Less than 24 hours after Villanova won the national championship, Sean Miller was back on the sideline at McKale Center, surrounded by his team, his coaches, his trainer, his operations managers, his media relations guy and the weight of expectations.
It was April 5, not Oct. 5, and yet Miller’s team had begun preparations for the 2016-17 season even before Villanova’s celebration subsided 2,500 miles away.
The NCAA now permits basketball teams to work out in April, and on Tuesday afternoon, 19 days after getting chopped up by Wichita State, Arizona moved on.
“Coach had given us a week off,” said guard Kadeem Allen.
Miller might not have been on the clock, but he watched and re-watched the distasteful Wichita State game film, even though his team did not. He flew to Houston for the Final Four, spent some time with his sisters, Lisa and Dana, but it’s not like he wasn’t paying attention to how Villanova became champions.
He knew, for example, that Villanova guard Ryan Arcidiacono dribbled six times in the final 4.7 seconds before passing to Kris Jenkins for the winning shot.
“You usually have four dribbles (in four seconds),” Miller said. “He took six. I counted them.”
The next time Arizona faces a critical end-game situation, you can be sure Miller will instruct his point guard not to rush a shot from mid-court. You never know how one or two dribbles can change a game, or, in Villanova’s case, a lifetime.
But more than adding to his coaching book, Miller reflected on how Villanova became what Arizona seemed destined to be.
In the spring of 2012, you would’ve thought Arizona, not Villanova, would be the 2016 national champion.
To end the ’12 season, Villanova lost to South Florida in the Big East tournament, finishing 13-19. Coach Jay Wright’s recruiting class included four-star Pennsylvanians Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu. A year later, Wright added four-star Maryland prep prospects Jenkins and Josh Hart.
Progress was slow. Villanova went from 13-19 to 20-14, finishing seventh in the Big East. But that group of four — Arcidiacono, Ochefu, Hart and Jenkins — stayed for the long haul.
If the final game of the 2012 season was the starting point for Villanova and Arizona — the UA lost an NIT home game to Bucknell to complete the ’12 season — Miller took a clear lead.
His recruiting classes of ’12 and ’13 included five five-star prospects: Brandon Ashley, Grant Jerrett, Kaleb Tarczewski, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Aaron Gordon.
As a bonus, Miller brought in point guard transfer T.J. McConnell, who, much like Arcidiacono, was more valuable that any star rating.
Arizona struck a vein of recruiting gold like few in the business. It went 94-17. By the time the ’16 season began, all of those gold pieces except Tarczewski scattered, chasing the basketball rainbow.
But Villanova still had Arcidiacono, Ochefu, Hart and Jenkins in the lineup. It added McDonald’s All-America freshman Jalen Brunson and, presto, it became a national champion.
Not that it wasn’t a struggle. As Arizona accelerated, twice reaching to the Elite Eight, losing agonizing games against Wisconsin, it was Villanova that experienced a different kind of heartbreak. Its 29-5 and 33-3 teams were taken apart by seventh-seeded UConn and eighth-seeded North Carolina State.
It was Nova’s version of Wichita State, times two.
“They had tremendous talent for two years,” said Miller, “but they weren’t able to get out of the first weekend.”
In the end, Villanova’s stability trumped Arizona’s ever-changing roster of all-stars.
“In my seven years (at Arizona), we’ve had about one guy leave (early) per year,” said Miller. “But nobody really puts an arm around you (and sympathizes) when you lose as many players to the NBA draft like we have.”
The UA’s near future doesn’t appear to be a put-down-roots-and-watch-the-kids-grow scenario. Miller said next year’s team might include as many as seven new faces.
Arizona hasn’t played in a Final Four since 2001. That’s 15 seasons. It has been so long since ’01 that Denny Crum was coaching at Louisville. Three Final Four coaches of that period — Indiana’s Mike Davis, LSU’s John Brady and Georgia Tech’s Paul Hewitt — were fired long ago.
The clock ticks. Arizona has gone 0-5 at the Elite Eight over those 15 seasons. The hurt lingers.
Incredibly, 30 different teams have been at the Final Four since Arizona’s last visit. That’s a basketball generation.
As evidenced by a full-blown practice on April 5, the UA wants desperately to get back to the Final Four, and to turn those evocative pre-game videos at McKale Center as much about the present as the past.