In Act I of Sean Miller’s Arizona career, he was a master builder.
Act II was winning; Miller averaged 29½ wins over the last six seasons.
Act III begins now. Rebuilding? It depends who you ask.
If you transferred Arizona’s roster to Arizona State, the Sun Devils would crow about their chances to play deep into March. If you traded rosters with Colorado, the Buffaloes would sell tickets in record numbers.
It’s different at McKale Center. Do you realize that Arizona opened the last six seasons ranked Nos. 1, 2, 2, 3, 4 and 7 in The Associated Press Top 25?
Predictions — not to be confused with Tucson’s expectations — are lower than at any time since Russ Pennell coached the Wildcats in 2008-09. The preseason Top 25? You’re not likely to see Arizona’s name on that list for just the third time in 33 years.
Somewhat fittingly, on Monday afternoon Miller stepped into a rebuilt media center — double the size of the claustrophobic room that served (or underserved) UA basketball coaches for more than 25 years — and it wasn’t two minutes before he was asked about subdued expectations.
“Rightfully so,” he began, but added, “It’s up to us to be better than people maybe outside expect us to be.”
For 30 years, media day for UA basketball has been alive with promise and possibilities. On Monday, there was a rare, subdued air, which began at the podium. Miller used phrases like “wholesale change” and “it’s like taking over a new program” to describe the state of his 11th Arizona team.
Wholesale change? There’s not a one-and-done NBA prospect on the roster.
Instead, there are transfers from Pitt, Duke and Samford — yes, Samford — and Miller made the conversation provocative when he said sophomore Alex Barcello “is our team’s best shooter.”
Barcello made 18 baskets as a freshman.
Yet Act III of Miller’s Arizona days shouldn’t be as difficult as Year 1. When he accepted the keys to the office, the “name” players on his roster were Nic Wise, Jamelle Horne and Kyle Fogg. Aggregate scoring average: 28.6 points per game.
Two years later, Miller was a jump shot shy of the Final Four.
After a year in which Arizona’s long-bountiful recruiting outreach was essentially put on pause by an FBI investigation into college basketball, Miller is again recruiting at the highest levels.
His roster brims with talent, most of it in small-to-medium sizes. To be fair, Miller was off the recruiting mainline long enough that he has not had time to reload the roster with the requisite big-and-tall brigade that can stand up to, say, a Gonzaga.
Ryan Luther , a 6-9, fifth-year grad transfer from Pitt whose ideal position would be the new-age “stretch 4,” said Monday he “expects to play the 5 spot” periodically.
Why? Because there’s no one else behind 6-10 Duke transfer Chase Jeter.
And 6-7 sophomore Emmanuel Akot , who said his position “for the pros” would be a mix of the 2 and 3 — wing shooters — is likely to get his most action at power forward.
“We don’t have a lot of depth up front,” said Miller. “Since Year 4 here for me, that’s been one of our strengths.”
This size issue seems to deter no one.
“I think this can be a Final Four team,” freshman combo guard Brandon Williams said Monday.
Akot’s assessment of his second Arizona team? “We should go a long ways,” he said. “Deep.”
Asked about his expectations, Luther said Arizona “should be one of the best teams in college basketball.”
The youthful exuberance isn’t likely to meet opposition until the Wildcats suit up in the Maui Classic on Nov. 19, two days after Miller’s 50th birthday. That’s when they’ll play Big 12 contender Iowa State, with the winner bracketed to meet, gulp, Gonzaga, which leads the West Coast in sizes XL and XXL.
Arizona is more like an M this season.
Miller turns 50 in November, an age at which John Wooden had not yet coached in a Final Four, and Lute Olson’s career record at Arizona was 11-17. Similarly, these should be the prime years of Miller’s coaching career.
As such, this isn’t truly a start-over as much as it is a reboot.