If you would have asked Sean Miller in November what his expectations were for this Arizona Wildcats team, let’s just say they weren’t high.
“I would have said we wouldn’t have been in the NCAA Tournament,” he said Monday.
“And the reason I would say that is you have no idea how talented your incoming freshman are until they are here. You don’t really have any idea how coachable they are until you’re with them everyday.”
The Wildcats lost Terrance Ferguson and Ray Smith before the season began, plus dealt with the indefinite suspension of their leading scorer Allonzo Trier for the first 19 games of the season.
The result is Arizona had to lean heavily on three freshmen — Lauri Markkanen, Kobi Simmons, and Rawle Alkins — through more than half the season (until Trier’s suspension ended).
Despite all that, the Wildcats currently sit at No. 4 in the polls, 26-3 overall and first in the Pac-12 at 15-1.
The freshmen have undoubtedly been a big reason for Arizona’s success, but ESPN’s Jay Bilas attributes a lot of it to Miller’s coaching as well, placing the UA head coach in the conversation for Coach of the Year.
“This has been one of the best coaching jobs anybody has done all year with all that they’ve had going on, young players, having players out, injuries,” Bilas said Friday in Tucson. “To go through this point in the year and be 26-3 and three losses to quality teams they’ve played, it’s really remarkable.”
Bilas says Miller would be one of his top picks for the Coach of the Year award, but isn’t sure if it will happen, given the nature of the selection.
“Coach of the Year is kind of a weird thing,” Bilas said. “Some people look at it as who did the most with the least, so it leaves the best teams out of it, like they’re expected to do that. And then if you’ve won at a high level like Arizona has, you don’t seem to be in the running for that very often. I think he is (in the conversation), but ... it can differ based on how people view it.”
Bilas also called Arizona a Final Four-caliber team.
“Arizona is really good. They’re so balanced,” he said before Saturday’s game versus the UCLA Bruins. “They defend at a really high level and even though they see a lot of zone, they’ve gotten much better against the zone. They see zone for a reason — it’s because most teams can’t guard Lauri Markkanen on ball screens. They would prefer to pack the lane and he’s shown his versatility in that he can do a lot more than shoot from the perimeter. He’s got a low-post game, he’s a good passer. He’s a really good player.
“I do think UCLA is more powerful on the offensive end, but they are not the defensive team that Arizona has proven to be. And that’s really the one difference between the two teams. Arizona consistently defends at a high level and UCLA has not done that throughout the course of the year, but they have done it much better over the last five, six games.”
Fellow College GameDay member and former Duke Blue Devil, Jay Williams, said he thinks the Wildcats — not the Oregon Ducks — have the inside track to win the Pac-12 title and obtain a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament
“As of right now I have Arizona in that spot,” Williams said. “Obviously I think it’s going to be a fluid movement. It’s going to be a revolving door and I think a lot depends on what happens here tomorrow (versus UCLA) and what happens in the Pac-12 Tournament.
“But I think if you’re an Arizona fan, you feel somewhat comfortable that your destiny is in your own hands.”
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