good vibes, Miller also saw trouble.
His Wildcats scored 204 points in their first two games and were running the country’s second-most-efficient offense, but the stats he couldn’t get away from were the 30 free-throws NAU took and the 14 of 28 3-point shots UMBC made. They indicated trouble defending dribble penetration and ball screens, among other things.
“Neither stat is good for our future,” Miller said. “We’re looking for guys to come in and blaze the quarterback. We don’t need the wide receiver who’s looking for the touchdowns right now.”
Miller was proven correct faster than he could have imagined.
Even before the Wildcats raised eyebrows all over the basketball world with three straight losses in the Battle 4 Atlantis, the first time the Wildcats had lost three in a row since 2009-10, Miller was tense.
During the pre-tournament news conference at Paradise Island, Miller fretted about the difficulty of playing three games in three days and the ever-changing presses of North Carolina State, UA’s opening-round opponent, while making it clear the Wildcats were on a business trip to paradise.
“Our guys will enjoy the scenery and Atlantis,” Miller said. “But I don’t think we’ll be going up and down water slides and things of that nature at this point. I hope not anyway.”
In their opener, the Wildcats survived N.C. State’s presses well enough to shoot 46.8 percent from the field, but they made only 2 of 17 3-pointers and, sure enough, their defense fell apart just as Miller had feared. The Wolfpack shot 49.1 percent from the field, made 40 percent of its 3-pointers and hit 80 percent of its 35 free-throws.
“We had plenty of offense, but our defense was really, really bad,” Miller said. “Until we get that corrected, we’re going to win a few and then we’re gonna lose a few.”
Actually, they were going to lose a few right then and there, in the Atlantis resort’s gigantic ballroom.
The next evening, the Wildcats held SMU to just 31.4 percent shooting, but sprang more leaks in other areas: The Mustangs beat Arizona 66-60 while scoring 19 points off 20 UA turnovers and turning 20 offensive rebounds into 14 second-chance points.
“Their second shots realty hurt us,” Miller said. “Tonight, 20 turnovers killed us.”
Knowing the Wildcats would now play a last-place game against another ranked team that was struggling at the Atlantis — Purdue — Miller noted, “We’re not out of this yet.”
Once again, he was right.
Purdue sliced the Wildcats up with precision screens to create open shots, hitting 11 of 22 3-pointers and 57.4 percent overall shooting from the field, while managing to clog up Trier’s favored paths to the basket at the other end of the ballroom floor. Trier had just eight points on 3-for-10 shooting on and turned the ball over four times.
Arizona lost by an astounding 25 points.
“I wouldn’t have predicted we would come down here and finish 0-3. That wasn’t the goal,” Miller said. “But nothing’s ever as bad as it seems and certainly we probably weren’t nearly as good as everybody thought we were before we traveled down here. So we’ll use this as a learning lesson.”
That lesson started right away. The Wildcats hosted Long Beach State five days after their loss to Purdue, and even though they won by 35 points and held the 49ers to 41.4 percent shooting, Miller ripped into them.
“Our effort was terrible,” Miller said.
Miller also said, “We’re not that talented,” lamented that his team missed hard-playing defensive whiz Kadeem Allen and said the Wildcats were a group that “just can’t bring it, can’t work, can’t really fight defensively and man, is it disappointing.”
While Miller said it was easy for players to say, “Man, coach is a madman, get off my back” after a big win, he said he was talking about what they needed for tougher competition.
Essentially, Miller appeared to be trying to re-build his team’s identity in the face of massive change, with Allen, Lauri Markkanen, Kobi Simmons and Chance Comanche all having left the UA’s rotation last season.
“Not too long ago when you had a culture, you’d turn the water on and it wasn’t gonna ever leave,” Miller said. “You might have a bad game, a bad moment. There’s always a player who can lose confidence. But the water was always on because this is who we are and what we do.
“But we lose sixty percent of our team every year. Then, when everybody comes back, it’s not like it’s already turned on. You almost have to turn your culture on every year. And that’s a hard deal.”
Center Dusan Ristic said the Wildcats were “trying to figure out what went wrong” in the weeks that followed their Bahama trip, but Miller’s message may have sunk in.
Arizona beat UNLV at Las Vegas just three days after Miller’s rant, thanks to their 1-2 punch of Trier and Ayton. The two combined for all 13 of Arizona’s overtime points and 62 percent of the Wildcats’ overall scoring in a 91-88 OT win.
Four days later in Phoenix, the Wildcats’ ability to close out was tested again, though they nearly gave Texas A&M a late chance to send it into overtime.
Ayton fouled Texas A&M’s Duane Wilson behind the 3-point line when UA was up three with two seconds left. Fortunately for Arizona, Wilson missed the first one and then, when he tried to miss the third one intentionally in order to give his team a crack at a rebound basket, made it.
That forced the Aggies to immediately foul UA’s Dylan Smith, who then hit two final free throws to seal the win for Arizona, which moved to 6-3 while Texas A&M dropped to 7-1.
“It’s always great to go through these situations at the end of the game,” Miller said. “We didn’t communicate. Parker (Jackson-Cartwright) got backscreened and we ended up fouling a 3-point shooter, which you never want to do.
“So that’s a lesson learned and I’m glad we can learn it with a win.”
Then, after Arizona received Alkins back in the lineup and beat Alabama 88-82 on Dec. 9, the Wildcats rejoined the Top 25 poll at No. 23.
UA finished its nonconference season with a convincing 89-73 road win at New Mexico, when Alkins suddenly morphed back to midseason form with 26 points on 9-for-11 shooting, while also beating North Dakota State by 30 and toppling UConn for the first time ever in six tries.
Those last three opponents all shot less than 40 percent against Arizona, which was finally showing the kind of defense Miller has been looking for.
Offensively, now with Alkins at full speed, the Wildcats also have more ways than ever to beat teams. They may yet become the team so many thought they were.
“We would have loved to be 13-0, but I do think we’re a lot better team now than when we started,” Miller said after the UConn game. “We’re playing maybe our best basketball now. We’re 10-3, and played a challenging nonconference schedule with six games away from McKale.
“We feel good about what we’ve done.”
Thanks, maybe, to that lost Thanksgiving week in paradise.
“I think Bahamas was probably a blessing in disguise,” Jackson-Cartwright said last week. “We’ve played some good teams. We fought hard in the Bahamas and came up short but since then we’ve gotten drastically better on defense.
“I think we’re really excited about what’s to come.”