The No. 3 item on the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s “most-seen videos” list last Saturday, behind those of an armed man getting arrested and an illegal AirBNB operation, was this:
“Arizona coach Sean Miller was grilled at the Pac-12 Tournament.”
On that video, a fan can be heard loudly heckling Miller as a “cheater” as he walked down the handshake line following UA’s quarterfinal win over Colorado, sending some presumably consolatory words into the ears of injured standout Buffaloes guard McKinley Wright.
The video also showed Miller tersely responding to media questions about whether he might try to sue ESPN over what Miller called a “defamatory” report that he allegedly discussed paying a recruit.
“I’ve already made my statement,” Miller said twice in response.
Then, after the Wildcats beat UCLA on Friday, an otherwise easygoing small group interview with star freshman Deandre Ayton was interrupted with this exchange:
Reporter: “You’ve had a lot swirling around here…”
Reporter: “Does the stuff that’s going on bother you? Do you get mad?”
Reporter: “Reports and all that stuff.”
Ayton: “That’s foolishness. I don’t engage in foolishness. I just keep my head on my shoulders and do what I’ve gotta do.”
That line of questioning isn’t likely to stop now that Arizona is playing in the NCAA Tournament, which requires locker rooms to be open to media. It could follow the Wildcats as far as they go, maybe even getting deeper as their profile increases in every round they reach.
Asked about that possibility on Monday, Miller said simply “I can’t control that.”
Forward Rawle Alkins shrugged over the possibility.
“I don’t think anyone on our team or coaching staff is worried about that stuff off the court,” Alkins said.
But here’s something to consider, based on the way Arizona played last week in the Pac-12 Tournament: Maybe the Wildcats don’t need to worry about it.
Maybe they should even embrace it.
Because now the adversity may have finally galvanized them.
Ever since Arizona was mentioned in the Sept. 26 federal complaint about college basketball, resulting in the arrest and eventual firing of UA assistant coach Book Richardson, the Wildcats have had plenty of external motivation sources.
But they never really showed signs of galvanizing early, losing three games at the Battle 4 Atlantis in November. After a loss at Colorado on Jan. 6, Miller even complained that “I can’t get them to play hard. I really can’t. ... I have a hard time reaching our guys.”
But some Wildcats say things have since changed, including one lifelong observer of the program.
“I almost want to say when everything kind of happened recently, that was kind of the real kicker,” said reserve forward Talbott Denny, a Tucson native who grew up attending McKale Center games. “Everyone wanted to play for coach Miller so much. Even when we played at Oregon (with Miller gone), I felt we played really well together. We had so much energy and passion.”
Arizona lost in overtime at Oregon on Feb. 24 with Lorenzo Romar coaching the Wildcats in Miller’s place and guard Allonzo Trier out with a PED suspension. Then, on March 1, Trier successfully appealed his suspension and returned. So did Miller, and the Wildcats beat Stanford 75-67.
They were wobbly at times in an emotional home finale against Cal, but the Wildcats won 66-54 against the Pac-12’s worst team. Arizona beat Colorado by 16 in the Pac-12 quarterfinals, beat UCLA in overtime despite Trier’s 2-for-13 shooting performance in the semis, and then wore out USC to win by 14 points in the championship game.
Maybe that’s a trend that continues.
“You want to be playing your best at this time of year, and we feel like we’re doing that,” senior point guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright said. “As a team, we’ve been through a lot but teams get hit with adversity. You’ve just got to keep chugging along.”
- Ayton was one of four players named to the final Naismith Award ballot Tuesday, along with Kansas’ Devonte’ Graham, Duke’s Marvin Bagley and Villanova’s Jalen Brunson. The award will be announced on April 1. Ayton has already been named a first-team all-American by Sporting News and USBWA, as well as Pac-12 Player of the Year and Pac-12 Tournament MVP.
- Romar, who was named Pepperdine’s head coach on Monday, has hired former coaching rival Ken Bone as his associate head coach. Bone was the head coach at Washington State from 2009-10 to 2013-14, when Romar coached at Washington.