The Arizona Wildcats are halfway through their regular season, and it’s still not entirely clear who they are.
Especially if you listen to their coach.
“We’re a lifeless group a lot of times,” Sean Miller said after Arizona clobbered Long Beach State 91-56 on Nov. 29. “I don’t want people to come to the games, sit down with your popcorn, and wonder, ‘Is he trying?’ That’s not fair.”
But after Arizona beat North Dakota State 83-53 on Dec. 18 with what appeared to be a largely similar effort, Miller lavished praise up and down his roster.
“We rose to the occasion,” Miller said about defending NDSU’s efficient offense. “Guys played with really good effort. … We put together a defense and an offense. … Good things are going to happen for our team.”
Then, after UA lost 80-77 at Colorado on Saturday, Miller reverted his post-Long Beach State approach — only he inserted himself into the equation this time.
“A lot of times our offense can get us to the finish line but you have to be able to play both offense and defense,” Miller said. “With our team, man, it’s really hard to get our guys to run as fast as they can and that’s not them, that’s me. I have a hard time reaching our guys.”
So are the Wildcats’ really unable to give a consistent effort, unable to show why they were the No. 3 preseason team? Do they have no identity, other than a potential No. 1 NBA pick (Deandre Ayton) and a couple of powerful scoring wings (Allonzo Trier and Rawle Alkins)?
Or is Miller just throwing out some psychological tricks, trying to reach his team through the media?
“It might be by design. I hope it’s by design,” said Bill Cole, a former sports psychology coach at Stanford who now runs a Bay Area consulting firm for mental athletic training. “Essentially when (Miller) says ‘I can’t get through to them’ — he’s saying he doesn’t have the best technical ability to get through.
“But I kind of doubt that’s what it is. It’s probably by design. It’s sort of like being crazy as a fox.”
Cole said he isn’t overly familiar with Miller’s methods but when told about them this season, suspected that Miller’s hot-and-cold comments are likely because he doesn’t want them to get too fat and happy.
“To an outside person, he could seem nutty and crazy,” Cole said. “But there’s a rule in coaching that good coaches have methods (to get through to players) and great coaches have dozens of methods.”
Here’s a sampling of the methods Miller has used through his media sessions:
- After the Oct. 20 Red-Blue Game, Miller praised virtually everyone on his roster, especially the freshmen:
“I’d like to say maybe this freshman class has an opportunity to be maybe be our overall best freshman class that we’ve brought in. But a big reason is their attitude. They have all been willing learners, people who listen to their older teammates and it’s a lot more fun to come in to the gym and practice and do the things we do when you have a young group like them.
“I have a good feel for that group. They’ll have a lot of success.”
- After UA averaged 102 points in easy wins over NAU and UMBC to start the season, Miller put on the brakes:
“As much as I think we’re all excited about our efficiency or what we can be on offense, I’m equally concerned about our defense,” Miller said. “Our defense hasn’t been very good and it’s really not been one thing. … Our issues is really from a team perspective, effort, concentration, our guards across the board, keeping their man in front and doing what they’re supposed to do.
“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.”
- After the Wildcats bottomed out with their third loss in three games at the Battle 4 Atlantis, a shocking 89-64 loss to Purdue on Nov. 24, Miller took a measured approach:
“I wouldn’t have predicted we would come down here and finish 0-3. That wasn’t the goal. 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. Clearly, we’re going to bounce back and be a much better team.”
- When the Wildcats destroyed Long Beach State 91-56 on Nov. 29 in their first game back from the Bahamas, Miller went on a 25-minute rant about their effort:
“Disappointed just kind of watching our team where we’re at. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a group that just can’t bring it, can’t work, can’t really fight defensively and, man, is it disappointing,” he said. “We don’t play with effort. We had a hard time matching up in transition. They missed a lot of free throws, which helped our cause. You have to rotate the right way. You gotta be where you’re supposed to be. You have to pressure the ball. Can’t get beat.
