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Why Arizona basketball is at a crossroads

What does the future hold for Sean Miller?

arizona-basketball-wildcats-coaching-Sean-Miller-coronavirus-ncaa-Dawkins-fbi Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images

Just when you think you’ve seen it all, the unprecedented end to the 2019-20 basketball season unfolds. Arizona was absolutely getting into the NCAA Tournament, it was just a question of “how far it would have gone?”

The unexpected and abrupt ending to this season is a fitting one for the Arizona Wildcats. Given all of the talent on this season’s roster, it wasn’t unreasonable to enter the year with high expectations. It also wasn’t unreasonable to have guarded optimism because this roster showcased seven first-year players.

What took place throughout the season probably favored those with guarded optimism. I can’t honestly say if the team got better from start to finish.

There’s no point in speculating what could have been but I think everyone could rationally agree with a high level of confidence that this wasn’t going to be the team that broke through to the final weekend. This means, as fans, we were in line for another disappointing finish.

Moreover, I believe it underscores a bigger issue on hand. An issue that really divides the Wildcat faithful.

Is it time for Sean Miller and Arizona to part ways?

Everyone has an opinion on this and just like politics it’ll be difficult to sway an individual from one position to the other. For that, I ask that we start with the facts about Miller’s time at Arizona.

The facts

  • Number of seasons: 11
  • Record: 285-100
  • Conference record: 139-59
  • Average record: 26-9 (13-5)
  • Conference titles: 5
  • Conference tourney titles: 3
  • NCAA Tourney appearances: 7 (2019-20 would have been eight)
  • NCAA Tourney record: 13-7
  • Sweet 16s: 5
  • Elite Eights: 3
  • Final Fours: 0

There’s no getting around it. This is simply a fantastic resume. Arizona is basically, on average, getting to at least the Sweet 16 every other year with Miller at the helm.

The problem comes in when you apply the bias of “What have you done for me lately?”

To make this cleaner, I’ll omit Miller’s first season and use seasons 2-6 and 7-11 as the comparative samples.

Seasons 2-6 (2011-2015)

  • Record: 147-37
  • Conference record: 69-21
  • Conference titles: 3
  • Conference tourney titles: 1
  • NCAA Tourney appearances: 4
  • NCAA Tourney record: 11-4

Seasons 7-11 (2016-2020)

  • Record: 122-48
  • Conference record: 60-30
  • Conference titles: 2
  • Conference tourney titles: 2
  • NCAA Tourney appearances: 3 (2019-20 would have been four)
  • NCAA Tourney record: 2-3

Seasons 2-6 are obviously more impressive than seasons 7-11. Consider this as well, the first two seasons of the second sample set weren’t really that bad.

That first season was the year Arizona got worked by Wichita State in the first round of the NCAA tournament. However, that season was post T.J. McConnell, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Brandon Ashley. In my opinion, this team probably overachieved.

The following season was the Lauri Markkanen year and that’s the one that stings the most. This was a season where the Pac-12 was loaded with talent in UCLA, Oregon and Arizona.

In Las Vegas over two consecutive nights, Arizona beat both UCLA and Oregon who were respectively nationally ranked three and five at the time. Don’t forget Oregon made it to the Final Four that year.

Unfortunately for the Wildcats, they had a meltdown in the final minutes of their Sweet 16 matchup against Xavier. Arizona had no business losing that game but the reality is they did. This was the most impressive roster of all of the Miller teams in my opinion because of its quality depth.

Of course just prior to the following season, came the bombshell of the college basketball bribery scandal which involved Arizona. Anyone reading this article knows those details so I’ll spare them here.

Arizona entered the season with that dark cloud over its head as well as having the top recruit in college basketball in Deandre Ayton. The season started off very rocky after losing three straight games in the Bahamas as the number two team in the country.

Ultimately Miller guided the team to a regular season conference title as well as a conference tournament title but those milestones were virtually erased by the first-round massacre by Buffalo in the NCAA Tournament.

I hope everyone agrees that Miller gets a pass for his on-court coaching efforts in the 2018-19 season as the recruiting class was absolutely ravaged by the FBI investigation. Although, the bare-minimum argument that the lack of institutional control falls directly on his shoulders holds plenty of merit.

That brings us to the season that just unexpectedly concluded. This was the year that was supposed to erase everything that happened dating back to the Sweet 16 loss to Xavier in 2017. And as I briefly outlined, there have been a lot of bad memories.

There really hasn’t been closure to the bribery/recruiting scandal, just radio silence. Sometimes no news is good news but it’s hard to believe that nothing can come from that.

It was recently reported that HBO is releasing a documentary of the scandal later this month. I can’t imagine that there is new damning evidence against Miller that would be considered unbeknownst to President Robert Robbins, AD Dave Heeke or the rest of the Arizona insiders.

However, it’s just going to reopen those wounds. It’s also bad timing (or perfect timing depending on which side of the table you sit) that it’s following the conclusion of a season that should probably be considered a disappointment.

The bottom line is Miller has done wonderful things for “A Player’s Program” and the facts support that position. It’s just hard to get out from under the dark cloud of the FBI Investigation or overlook the underachievement dating back March 23, 2017, when Arizona gave away its ticket to Xavier for another Elite Eight appearance.

The university and Miller should be facing a crucial decision to make this off-season. Given everything we’ve witnessed over the last few years, both on and off the court, is it time to part ways?

I believe the answer is yes.