On Thursday, the Arizona Athletics department unveiled a statue of legendary coach Lute Olson. Sean Miller then released a vanilla statement earlier in the day and did his best to blend in with the crowd at the ceremony. He was briefly recognized by Brian Jefferies, the MC, along with head coach of the women’s team, Adia Barnes. Just a simple wave from Miller. That’s all. That’s how it needed to be.
Disgraced ex-football head coach Rich Rodriguez’s main trouble stemmed from building his program around himself. Miller has gotten dangerously close to doing the same thing. On a day recognizing a brilliant basketball mind whose coaching philosophy evolved with the ebb and flow of his players and trends of the game, Arizona fans can’t forget that the current head coach refuses to do exactly what made Olson so successful — change.
Sean Miller coaches with a fundamentalist mindset. He only runs a motion offense and a pack-line defense. He is incredibly unwilling to adapt, and it’s cost him two tournament wins in two years. But maybe, his inability to change stems from a larger problem.
Maybe, Sean Miller is out of touch. Miller’s coaching philosophy isn’t the only thing. His entire basketball program is, as well.
The crowds at the beginning of the season, both fans and students alike, were far too mild. There were plenty of open seats, and the noise in the McKale center wasn’t up to par. It left heads scratching. However, a simple explanation is that both the students and the Tucson community felt disconnected from the team. The media availability, or lack thereof, makes it near impossible to connect with the players. The media is left unable to tell the stories of the players and understand their personalities. Who knew that DeAndre Ayton was so funny?! All his, “Hi, I’m Josh,” nonsense in Vegas was just as fun to watch as his alley-oops and blocks. But alas, since Miller keeps his players under lock and key, its hard for the community to connect to the players.
Let me preface what I’m about to say by stating, first, that I strongly dislike ASU. For me to give anything they do praise (outside of hiring Herm Edwards — use that new leadership model in every damn sport, please, it’s so funny) means that I truly appreciate whatever I’m praising. ASU’s Mill Madness is genius, and I want Arizona to do something similar. Mill Madness is when ASU sets up a basketball court on Mill Avenue and pits the men’s team against the women’s team in several different three-point contests. Mill Madness also had a dunk contest and a game between students. It’s basically like Bear Down Fridays, but like, cool and exciting. And best of all, it’s not restrictive to only those who can get a ticket. Anyone can show up. It’s communal. Wow.
There are several things that need to change with Arizona’s basketball program.
The first is recruiting. If Miller is going to continue to be a defense first coach (no problem with that, just quit playing the pack-line and play defenses tailored to opponents), then Miller can’t go out and recruit five star, top one-hundred guys. Miller needs to go out and get the cerebral, gritty kids that know how to win, not just put on a show (editor’s note: por que no los dos?). For example, Aaron Gordon won two California high school state championships. Stanley Johnson also won a California state championship. TJ McConnell? He lost by two in the Pennsylvania state championship his senior year, but who cares? He’s the GOAT. Miller needs to go back to recruiting winners, not just stars, because simply, winners will buy into Miller’s system, because they know what it takes. Winners care about team accolades over their personal ones, which is something that Miller preaches. However, for some, it takes longer to buy into than others.
Another thing that needs to change is how Miller treats the local media. They’re the ones who help connect the players with their fans. Social media is a great tool, as seen by Khalil Tate, but Miller needs to understand that people want to know who they’re rooting for. I’m quite frankly excited to see DeAndre Ayton leave because I want to see him play without being handcuffed by crap Pac-12 referees, but also because in the NBA, we’ll get to see him and his personality on full display. Tucson is dying for another love affair like they had with TJ McConnell and Scooby Wright III, myself included.
In order for Arizona basketball to move forward, the program needs to look how they got here, and use what built this program up to go higher. This isn’t a normal basketball program.