Sean Miller’s inability to reach the Final Four has become an internet punchline.
Shortly after the 11th-seeded Xavier Musketeers used a 12-2 run to shockingly eliminate the 2nd-seeded Arizona Wildcats 73-71 in the Sweet 16, Miller’s Wikipedia page was updated to reflect a harsh, but true reality for the 13-year head coach.
“You guessed it,” read the maliciously edited postseason result for Arizona’s 2016-17 season, “not the final 4.”
Miller has reached the NCAA Tournament 10 times as a head coach and has appeared in seven Sweet Sixteens and four Elite Eights. Never, however, has he roamed the sidelines in a Final Four game.
This was supposed to be the year for Miller and the Wildcats with the Final Four being up the road in Glendale.
Instead, Arizona fell short again in Miller’s eighth season in Tucson.
Stymied by the various defenses Xavier used, the Wildcats did not hit a shot in the final 2:53 of the game as they blew an eight-point lead in the final four minutes.
Missed shots, bad shots, turnovers, and poor defense doomed the Wildcats, and Miller could only blame himself for those things happening with the season on the line.
“Your job when you get to this area, when you get to this level of college basketball, your best players gotta be confident,” he said. “We have to get them shots. I don't care what defense they're playing -- 1-3-1, 2-3, man-to-man -- and I don't feel we did that tonight. And that's probably the worst feeling you can have as a coach.”
Despite shooting 20-for-35 from inside the arc, the Wildcats were baited by the Musketeers’ zone defense into taking 27 3s. They made seven of them.
“When [Xavier] had the opportunity to take a shot or make one, they made them, and we had a couple that didn't go in,” Miller said. “Equally disappointed in myself. Our team never really ever established great confidence against the zone. And I think in some ways that was the reason, defensively, that we weren't as good as we usually are or maybe better than we needed to be, because the game never really felt good.
“And that's on me.”
Xavier shot 53 percent against Arizona, making two clutch 3s in the final three minutes, helping it erase a 69-61 deficit.
“We had an eight-point lead under the four-minute mark. They needed to make shots. And I thought that they hit two threes in a row ... that really were barely challenged,” Miller said.
“When you're under the four-minute mark and you have teams fighting to stay alive, you have to jump. You have to run at them. You have to close out with great effort. You have to make them miss. You have to understand that even a two is better than a three. And we didn't do that. And they made the shots.
“And then when you foul on an offensive rebound really late in the game at 15 feet, we gave them two more points that they didn't even have to work for. But from an offensive perspective, we had both going the wrong way. And did we get great shots? We have a couple we could have made, maybe we could have made a couple, but it's to my point: We weren't able to get great looks down the stretch or a wide open one.”
And it was partially because the Wildcats defaulted to Allonzo Trier. It didn’t really seem like the wrong move, either. He was the hot hand.
With Arizona only leading by one point with 14 minutes to play, Trier rattled off 15 straight points for the Wildcats, allowing them to retain a 64-61 lead with 5:26 left.
After a Kadeem Allen three and two free throws by Parker Jackson-Cartwright, Arizona led by eight with 3:44 left.
The Wildcats were in control.
But not for long.
The ball stopped moving and Trier — perhaps overzealously — tried to carry his team to the finish line. After 15 straight points he went cold, missing his final three shots as Arizona’s offense came to a complete halt in the final three minutes.
Trier’s final shot, and the final shot of Arizona’s season, was a potential game-winning three that rimmed out as time expired.
It also was a highly contested, step-back jumper — not the type of shot Arizona wanted in that situation.
But that’s all they could muster.
“And that's not on these guys,” Miller said. “That's on me. We have to be more comfortable this late in the season against that type of defense and we really just never quite established a rhythm that I think we needed to continue to play.”
They won’t continue, but the Wildcats still finished with 32 wins, a Pac-12 regular season championship, and a Pac-12 Conference Tournament championship.
You guessed it, though, they didn’t reach the Final Four.
“I think if you're a team that is 32-5, you win both the Pac-12 regular season and also the Pac-12 Tournament, and our journey ends in the Sweet 16, it's hard to look at that as not getting it done or failure,” Miller said.
“But our goal and aspiration is always to challenge for a Final Four.
“And we pulled up short.”
You can follow this author on Twitter at @RKelapire