We haven’t had college sports for more than three months now due to the coronavirus pandemic, making this the longest offseason ever. Literally, not just figuratively.
But with student-athletes returning to campuses across the country, it looks like our long national nightmare might be over sometime soon. Maybe. Hopefully.
So now is as good a time as ever to take a look at each of the Arizona Wildcats’ 19 different men’s and women’s programs to see what shape they’re in and what prospects they have for the near future.
To help prepare you for the 2020-21 seasons of Arizona’s 19 different men’s and women’s programs
Over the next few weeks we’ll break down each team and evaluate 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 at this season and beyond).
NOTE: The information in the ‘before’ section has been repurposed from last year’s series to provide continuity.
Next up: Sean Miller’s men’s basketball program
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 more successful in college basketball than Lute, who led the Wildcats to the 1997 national title as well as nine outright conference championships, three Final Fours and 589 victories.
The end of his reign was a messy one, 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. But 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 retired 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 seasons.
Where things stand now
Year 11 of the Miller era featured a lot of the same elements as ones before it: extreme hype early on, followed by mixed results during the season that put into question just how good the Wildcats could be. It did not end on a down note, though, at least not the way others had, since the 2019-20 season came to an abrupt halt midway through the Pac-12 Tournament in Las Vegas.
Arizona had just beaten Washington—whom it lost to at home less than a week earlier—in the first wound when the pandemic stopped all sports. That robbed the fanbase of seeing if Nico Mannion, Josh Green and Zeke Nnaji could finally get the UA back to the Final Four … or it saved them the agony of another disappointing postseason performance. We’ll never know which one, since that trio left after one season for the NBA.
Along with the graduations of Stone Gettings, Max Hazzard, Chase Jeter and Dylan Smith the Wildcats lost seven players from a 21-win team. It brings back just three who played for the UA last season, with only senior Ira Lee having started a game with the program.
Two transfers become eligible after sitting out, with ex-Nevada forward Jordan Brown expected to be a big part of the frontcourt while former Georgetown point guard James Akinjo will be a key member of the backcourt—though when he can play remains uncertain, since he transferred midway through the 2018-19 season. A third, ex-Seattle guard Terrell Brown, is eligible immediately as a graduate transfer.
Then there are the seven incoming freshmen, six of whom are international prospects. Arizona put in overtime during the coronavirus-mandated recruiting shutdown to add players from Estonia, France, Lithuania and Turkey.
Arizona is currently at 14 when it comes to scholarship players, one above the limit. That means either someone is going to have to leave the program—Brandon Williams, perhaps?—or one of the newcomers will have to drop down to walk-on status if they’re all able to join the team. That’s not a certainty considering travel restrictions brought on by the pandemic.
Miller is scheduled to make $2.5 million (plus incentives) for the 2020-21 season, though he was among the UA coaches who agreed to a pay cut in the spring to help the athletic department deal with budget shortages due to the shutdown. His contract only runs through 2021-22, though, so an extension may be in the works sometime this year since it’s rare for a high-profile coach to operate in the final year of a contract.
One big question
Can Miller build chemistry with this roster? Massive turnover has become the norm in college basketball, particularly as transferring has become so prevalent. But while it’s common to have a large number of newcomers playing together during the season, normally there’s plenty of time prior to games in order for everyone to get acclimated and learn each other’s games.
Whenever Arizona’s seven freshmen as well as grad transfer Terrell Brown finally get to campus it will be the first time nearly all of them have been there. Dalen Terry took an official visit last September, while Bennedict Mathurin got to check out the McKale Center during the season.
Everyone else? It’ll all be brand-spanking new. And not just the environment, the interactions with the coaching staff, which to this point has been almost entirely comprised of phone calls, texts and Zoom meetings.
It won’t be like the Red-Blue scrimmage will be the first time the team is on the court together, but the amount of time that will need to be spent just getting to know each other will be greater than in most years. The growing pains figure to be much more pronounced early on, so things could be a little bumpy at the outset.
Then again, who knows what kind of a 2020-21 season there’s going to be, and how it will be structured? Might it start early, with a break in the middle, or could it get pushed back and limited to just Pac-12 games? It’s all a guess at this point, which is only fitting since we have absolutely no idea what Miller’s 12th Wildcat squad will be like.