ANAHEIM, Calif. – These were the words that Sean Miller finished his final press conference with last season, after the Arizona Wildcats lost to Ohio State in the Sweet 16:
“Sometimes you have to knock at that door a few times to break it in, and I like the group that we have coming in,” Miller said. “I like some of the opportunities that we have to add to the guys that we have. Hopefully we'll be a mainstay in this tournament like Arizona has been for 25 years.”
Three days later, Aaron Gordon committed to the Wildcats, who are now, thanks in part to Gordon, knocking at that door again.
Saturday’s game will be the third Elite Eight game of Miller’s head coaching career. He lost in the Elite Eight in 2008 with Xavier and in 2011 with Arizona,and left no doubt about the notion of breaking through this time.
“It would mean a lot,” he said. “Probably it would mean no more or no less for me than any coach who is coaching in this round. Everybody knows the two words ‘Final Four’ mean a great deal to programs and universities. I follow like everybody does, the reaction of our fans and fans of other programs, and it's just amazing to see the outpour on campuses when you see a team get closer and closer to a Final Four."
While Miller often talks about day-to-day improvement rather than the brass ring, Wisconsin’s Bo Ryan has his own form of perspective. He has 702 wins as a college coach, 319 over 13 years in Division I, but hasn’t been to a Final Four, either.
Yet he said his dad believed that “excellence to him wasn't so much the trophy as it's all about the experiences that you're gaining along the way," and that Ryan teaching, not money, was never a reason why he went into coaching.
“Being there, being here to this point, or if we move on, whatever it is, it doesn't define a person.”
Elements of Dick Bennett basketball, as seen with his Wisconsin and Washington State teams, will be seen on both teams tomorrow, just as they have been with Tony Bennett’s Virginia team. Specifically, the pack-line defensive philosophy that aims to clog gaps while extending hard on the ballhandler.
“It came from my dad who played it, but my dad's influence, no question was Dick Bennett,” Miller said. “And I think all coaches that study man‑to‑man defense have to look at what he's done. You watch Tony Bennett, and I know that Bo Ryan has a lot of those types of qualities as a defensive team. But we have a lot of those principles.
“Then like everything you do, you put your own personality on it. Sometimes we have maybe more athleticism or not as big of size, so we tried to adjust. But a lot of our basic fundamental principles started with how Dick Bennett taught defense a while back.”
T.J. McConnell may have been born to coach, but Miller says he may have another job potentially awaiting him soon in the NBA.
“There's not a doubt in my mind that if he adds this off‑season to what he's already done, that he's going to be in the mix to be that player who is a career back‑up" in the NBA, Miller said. “He's going to make some money playing this game first.”
Miller began his coaching career as a graduate assistant for Wisconsin, and there’s one image that still “haunts” him to this day.
“I was driving into work about 7:30 in the morning,” Miller said. “Born and raised in Pittsburgh and I looked out on the lake and I saw a bunch of fires, camp fires on the lake. I had to pull over and say, Is that really a fire on the lake?' I guess I was welcomed to a Wisconsin winter that you could burn a million fires on that lake, but it was frozen so thick, there was ice fishing. They were camping out, going on vacations.
“But the cold of that winter, wow, I can still remember it. It's a little bit like the opposite in Tucson. You have the beauty of the winter. We certainly have four months or five months that are much different, that's for sure.”
Miller said the lakes around Madison have “always scared me since that point.”
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson said he and Ryan have a grit that's common to products of Chester, Pa.
“The main thing is toughness,” Hollis-Jefferson said. “We’ve both got that in common and wanting to win at a whole other level.
“Where I’m from, it was tough. It’s a good environment for us. We grow up tough and we just took that out on the basketball court. A lot of people did sports and stuff and we let that anger out on the court and it showed.”
Ryan has no doubt shared a few stories about Chester to his team, which is almost entirely made up of Midwesterners who didn't quite have it as rough.
"Yeah, he always talks about the tough streets of Chester," guard Josh Gasser said, then added sarcastically: "I can relate, being from Port Washington, Wisconsin."
Guard Ben Brust smiled when it was his turn to answer.
"I've got a golf course in my backyard, so he's got me beat," Brust said.
Then there was center Frank Kaminsky.
"Sometimes they call my hometown of Woodridge (a Chicago suburb) "Hoodridge," if that means anything," he said.
Kaminski also had everyone laughing when the Badgers were asked what one or two words they would hope Arizona would describe them with.
Sam Dekker: "Disciplined."
Traevon Jackson: "Tough."
Kaminsky: "White guys."
Our full advance coverage will be posted at midnight.