Before the Arizona Wildcats’ bus took a final ride home from Las Vegas the afternoon of March 12, associate head coach Jack Murphy spoke of the near future in a manner that just about everybody does these days.
“Honestly, it’s changing hour to hour,” Murphy said. “We don’t know what’s happening. Things could change in the next couple of hours while we’re on the bus.”
Murphy was responding to a question about whether college basketball coaches would be allowed to go on the road recruiting in the upcoming weeks, a normal shift in focus once a season ends. But the answer could apply to just about any question since the coronavirus led to shutdowns throughout the country.
The pandemic continues to affect everything, even weaving itself into the usual postseason questions on and off the court that the Wildcats now face.
1. What is Sean Miller’s status?
Analyzing the future of the Wildcats’ 11th-year head coach has become an annual postseason exercise, but the circumstances continue to be unique.
His 2018 recruiting class was all but blown to bits by the federal investigation into college basketball and an ESPN.com report that Miller discussed paying star Deandre Ayton with an agent. The Wildcats mowed down the competition in the Pac-12 Tournament that year before losing to Buffalo in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
In 2019, with the Wildcats about to end a mediocre 17-15 season, Miller took the mic at Senior Day and gave an emotional address, saying it had been a “great honor to coach at McKale Center for the last 10 years” — leading to speculation that he was on the way out.
Turned out, he wasn’t. Miller returned this season with a much-fortified roster, and the Wildcats put themselves in a position to gain a No. 7-9 NCAA Tournament seed before the virus shut college basketball down.
Miller is again expected to lose at least half his playing roster, has a program that’s still under NCAA investigation and has only two years left on his contract.
There’s also an upcoming HBO documentary, “The Scheme,” which includes not-previously-heard wiretaps from the federal investigation that might draw NCAA interest.
On one of the wiretaps, agent Christian Dawkins tells Miller that the handlers of a five-star prospect were looking to “get some (expletive) for themselves,” and Miller responded by asking, “Miami doesn’t have an advantage over us in that area, do they?”
It will be a busy offseason again, and the first order of business might be whether Arizona offers to extend Miller’s contract past the 2021-22 season. It is rare that a head coach enters a season with just a year or two left on his contract, since that can hamper recruiting.
Miller is set to receive a $100,000 raise next season to $2.9 million in total guaranteed pay. On May 31, he’s also due to receive approximately $1.2 million in stock proceeds as part of a booster-financed retention deal — even as the underlying stock has lost 54% of its value in 2020 so far.
Miller has not been available for comment since the Wildcats’ final game on March 11. He typically doesn’t speak to local media until May or June, after Arizona’s roster is mostly set for the next season.
2. What’s up with the NCAA investigation?
Arizona has been quiet since confirming the investigation was underway last May.
The Star has filed multiple public-records requests seeking communication between the school and NCAA regarding the investigation and/or a potential NCAA notice of allegations, but all have so far returned no records.
Many of the schools involved with the federal investigation have been served notices of allegations, including North Carolina State, Kansas, Oklahoma State, USC, TCU and South Carolina.
Arizona, LSU and Auburn are among the schools that have not reportedly received one, though the NCAA says schools can enter a summary-disposition process before receiving a notice of allegations if it agrees with the facts that an NCAA investigation has uncovered.
While the NCAA doesn’t comment on pending cases, it is possible that the delay with Arizona and LSU is due to both schools’ frequent mentions in the proceedings of the final basketball trial last spring, necessitating more processing time. Both Miller and LSU coach Will Wade are also heard in recordings in the HBO documentary, which could also extend the enforcement division’s work.
3. Will any of the freshmen stay?
Only center Christian Koloko is likely to wear an Arizona uniform next season, with coaches fully expecting Nico Mannion, Josh Green and Zeke Nnaji to leave within weeks for pro basketball — even as the virus could delay their formal announcements. Miller cited that Mannion’s upcoming departure as a reason why he recruited Georgetown transfer James Akinjo in December.
