Sean Miller always removes his tie before he conducts his postgame business at McKale Center, which is a signal that he is decompressing, preserving his sanity in a game that never seems to slow down.
It is his way of running under a yellow flag for a few laps.
Sunday night was no different. Even as he snipped down the nets at McKale, his second Pac-12 championship in four seasons, Miller enjoyed the moment and then, almost before the tie came off, returned to overdrive.
“I could probably cry or yell or scream,” he said, describing the moment, “but I try to keep it in check. This is what you do it for. I wish I had a day or two to think about it. I think, in the spring, we’ll all reflect and be happy about it.”
As soon as Arizona rolled out the red carpet for Sunday’s title-clinching ceremony, it was gone. The arena was empty and hushed by 9 o’clock. After 29 games, 27 victories, the games that will define the 2013-14 Wildcats lie ahead.
Arizona bashed Stanford 79-66 by manifesting itself defensively and showcasing a killer offense that has averaged 84 points in three rousing, return-to-form victories over nine days.
Ironically, the Wildcats were so good so quickly on Sunday, leading by 18 in the first half, that it seemed to take the edge off the crowd for a bit.
On the day you clinch a conference title, even if it is No. 13 over 28 years, you wait for some type of crescendo. On Sunday, there wasn’t one. It was an uplifting postgame celebration, but you could sense that everyone in the arena expects more.
If you take a look around
McKale Center, soak it all in, you see Final Four banners in the rafters, a long list of sainted names in the Ring of Honor, and numbers that honor Sweet 16s and Elite Eights.
Do you know what you don’t see unless you squint and sit in the west bleachers? You don’t see anything about Pac-12 or Pac-10 championships. The mention of those 13 titles gets limited wall space, almost in small print.
Lute Olson was so single-minded in his pursuit of honors beyond the conference boundaries that he did not cut down the nets after any of his 11 Pac-10 championships, even though six of them were clinched at McKale.
Miller’s goals are no different, but his approach is. It’s a nice change. When coaches at Washington or Oregon or Cal take their team to a rare league basketball title, it’s as if they schedule a parade or at least some confetti.
Winning the league title is like opening a can of feel-good. Even those Tucsonans who have sat through all 13 championships appreciate how difficult it is.
“It’s one of our three goals,” said UA junior Nick Johnson. “Our team goals are to win the Pac-12 regular-season, win the Pac-12 tournament and win the national championship. So check off one of them.”
Statistically, this is Arizona’s best defense since 1951. It has forced opponents to miss 63 percent of its shots this season. It took Stanford’s best player, center Dwight Powell, out of the game early. He was 1 for 10 from the field and the Cardinal was never a threat.
“It’s tough,” said Stanford coach Johnny Dawkins. “They have experienced players out there with T.J. McConnell and Nick Johnson, who have been through a lot and know how to play with a lead. They’re poised, they don’t rush, they get good shots and they’ve been an outstanding defensive team all year.”
That might be the most defining comment by an opposing coach all year.
Miller believes his team has maintained its edge because it plays in a unified system. After Sunday’s game, he gave some unusual insight into the fragile nature of a game now dictated as much by player movement and transition —me-first paranoia — than by any other factor.
“Today is Sunday and we could be selfish on Monday,” said Miller. “I never take for granted the next day when the sun rises, or that there could be somebody outside of our locker room that didn’t poison a player or two players, so that now the only thing they care about is themselves.
“The second that happens, we are a very average team. It’s a fight every day.”
Miller’s point is that Johnson, Aaron Gordon, Kaleb Tarczewski and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson are under daily scrutiny by would-be NBA draft experts. So far, that foursome hasn’t been shy about sharing the ball and attention.
It’s Miller’s job not only to coach his club, but to make sure those four players concentrate more on the games at hand than June’s NBA draft.
No wonder he comes off as a bit sensitive.
“The second you cut a corner, or something from the outside interferes with the process — nobody’s that good in college basketball,” said Miller. “We’ve worked every day on that. We have a very coachable team; that might be our greatest strength.”
This is the ninth time Arizona has gone unbeaten at McKale Center in the Pac-10/12 era. Every one of those seasons ended in crushing NCAA Tournament defeats: first-round flameouts, second-round shockers, Sweet 16 setbacks, Elite Eight upsets and Final Four heartbreakers.
“We want to go down in Arizona history as one of the best teams ever,” Johnson said Sunday.
Buckle up. The journey now goes from a ring to a basketball prayer.