Editor’s note: This article is part of the Star’s 2017-18 basketball guide, which runs in Sunday’s paper.
Sean Miller is one of 20 Millers to coach Division I basketball teams. They all share a bottom line: They’ve never reached the Final Four.
There was Weenie Miller — yes, Weenie Miller — who coached at VMI in the 1960s. There were two Harrys, a Gus, a Danny and, of course, Archie Miller, the youngest of John Miller’s coaching sons from Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania.
There was Ralph Miller, who coached Iowa to a 14-0 Big Eight conference championship in 1970 and Oregon State to a 17-1 Pac-10 title in 1981 — and lost first-round NCAA Tournament games both times.
Before Sean there was Ralph, who, rest his soul, couldn’t get to a Final Four in a 38-year Hall of Fame coaching career.
It’s hard, dude.
The 20 Division I Millers, who coached at every conceivable outpost, from Army and Lafayette to Canisius and Idaho State, combined to coach 203 college basketball seasons and they are 0-for-203 in their attempts to get to the elusive Final Four.
Getting admitted to Harvard might be easier.
North Carolina coach Roy Williams is one of 21 Williamses to coach Division I basketball. He is one of just two Williamses to break through and go to the Final Four, joining Maryland’s Gary Williams in 2002. None of the other Williamses — not Buzz, not Carroll, not Pooh, not Rollie — know the joy of breaking through, climbing the ladder and cutting down the net after an Elite Eight victory.
If you combine the Millers and the Williamses, you get a good idea of how difficult it is to coach a basketball team to the Land of Oz. In 447 college basketball seasons, the coaching Millers and the Williamses have reached basketball’s Promised Land just 10 times. Nine of those belong to Roy, at Kansas and North Carolina.
That’s about 2.24 percent.
Sean Miller knows what it feels like to be on the outside looking in. Now you know how Arizona basketball fans feel. The Wildcats last played in the Final Four in 2001, and every man coaching a Pac-12 team that season has since been fired or retired. Ernie Kent has done both, leaving Oregon before returning to coach at Washington State.
The 2001 Final Four was so long ago that 25-year-old Tiger Woods won The Masters by seven strokes that month over Bernhard Langer, who is now 60.
This is the year Arizona cuts down the nets, making a beeline through San Diego and Los Angeles on the way to the Final Four in San Antonio. There’s some karma at work here because Arizona outlasted No 1 seed Illinois in an epic 87-81 finish at the Elite Eight in … San Antonio.
That so-called jinx of losing in Los Angeles? Those soul-eroding Elite Eight losses in Southern California — to Utah in 1998; to Kansas in 2003; to UConn in 2011; to Wisconsin in 2014 and 2015 — will come to an end the way the Chicago Cubs broke through a year ago and won a World Series.
Arizona has not since 2001 deployed a lineup as talented as the one Miller will put on the floor this year. The ’01 Wildcats were the most skilled and versatile, one through five, as any team in UA history.
This UA team might not match the ’01 club man-for-man in the starting lineup because college basketball has so thoroughly changed. No freshmen started nor were even a part of Arizona’s rotation back then.
Now, you can get to the Final Four with a bunch of kids — especially if those kids are of the skills listed on Arizona’s roster.
In the 16 seasons since that Final Four in Minneapolis, it is no longer inconceivable to expect freshmen like Deandre Ayton, Emmanuel Akot, Ira Lee and Alex Barcello to be ready to play well on the biggest stage.
Arizona is not one of the Big Four in college basketball any longer, not the way it was when Lute Olson took Arizona to four Final Fours from 1988-2001. The only way to be part of the Big Four is to go to the Final Four.
With likely NCAA sanctions somewhere down the line, this is Arizona’s last best chance to get to the Final Four before the UA’s basketball future becomes complicated.
Anything less will be a bust.