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Sean Miller hopes he can return Cats to 'top of the mountain,' but questions about his contract persist
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Arizona basketball

Sean Miller hopes he can return Cats to 'top of the mountain,' but questions about his contract persist

Arizona head coach Sean Miller has just a year remaining on his deal, a situation that could make recruiting difficult.

EUGENE, Ore. — After his team’s season ended Monday in a predictably rough fashion — a seventh straight loss to Oregon — Arizona coach Sean Miller spoke optimistically about the future.

He said the Wildcats’ 17-9 season was better than he might have expected last August, when the UA started trying to replace seven of its top eight scorers with a patchwork of mostly transfers and international freshmen, and said they can improve next season with the “lion’s share” of their roster returning for a change.

“I believe we can return back to the top of the mountain,” Miller said.

But it’s still not clear if Miller will be returning to lead them there.

Arizona (17-9) finished its season with a 80-69 loss to Oregon in Eugene on Monday.

His contract has not been extended since the FBI’s investigation into college basketball was made public in September 2017. There is now just a year remaining on his deal, a situation that makes it difficult to recruit or to even convince current players he’ll be around much longer to guide them.

Asked late Monday if he expected to get an extension or if the situation could be resolved one way or another, Miller said he didn’t expect anything.

“I know that now that the season’s over, I’m gonna have the opportunity to talk to Dr. Robbins and Dave Heeke and I look forward to having that opportunity to do that,” Miller said of the UA president and AD. “When that time happens, I think I’ll certainly know a lot more.”

Miller is under contract for $2.5 million in salary and peripheral duty base compensation both this season and in 2021-22, plus another $200,000 each from Nike and IMG. The university’s buyout clause without cause is 50% of total base pay, which would be about $1.5 million as of now since the deal extends for another 15 months.

Arizona might not want to make a long-term decision until the NCAA infractions case that followed the FBI and NCAA investigations is settled. The case remains mired in the Independent Accountability Resolution Process, while the UA has refused to release the allegations contained in the NCAA’s Notice of Allegations. It’s unclear what Miller may — or may not — be accused of, and what the school thinks of whatever the NCAA found.

Miller denied any wrongdoing after ESPN reported in 2018 that he discussed a pay-for-play scheme with an agent, but he has since consistently declined to comment on the NCAA infractions situation. On Monday, he noted the price his current players are paying.

The UA announced Dec. 29 that it would self-impose a postseason ban, meaning Monday’s game ended its season.

Only senior Ira Lee was on the roster when the FBI’s investigation became public, though the storm of publicity about the case over the past three-plus years would suggest the current Wildcats had reason to know a ban was possible.

“There’s not a single player in our locker room or who was here that had anything to do with why we’re not playing in this tournament, and my heart really goes out to them,” Miller said.

“It’s not been easy. But they, and we, have really I think done a great job of getting all the way to the end. Now it’s so much more about where we go from this point forward.”

Grad transfer Terrell Brown, with ball, has the option to play a fifth season. Senior teammate Ira Lee has the same opportunity but announced he would not return in 2021-22.

Assuming they all go forward together, here’s the plan as Miller described it: Individual player meetings over the next two weeks may finalize most everybody’s plans for next season and then, after the Wildcats’ scholarship situation is clear, a light load of spring recruiting that could result in adding another player or two. Arizona has already signed three incoming freshmen, all guards.

The only thing for certain at this point is that Lee’s UA career is over, even though the NCAA is not counting this season toward the maximum four years of eligibility.

“I have so many emotions and memories that I could write a book,” Lee posted to Twitter. “These 4 years have been eye opening and a lot of fun. Love you guys forever and thankful to be a Wildcat for life.”

Grad transfer Terrell Brown has the same option to play a fifth season, but Miller indicated he wasn’t sure if Brown would return or not.

Guard James Akinjo, having put together a likely all-conference season in his third year of college, is at least expected to test the NBA draft waters as players in his situation almost always do, though he declined to say what his plans were.

“Too early to think about anything like that,” Akinjo said after Monday’s game. “We just lost. I kind of want to soak up the moment with my teammates.”

Meanwhile, freshman Bennedict Mathurin has received some NBA draft buzz, European freshmen Azuolas Tubelis and Kerr Kriisa always have the option to play professionally at home, and all college basketball teams always face the possibility of an unexpected transfer jumping for a different opportunity elsewhere.

But Tubelis and Kriisa indicated they’re happy in Arizona, while Miller said he expects the vast majority of his guys to return for the first time in four years. The Wildcats lost all their starters in the springs of 2018 and 2020, while only Chase Jeter and Dylan Smith returned for another year from the 2018-19 group of starters.

“I believe the last three teams we’ve not returned a single starter from the previous year and there’s reasons for that,” Miller said. “I’m the head coach and I understand all of them.

“But that’s not to your advantage to be successful. I think for the first time in that four-year stretch, we’re poised to return the lion’s share of this year’s team, and bring in a new group in addition to that. Instead of replacing five starters, that experience, I hope, is more towards our advantage.”

Experience and, Miller hopes, a little more bulk.

Oregon’s 80-69 win on Monday was another reminder of that need. The Ducks were the only team to outrebound the Wildcats all season, doing so by eight both at McKale on Feb. 13 and at Matthew Knight Arena on Monday, with their seemingly endless stream of bulky 6-foot-7 players getting to the rim and pushing the Wildcats out of the way.

“They are a bigger team than you think,” Miller said. “They don’t have necessarily the 6-10 or 7-foot (player) in the game at all times. But their wings and their guards are big and those guys are men — they’re older, they’re experienced. For us to beat them on their court, not only would we have to have played a great game, but they would have had to be a little off.”

Oregon forward Chandler Lawson (13), Oregon center Franck Kepnang (22) and Arizona forward Ira Lee (11) battle for a rebound during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Monday, March 1, 2021, in Eugene, Ore. (AP Photo/Andy Nelson)

They weren’t. Well past their two COVID-19-related pauses, the Ducks are playing exactly as expected back in the preseason. They can win the Pac-12 by beating UCLA and Oregon State over the next five days.

Oregon shot 45.5% overall and made 12 of 22 (54.5%) of its 3-pointers against Arizona while scoring 13 second-chance points off 11 offensive rebounds.

“Oregon is a very, very good team,” Miller said. “You have to realize with the two COVID shutdowns they had they just had to survive for a period of time. But the team we just played can make a big run in the NCAA Tournament.”

Maybe before too long the Wildcats can become that sort of team again, too.

In what might have been somewhat of a closing argument for his return, Miller pointed toward having already taken Arizona on a climb after being hired before the 2009-10 season.

The UA had finished a combined 17-19 in the then-Pac-10 under interim head coaches during the previous two seasons, but won three conference titles and made three NCAA Elite Eight appearances over Miller’s first six seasons.

“In the first two years with us in the Pac-10, we went 24-12,” Miller said. “We kind of rebuilt and we sustained excellence.”

“Right now, 11-9 isn’t what anyone wants to sign up for moving forward. But I do think it’s a great bridge from a lot of things that have happened to a promising future, and we have some very good young players who are able to return that had outstanding seasons. And now we just have to meet with them.”

And Arizona’s administrators have to meet with him.

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