In an era when an elite college basketball player’s mindset can easily drift toward NBA Draft stock and other personal goals, Arizona coach Sean Miller has routinely preached that team success leads to individual honors.
This season, the inverse has proven true.
After finishing in a three-way tie for eighth place at 8-10, the Wildcats didn’t have a single player listed Monday when the Pac-12 announced its 15 all-conference players, a five-man all-defensive team and a five-man all-freshman team, though guard Brandon Williams did pick up honorable mention all-freshman honors.
Meanwhile, Jaylen Nowell of Washington was named the Pac-12’s player of the year, teammate Matisse Thybulle was the defensive player of the year, and Husky coach Mike Hopkins picked up his second straight coach of the year award.
“Humbling, but it takes everybody,” Hopkins said on the Pac-12 Networks’ award show Monday, and Nowell indicated a similar belief.
“This is a great award,” Nowell said, “but it wouldn’t have happened without the team.”
Players from second-place ASU were also honored frequently. The Sun Devils had three players named to either the first or second teams: Zylan Cheatham, Luguentz Dort and Remy Martin, while Dort was also named Pac-12 Freshman of the Year and a member of the five-player all-defensive team.
For Arizona, which is 17-14 overall, it was the first time since the Wildcats finished 1-17 in 1982-83, that they did not have any all-conference honorees of any sort.
Not surprisingly, when asked if he figured it would be tough to get one of his guys among the all-conference honorees, Miller nodded and repeated his mantra.
“I mean, with team success comes all the individual achievements and accolades and success,” Miller said.
“It’s always been that way and it’s been that way for us many, many times.”
That was the case last season, when the Wildcats won the Pac-12, Deandre Ayton was named player of the year and both Allonzo Trier and Dusan Ristic joined him among the league’s Top 15 all-conference players. Ayton went on to be the No. 1 NBA Draft pick, too.
In addition, Miller’s 2014 Pac-12 champions produced Nick Johnson as the Pac-12 Player of the Year, while Derrick Williams was POY of the Pac-10 in 2011 after leading the Wildcats to the regular-season championship that season.
Not only has Arizona had all-conference players in each of the past 35 years, but usually two or three.
Since the then-Pac-10 started honoring a 10-player “first team” and a five-player second team starting in 2009, the Wildcats have had 25 first- or second-team picks.
Overall since 1992, not counting honorable mention selections, the Wildcats have had two or more all-conference picks in all but the three seasons in which they had only one — 1997 (Michael Dickerson), 2006 (Hassan Adams) and 2007 (Marcus Williams).
In other major Pac-12 honors this season, Utah’s Donnie Tillman was given the sixth man award, while Colorado’s Tyler Bey was named most improved.
Unlike the Pac-12 player of the week awards, which are voted on by media who regularly cover the league, the postseason awards are voted on by the league’s 12 coaches, who are not allowed to vote for their own players.
Miller: Postgame speech wasn’t a farewell
Miller said Monday his emotional Senior Day address Saturday “certainly wasn’t a farewell speech,” saying he was overwhelmed by McKale Center fans and didn’t think it was the proper time to be speaking about the future.
During a postgame ceremony to honor UA grad transfers Justin Coleman and Ryan Luther after UA’s loss to ASU, Miller said there was a feeling of bitterness “about a lot of things” but said McKale Center was a “magical” place thanks to its fans.
“There’s no fans in the world that are more loyal and it has been an amazing honor to coach in McKale Center for the last 10 years,” Miller told the crowd. “Thank you for everything.”
Asked during his postgame news conference Saturday if his speech suggested he had doubts about his future, Miller said he didn’t want to comment on it.
But, after speculation grew over the weekend that Miller might have been saying farewell, he was asked again about it Monday.
“You have to take into consideration context,” Miller said Monday. “I think part of me in that speech is you’re overwhelmed by the fact that there’s still a crowd in attendance. We lost to our rival. That’s a small part of it, obviously.
“I meant what I said in terms of I can’t imagine a fan base treating a coach any better than this fan base has treated our staff and me and it’s been from the beginning when I was the fourth coach in four years, 10 years ago, through a lot of great moments and the last two years where a lot of fan bases would change to not feeling good.
“And the second part of me how I worded what I worded was it’s also not the time to talk about the future. At that moment, I hadn’t even talked about our team. ... It’s not fair to this group, this team, to talk about a period of time when they’re no longer going to be here.
“So for us, I want to make sure we address things in the present and that was my best attempt. And if it was taken any other way, that certainly wasn’t what I was trying to accomplish.”
Miller said Williams would have had a “great chance” to make the all-freshman team if he hadn’t missed six games with a knee injury following the Wildcats’ late January trip to Los Angeles.
Williams played arguably his best game of the season on Jan. 26 at UCLA, scoring 19 points while hitting 4 of 8 3-pointers and dishing three assists, but experienced pain and swelling in his previously injured right knee afterward. Williams was averaging 13.8 points and 3.5 assists while making 40 percent of his 3-pointers in eight conference games through the L.A. trip.
Williams returned on Feb. 24 against Stanford but has suffered foul trouble in his last three games while struggling to find his timing and rhythm.
“It’s kind of uncommon for a guard to get in foul trouble like Brandon has, but his intent is good,” Miller said. “It’s just he’s a little bit rusty. There’s a big difference between a few practices and game action and the other part is we’re talking about late-season games. So players are really strong in their roles. They’ve played a lot of basketball.
“It’s not like picking it up in November or December, so it makes perfect sense to see him have some issues. But the more that he practices and plays, the more he’ll return to form.”
Miller said Williams will have no restrictions on his minutes this week unless he reports pain and the Wildcats beat USC to reach the quarterfinals.
One of Arizona’s more dependable assets this season, its lack of turnovers, has disappeared at the finish.
The Wildcats have averaged 14 turnovers in their past three games, after averaging only 10.7 over their first 15 Pac-12 games.
“We had long stretches this season where we played with 10 or fewer turnovers,” Miller said. “We had first and second halves that we played with three or four, which is a great strength that I think any coach would love to have.
“But these last two games, we’ve not been able to do that. And it’s led to subpar performances. ... We’re not good enough to overcome that many turnovers. We have too many things that are against us already.”