All three are still projected as first-round NBA draft picks, though the stock of Mannion and Green has slipped somewhat since Arizona’s season began. ESPN’s latest ranking of draft prospects had Mannion 14th, Green 22nd and Nnaji just into second-round territory at No. 34.
The Athletic lumped them all in near the end of the first round: Green at No. 25, Mannion at No. 27 and Nnaji at No. 29.
Nnaji was the most productive and consistent of the three during the season, but Mannion’s athleticism and basketball IQ and Green’s jump-out-of-the gym hops continue to radiate long-term potential.
“Ask different people around the NBA, and you’ll find some folks who really believe in Mannion, and others who think he’s going to struggle to stick at the next level,” Sam Vecenie wrote in The Athletic. “I think he’s likely to stick because of his feel for the game, but it’s hard for him to get all the way to the basket, and it’s tough for him to defend.”
While the coronavirus is threatening to shut down private team workouts and the NBA combine — environments that might allow Mannion and Green to excel because of their athleticism — all three might benefit from leaving now. The 2020 NBA Draft pool is not considered strong.
4. Will Brandon Williams return?
The Wildcats aren’t counting on it. There are still questions over Williams’ long-term health with his congenital knee issue, and over whether he may want to allocate any playing time he has left to college instead of the pros.
“It’s 100% that he will return to the court,” Williams’ stepfather, Chris Wright, told the Star via text message. “Just can’t see what level at this current time.”
Wright said Williams is still waiting to be medically cleared, possibly in a few weeks, and that he’s moved from rehab into doing skill, conditioning and weight-training work. Williams is expected to at least reach the physical level he did last season, when he was the Wildcats’ second-leading scorer despite being only “about 75%” of himself, according to Miller.
Miller made that remark about Williams during his March 8 radio show, while offering few definitive answers about the guard’s future.
“We don’t know enough now,” Miller said then. “The surgery was a success. I think his rehab is equally successful, and I think he’s on the right track to return to the court.”
In any case, the Wildcats’ recruiting efforts would suggest they are covered if Williams doesn’t return. Akinjo can potentially play a similar combo guard role as Williams did last season, while junior Jemarl Baker and incoming freshman Dalen Terry can also play both guard spots.
5. So what now?
Like just about everyone else in the COVID-19 world of today, the Wildcats are keeping a low profile.
Senior guard Dylan Smith had surgery on Monday to correct a broken nose suffered on March 7 against Washington. Walk-on forward Jake DesJardins formally entered the transfer portal later in the week; Miller said earlier this month he may grad transfer to play at a lower level.
Smith and other seniors in winter sports are not expected to be granted waivers to return for an extra season, according to a CBS report, meaning the Wildcats will likely need to replace at least eight total players this spring — nine if Williams does not return. Those losses count the November dismissal of guard Devonaire Doutrive, who transferred to Boise State.
So far, Arizona has three players lined up to help fill those spots: Akinjo, Terry and Bennedict Mathurin, an athletic freshman wing from Montreal.
The Wildcats are still pursuing the five-star class of 2020 wing Ziaire Williams — and will undoubtedly try to sell him on the opportunity to lead them immediately — but Stanford and USC are believed to be in front of that race.
But it’s difficult to tell what the star recruit is thinking. Williams and those around him have kept things close to the vest and, after Williams led Sierra Canyon to the CIF Southern Section Open Division title on Feb. 28 in Long Beach, California, a school official prevented media from asking Williams about anything recruiting-related.
With so many holes to fill quickly, the Wildcats are expected to add at least one other grad transfer, as they did with Max Hazzard (UC Irvine) and Stone Gettings (Cornell) last year. Conventional transfers also can bring the potential of playing immediately if they can get a waiver approval, as Baker did following his transfer from Kentucky.
Among those Arizona has reportedly contacted this month include two grad transfers — Gardner-Webb guard Nate Johnson and Columbia guard Mike Smith — as well as Wichita State guard transfers Jamarius Burton and Erik Stevenson.
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