Rondae Hollis-Jefferson knows who’s No. 1 after the Cats beat UNLV on Saturday. The polls made it official Monday, with UA getting 63 of 65 first-place votes.
When guard Nick Johnson committed to Arizona back in August 2010, the Wildcats were experiencing a 58-week drought of regular-season Associated Press Top 25 appearances and hadn’t even played in the 2010 postseason.
They were asking a converted shooting guard, MoMo Jones, to take over the point for the upcoming season. And they were asking Derrick Williams to cover up nearly all of their weaknesses inside.
The incoming newcomers? A serviceable juco transfer (Jesse Perry), a reserve combo guard (Jordin Mayes) and a guard who rarely played as a freshman before transferring (Daniel Bejarano).
Johnson came anyway. The Gilbert product knew how good Williams was, and saw other pieces that would lead the Wildcats to the NCAA Elite Eight that season.
And, just nine games into his junior season, the Wildcats are the No. 1 team in college basketball.
On Monday, they reached the top of The Associated Press media Top 25 and the USA Today coaches poll for the first time in more than a decade.
And it’s the first time Miller has ever been associated with a top-ranked team (he hit No. 2 as a player with Pitt in 1987-88 and No. 7 as Xavier’s coach in 2008-09).
“I knew they had the talent to renew the tradition that Arizona had,” Johnson said. “I mean, honestly, that was probably the first year that everybody started realizing what they had.
“I just had confidence in coach Miller. His recruiting is unparalleled in the country. He really has ways of getting people to come here and continuing that tradition.”
Miller brought in Johnson along with forward Sidiki Johson and guard Josiah Turner for the 2011 recruiting class. While neither of those guys panned out, the fact that Arizona reached the 2011 Elite Eight — while Williams ascended to the No. 2 NBA draft pick — helped lead to even better recruiting classes down the road.
“I definitely” saw it coming, said sophomore forward Brandon Ashley, part of a highly ranked 2012 class. “I saw that coach Miller was a good coach, a great coach, and very good at recruiting. It’s worked out pretty well so far.”
It worked out, but Miller wasn’t always sure it would. What helped was that Williams, Jones and another eventual NBA first-rounder, Solomon Hill, were part of that foundation, leaving commitments to USC to play for Arizona in 2009. Then there was forward Kevin Parrom, a one-time Xavier commit who followed Miller to Arizona and evolved into a valuable sixth man despite enduring several hardships.
“My five-year plan was just to be here as a coach,” Miller said. “It’s hard. It could very easily not have worked. We need good fortune and we’ve had a lot of good players come through here.
“I think about Derrick’s class — many times that’s the one that is least regarded. ... You can make the argument that that’s the one that really solidified a lot of things early on, and bridged maybe the past to the future.”
When Miller took over, the past had already long been slipping away from Arizona. The Wildcats had not had a No. 1 ranking since the 2002-03 season, when Luke Walton and Jason Gardner jumped out of a preseason Sports Illustrated cover and UA finished with a heartbreaking Elite Eight loss to Kansas.
Arizona made it back to the Elite Eight in 2005, but blew a 15-point lead to Illinois. Then the Wildcats exited the next three NCAA tournaments after one weekend, went through two interim coaches, and, well, you probably know the rest of that story.
Now all that is sewed up, bridged, as Miller says.
The Wildcats are No. 1. Again.
“Tremendous satisfaction. No question,” Miller said, when asked about the fixing the long lapse from 2003 to 2013.
“Embracing the fact that we’re ranked No. 1 is something I’m doing, something our staff’s doing, and our team’s doing,” he added. “It’s an honor that I think a lot of teams would love to have.
“It’s something — no matter what happens in our future – that at one point this season (we can say) we were ranked No. 1 in the country.
“But how long we keep that ranking, how that plays out down the road, how much better we get, those are things in early December that every coach, every team has in the forefront of their minds,” Miller said. “And whether we’re ranked No. 1 or not ranked at all at this time of year, it’s about growing and working.
“Because there’s so much basketball in front of us.”
• Forward Aaron Gordon took “a few stitches” after taking an inadvertent elbow near his left eye against UNLV on Saturday, Miller said, but was otherwise fine.
• Colorado guard Askia Booker, who hit a buzzer-beating game winning three-pointer against Kansas, was named the Pac-12’s Player of the Week.