Sean Miller’s daily roster availability has been uncontrollably close to that of NFL teams, whose weekly reports list players as (a) probable, (b) questionable and (c) out.
Arizona leads the Pac-12 in cumulative torn ACLs, sprained ankles, broken fingers and 19-game suspensions. Yet through it all — 29 unsettled games — the Wildcats are 26-3. They have been neither probable nor questionable, and certainly not out.
They have been on.
Arizona has won 26 games in a season at the earliest date — Feb. 23 — in school history, and the one constant is Miller, a consummate and skillful manager, who has deployed six different starting lineups without giving an inch in either the Top 25 or the Pac-12.
This isn’t recommended for anyone’s central nervous system, but I swear Miller seems to thrive on the chaos. As the Wildcats rallied Thursday from what might’ve been USC’s best first half of the year – the Trojans shot 57 percent – Miller never sat down. He made 27 substitutions.
His newly arranged bench scored 30 in a 90-77 victory.
I’m not fronting Miller as the coach of the year or anything like that, because his team’s performance speaks for itself. The only time Miller showed any expression other than determination Thursday followed a 3-pointer by Parker Jackson-Cartwright, giving Arizona a 78-62 lead.
Miller balled up a fist and grinned for about 9/32nds of a second. It was one of the few times in four months he had a chance to exhale.
After a defensive adjustment in the first half, Arizona was so impressive that you’re tempted to ask if it has ever been better than 26-3 through 29 games.
It has. Twice. The Wildcats were 27-2 in the 1988 Final Four season and again in Miller’s run to the 2014 Elite Eight.
It’s time to recognize that this isn’t just mirrors and smoke. That is rarefied air at Arizona and anywhere.
I mean, USC was shooting 60 percent with 12 minutes remaining and somehow trailed 60-51. Dusan Ristic played off the bench for the first time this season, as did Rawle Alkins. Both scored in double figures. With such resourceful use of his roster, Miller broke down the Trojans’ defense so thoroughly that his club made a ridiculous 70 percent of their shots — 22 of 31— from late in the first half to overturn a 9-point deficit and lead 71-55 lead.
If it wasn’t the best 15 minutes of Arizona’s season, what was?
Miller is an old-school grinder who didn’t punch out until the final five seconds. When Cartwright-Jackson was dribbling out the shot clock with 15 seconds to go, Miller got his guard’s attention and shouted “shoot it with three seconds.”
Cartwright-Jackson swished a 3-pointer.
Talk about one shining moment.
In an interesting juxtaposition, the Pac-12 Networks rebroadcast an All-Access look at USC’s basketball coach, Andy Enfield, an hour before Thursday’s game. Trojans point guard Jordan McLaughlin said of his coach: “He’s mellow. He gives you your freedom. He’s a fun guy to play for.”
Center Chimezie Metu added “having fun is what the program is based on.”
Under Miller, Arizona has led the league in a lot of things, but rarely fun and certainly not a quotient of mellow. An Arizona practice session is like preparing an audit for the IRS. The fun comes after the taxes are filed and the season is over.
“I probably ruined our team’s excitement a little bit after the game,” Miller said of the post-game speech. “That’s my job.”
USC has the size, quickness and talent to play with anybody. But the Trojans’ only conference victories are against teams with a combined 38-84 Pac-12 record. You wonder if they have requisite toughness, belief and coaching to be anything more than the opening act for a UCLA weekend at McKale.
On Thursday, they did not.
Earlier this week, ESPN’s Jay Bilas noted that Arizona is the slowest team in the Pac-12 (and No. 300 nationally) with 66 possessions per game. But it’s not the 66 possessions that carries meaning. It’s that Arizona averages 1.17 points per possession, which is 26th nationally.
On Thursday the Wildcats had 70 possessions and averaged 1.3 points per possession. That’s what wins games. Miller coaches effectiveness, not pace.
Justifiably, a lot was made of USC’s wickedly difficult late-season schedule. The Trojans have now played No. 4 Arizona, No. 5 UCLA and No. 6 Oregon in succession, losing all by double figures.
That’s life at the top of the Pac-12, and it’s not unknown to Arizona. In 2002, a year after the Wildcats reached the national championship game and lost four starters to the NBA draft, Arizona opened the 2001-02 season against this list of opponents:
No. 2 Maryland.
No. 6 Florida.
No. 23 Texas.
No. 8 Kansas.
No. 5 Illinois.
Arizona won four of those games. So don’t expect UA fans to give USC a shoulder upon which to sob.
When No. 5 UCLA arrives Saturday at McKale, there will be nothing questionable nor probable about Arizona’s willingness to play in a game of such high stakes.