It may seem like college sports are always going on, but the first half of the summer is when zero Arizona Wildcats teams are in action. Yep, we’re as sad about that as you are.
Before you know it, the 2019-20 seasons will be under way for Arizona’s 19 men’s and women’s sports. But in the meantime, now is the perfect opportunity to assess how each of these programs are doing.
Over the last few weeks we’ve broken down each team and evaluated how it is performing under its current coaching staff, looking at the state of the program before he/she arrived and comparing it to now (as well as looking into the near future).
Last on our list, the big one: Sean Miller’s men’s basketball team.
How it looked before
Of all the great coaches Arizona teams have had none was better than Lute Olson. From 1983 to 2007, there was no one better in college basketball than Lute, who led the Wildcats to the 1997 national title as well as nine outright conference titles, three Final Fours and 589 victories.
The end of his reign was a messy one, though, though. Former assistant Kevin O’Neill was brought back to be the coach-in-waiting, and when Olson went on a leave of absence just before the start of the 2007-08 season it looked like O’Neill’s tenure was about to begin. However, Olson announced during that season he intended to return in 2008-09 and coach beyond that, leading to O’Neill’s departure after one year.
Olson then officially returned a month before the 2008-09 campaign, for health reasons, leaving assistant Russ Pennell as the interim coach. Pennell led Arizona to a surprise Sweet 16 run in 2009 but he wasn’t considered for the permanent job.
After a prolonged search that included then-USC coach Tim Floyd turning down the job—dodged a bullet there!—Arizona hired Miller away from Xavier. Only 40 at the time, Miller was considered one of the hottest young coaches in the game, having led the Musketeers to four consecutive NCAA tournament appearances including an Elite Eight and Sweet 16 in his final two seaons.
Where things stand now
Hard to believe the Sean Miller era is a decade old, huh? Maybe it feels like longer to some people, particularly those who have been unable to avoid comparing him to Olson in terms of accomplishments.
From a wins-and-losses standpoint, though, Miller’s time with Arizona has been tremendous. He’s 264-89 overall with a 129-51 record in Pac-10/12 play, winning or sharing the regular season title five times in 10 years with three Pac-12 tournament titles.
It’s when you start looking at his NCAA tourney performance, though, that the gripes come in. Three of his 10 seasons have ended without an NCAA bid, which is two more than Olson had in his 24 seasons, and while Miller has gotten Arizona to the Sweet 16 five times, including three trips to the Elite Eight, that elusive Final Four hasn’t happened.
And it’s not because the Wildcats haven’t had the talent to get there. Miller’s amazing recruiting ability has ensured Arizona rarely is lacking in that department, but most seasons his squads haven’t lived up to that potential when it mattered most. And with each shortcoming comes more grumblings from the fanbase.
Things have come to a head the past two seasons thanks to Arizona’s involvement in the federal bribery scandal that has engulfed college basketball since former assistant Emmanuel ‘Book’ Richardson and other CBB assistants were arrested in September 2017. The 2017-18 team had to deal with that all season, even more so in February 2018 when allegations surfaced of Miller paying freshman Deandre Ayton—leading to Miller sitting out a couple games—and then that super-talented squad got run out of the NCAA tourney in the first round by Buffalo.
Last season was arguably the worst the program has had in more than 35 years, a 17-15 mark that included a losing record in Pac-12 play and no postseason. Miller spent much of the year dodging any and all questions about the program’s connection to the federal investigation, as well as to reports of the NCAA beginning its own inquiry earlier this year.
The school has remained staunchly committed to Miller, both athletic director Dave Heeke and president Robert Robbins publicly supporting him on multiple occasions. Who knows how much of their decision to do so is tied into the fact Arizona has a top-flight recruiting class coming in for this next season.
Miller is under contract through the 2021-22 season, with his base salary at $2.4 million in 2019-20.
One big question
Will the NCAA drop the hammer on Arizona? Back in June an NCAA official told CBS Sports that “at least six Division I men’s basketball programs” would receive notices of allegations of Level I offenses related to the federal investigation. These were to be doled out over the course of the summer, yet to this point only one school (North Carolina State) has been formally notified.
It’s been widely speculated that Arizona will be one of those schools, something the administration has no doubt been bracing for. But will that actually be the case? And if so, how bad will it really be?
Despite accusations made regarding Miller and paying players, and accusations that there are wiretapped conversations that confirm this, no such tapes were played during either of the federal trials that were held. The NCAA has said the FBI only passed on the evidence that was presented at trial, and while Richardson plead guilty to a bribery charge his crimes don’t appear to have involved anything that would affect any current or former players’ eligibility.
However, changes in NCAA legislation made what Richardson did (as well as the alleged actions of ex-assistant Mark Phelps, whom the school forced out midway through last season for an apparent NCAA violation involving one-time Arizona commit Shareef O’Neal) something they can punish Miller for. But what that punishment would be is anyone’s guess.
At this point, outside of a postseason ban or Miller being issued a show-cause penalty—which prevents him from coaching at the collegiate level for a fixed time period—any NCAA punishment might feel like a win for Arizona. Vacating past victories or losing a few scholarships is nothing, if that’s all that happens.