“You know, it’s like driveway basketball: ‘Check, you got the ball. I’m on defense. Can’t go around me.’ Sometimes it’s just that. But our problems aren’t one dimensional. Our problems are for everyone. Protect the rim. Guy comes in. Smash the shot off the glass. Go the other way. Draw a charge. Jump up. Make ’em call a foul on you. Go straight up, jump and wall up, right? Play hard. Pick-and-roll defense. Be where you’re supposed to be. Do it every single time. Not three or four times. Do it 15 times in a row. That’s what you’re supposed to do.”
- Some 19 days later, after five subsequent wins, Arizona put up comparable numbers offensively, defensively and on the rebounding glass in an 83-53 win over North Dakota State — and Miller praised virtually everyone, especially with his reserves.
“We had positive plays out of almost every player who entered the game. Ira Lee, in the first half gave us a big boost and defended. Dylan Smith and Brandon Randolph, those guys they’re going to get more comfortable when they’re out there,” he said. “We took a big step. … We challenged the 3s they made. It wasn’t like we gave it to them.”
- Then, at Colorado last Saturday, Miller was asked a total of 14 questions — and on 12 of them pivoted back to talking about his team’s lack of effort and his inability to elicit more of it.
“I did a terrible job of having them ready. We weren’t ready. We didn’t play with any — any — emotion, any togetherness. And I didn’t know really what button to push other than maybe just don’t play the guys who weren’t playing hard,” he said.
“In the first half we were disconnected. We didn’t play with a lot of energy, that’s on me and we were playing against a team that did a great job.”
On Monday, at his weekly news conference, Miller was asked again in detail about those comments at Colorado.
He indicated they were, in fact, by design. And out of necessity.
“Certainly, I’m trying to motivate them in all aspects,” Miller said. “But the motivation has to come from within, too. Those guys individually and collectively have high goals.
“All that I’m after — I’m not playing any mind games — is to have our team the most ready and locked in we can be because that’s what we have to be to be successful.”
Miller said his Colorado comments were about shaping how the Wildcats might respond in the future as much as they were about that game, noting that they have a similar mental challenge this week. UA has a noon game Saturday (against Oregon) following Thursday’s game with Oregon State, just as the Wildcats followed a Thursday night win in Utah with a noon game at Colorado last Saturday.
Miller said keeping a team emotionally healthy is always a challenge, noting that even when things are going well there might be “one guy who’s really unhappy” because he isn’t playing a lot or is otherwise distracted.
“I think it’s a part of our every day,” Miller said.
He said it applied even with one of his best teams, the 2014-15 Wildcats. That team went 34-4, won the Pac-12 regular-season title and conference tournament, and reached the Elite Eight — but suffered three unexpected regular-season upsets: at UNLV, at ASU and against their opponent Thursday, Oregon State.
“Every season is imperfect. You have your moments,” Miller said. In 2014-15, “we had a terrific team. But we lost to three non-NCAA tournament teams that year – at UNLV, we were distracted before Christmas break. We lost late in the season to Arizona State and we lost at Oregon State.
“We were that group that when we thought it was easy, we didn’t play to the level we were capable of. It was only three losses but we finally found our stride and we ended up being, I think, right where we should have been, on the threshold of a Final Four.”
As it turned out, any one of those losses likely resulted in the Wildcats being knocked to a No. 2 seed, which in turn resulted in Wisconsin moving out West as a No. 1 seed — giving the Badgers a chance to beat UA in the Elite Eight for the second straight year.
But that’s another story. For Miller, this one is simply about getting the Wildcats to get the most out of their potential and to play consistently hard.
If he does so in a manner that seems excessively harsh at times, that’s fine with his senior point guard.
“I just think he cares,” Parker Jackson-Cartwright said. “Any coach that wants to win and wants the best for himself and his players just acts in a passionate way and that’s who he is. He’s a passionate guy.
“If he wasn’t like that, he wouldn’t care about winning and that’s not the case. He cares about winning.”
And winning, the way Miller describes it, requires mental coaching.
Sometimes, a lot of mental coaching.
“You have to deal with the psychology,” Miller said. “You wish that was just a go-to so you could just move your magnets on the board. But I think it’s a large part of any sport ... you have to (have) players believing in themselves, believing in what we do, understanding their role, having confidence, playing with effort.
“That’s as big a part of what we do as what play you run. Probably much bigger, being truthful.”