As the cheers from the sea of red-clad Arizona fans permeated throughout McKale Center, Sean Miller slowly climbed up the ladder and snipped off the rest of the netting that his players left hanging from the rim.
He then grabbed the white nylon, and held it up in the air for the whole arena — fans, his players, and their families alike — to see. Then, with it still in hand, he pumped his fist several times, drawing more cheers before flinging the net through the air.
“I was just trying to soak it all in,” Miller said.
“It means a lot to him,” added senior point guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright. “I know it does.”
The Arizona Wildcats had just won their fifth Pac-12 championship in nine seasons under Miller. All five were rewarding and hard-earned, but the UA head coach will likely cherish this one more than others.
For one, the Wildcats had to survive a treacherous journey just to get to the net-cutting ceremony.
First, there was former assistant coach Book Richardson getting arrested in September for bribery, fraud, and corruption which has placed Arizona in the middle of a major college basketball recruiting scandal ever since.
And its involvement was escalated even further just a week ago, when ESPN reported that Miller discussed a $100,000 payment to secure the signing of prized freshman Deandre Ayton.
That put Miller’s future at Arizona in doubt and forced him to step away from his team for six days, before the school decided to bring him back this past Thursday.
There was also Rawle Alkins’ broken foot and Allonzo Trier’s PED suspension that Arizona had to navigate through.
One obstacle after another, it seemed. It was physically and mentally draining, Jackson-Cartwright said.
Miller used a different term.
“Devastating,” he said. “The second word that I would use is remarkable because a lot of lesser programs, teams, universities would have crumbled.”
That resiliency made this Pac-12 championship special for Miller, but the realization that it could be his last for a while probably did, too.
Before Arizona’s four seniors were commemorated after their final home game Saturday, Miller grabbed the microphone and asked the crowd to celebrate the contributions of three underclassmen — Alkins, Trier, and Ayton.
Normally, Senior Day belongs to, well, seniors, and Miller later confirmed what everyone in the building was thinking: the trio will be leaving at season’s end.
“Those guys deserved an ovation just like the seniors because they’re not going to play in McKale again,” Miller said.
That means Arizona is set to lose its entire starting five, including arguably the best player the program has ever had in Ayton and an elite scorer in Trier, with no five-star recruits waiting in the wings to replace them.
Or any recruits, for that matter.
The Wildcats currently have zero 2018 commits, as their recruiting efforts have been ravaged by the proverbial cloud hanging over the program.
Four-star prospects Brandon Williams and Shareef O’Neal both decommitted from Arizona in the wake of last week’s ESPN report, and the Wildcats aren’t close to landing anyone else.
So, as of now, Arizona’s roster in 2018-19 will consist of a decent-at-best group of returners and ... that’s it.
Miller will likely scrape together a make-shift recruiting class and/or add a transfer or two, but it will be unlike the star-studded classes he has landed in the past.
“In college basketball, there’s so much change from one year to the next that of course we’re going to look totally different,” Miller acknowledged.
There used to be the running joke that next year is always the year for Arizona basketball. That, when Arizona falls short in the NCAA Tournament this year, it will bring in a new host of five-star recruits and reload for another run next year.
Now? Nobody wants to think about next year. Not Arizona fans. Not Miller.
When the postseason begins Thursday, it reckons to be a “now or never” moment for the 19th-ranked Wildcats.
They have the talent to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament this season, but will be hard-pressed to finish in the top four of the Pac-12 next year.
Which is why Miller will treasure this team and the Wildcats’ newest piece of hardware as long as he can. Because it could be a while before they add to their collection again.
“A lot of the players that you watched play tonight won’t be here next year,” Miller said moments after Arizona received its Pac-12 championship trophy. “And you really just try to soak it all in, and enjoy it, and make it last as long as you can.”
He added: “One thing you learn is what you have today can be taken easily. And you can’t take anything for granted.”
Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire