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What Sean Miller said about Arizona’s season and the program’s future

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NCAA Basketball: Arizona at Oregon Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

The Arizona Wildcats fell to Oregon 80-69 in Eugene Monday night, putting a stamp on the 2020-21 season. With the loss, the Wildcats will finish the year 17-9 overall and 11-9 in Pac-12.

Our recap from the game can be found here. Below is what coach Sean Miller had to say about the game, Arizona’s season, and what lies ahead of the program.

Sean Miller post Oregon

Hear what Sean Miller said about Arizona's season-closing loss to Oregon and the future of the program

Posted by AZ Desert Swarm on Monday, March 1, 2021

On the season: “I’ll just share with you what I said to our team after the game. This is the 17th team that I’ve had as a head coach, and I’ve never been prouder of a group of guys than I am of this year’s team. We entered the year with 10 new players, three returners that played in games a year ago, Christian Koloko, Ira Lee and Jemarl Baker. Unfortunately for both Jemarl and our team, we lost Jemarl to the season-ending injury. So if you think about it, in a sense, the 12 guys that we have on our roster, 10 of them didn’t play in a game for us. Throw in COVID and how hard that’s been on every team, and certainly we’ve had some good fortune, but to never get shut down one time from the first day of school to the last game of our season, I think you have to give the players a lot of credit. You’re not going to be able to do that unless they’re disciplined in following the protocols that were set forth. And we had 80 practices. I can’t really think of a single moment, you always have certain practices that are better than others, but it’s a group of guys that really gave us everything. And really the same thing this season.”

On the team’s final record and how many guys might return: “11-9 in the Pac-12 and 17-9, you always want to do better, but I have the peace of mind that we battled hard in all 26 games. The fact that we sit here with 17 wins, I can make a strong argument that it could have been a lot worse based on where we were in August. The last point just with this year’s team is their future. I believe that the last three teams we’ve not returned a single starter for the previous year. And there’s reasons for that. I’m the head coach and I understand all of them, but that’s not to your advantage to be successful. I think for the first time in that four-year stretch, we’re poised to return a lion’s share of this year’s team, to bring in a new group in addition to that, and instead of replacing five starters, that experience, my hope is more towards our advantage. So it’s always weird when the year ends but when it ends here in Eugene, Oregon and you’re not in the Pac-12 Tournament. There’s not a single player in our locker room that was here or had anything to do with why we’re not playing in this tournament and my heart really goes out to them. It’s not been easy. But they and we have really done a great job of getting all the way to the end, and now it’s so much more about where we go from this point forward. So, those are kind of the words that I shared with our team. The two true seniors that we lose, Ira Lee and Matt Weyand both of those guys are great kids. They were here for four years. Certainly grew up a lot during that time and really we’re sad to see them leave us.”

On why Miller thinks the lion’s share of players will return: “I would like to tell you everybody or this guy’s coming back, this guy isn’t, but I think you know what I’m going to say. In the next couple of weeks, we’ll make sure that we have our meetings with each player. They’re all able to come back. But I think the lion’s share will, but that’s, that’s really up to them. I’ve never really told a player what to do, how to do it. We give them our opinion, but I think I have a pretty good sense of who’s going to come back, and I think it’s exciting to think about. Maybe not at this very moment here as the year ends but as we move forward.”

On what this group showed to Miller and the staff: “Oh, I believe that we can return back to the top of the mountain, and it doesn’t happen overnight. But when I came here 12 years ago, I know that’s a long, long time ago, the two previous seasons before I ever showed up here as the new Arizona coach, and I think I was the fourth coach in four years, Arizona’s record in the Pac-10 was 17-19. In the first two years with us in the Pac-10, we went 24-12. And then we kind of rebuilt and we sustained excellence, and right now 11-9 isn’t what anyone wants to sign up for moving forward. But I do think it’s a great bridge from a lot of things that have happened to a promising future, and we have some very good young players, we have some guys that are able to return that had outstanding seasons. And now we just have to meet with them. And then the other part of it is we have to be recruit with an effort level and an intensity that we’ve been at for a long, long time around here. And I think that that’s the second part of this.”

On whether Miller expects his contract to be resolved: “I don’t expect anything. I know that now that this season’s over I’m going to have the opportunity to talk to Dr. Robbins and Dave Heeke, and I look forward to having that opportunity to do that. When that time happens, I think that I’ll certainly know a lot more.”

On whether Arizona closed the season strong: “I think so. I think you just have to look at it bigger than that. I’ll go back to the Colorado game. That was a real moment of truth for our team because I would say of all the games that we played this year, maybe our poorest performance was at Utah. And we were up there on that trip and then we really bounced back and played a great game there (at Colorado) had a chance to win, didn’t. And then I just feel like from that point on, Oregon at home, it’s another game that we didn’t win but man we played, we were right there, had a chance. And then playing at UCLA late in the year, playing at Oregon with the team that we have, we’re gonna have to play a great, great game to win. We did that against USC, but I just feel like our guys every day from the beginning to the end tried hard. We’re not perfect. We make a lot of young mistakes. Sometimes you feel it. Like on drives against our freshmen, they just don’t have enough resistance on defense. But I couldn’t like I said earlier be more proud of a group of guys.

On some of the team’s individual season performances: “James Akinjo, I don’t think everybody truly knows what an outstanding season he really had. Again, he had 19 points, eight assists, two turnovers. He’s probably going to end up leading the Pac-12 in assists, leader on our team in scoring. His three point shooting now is close to 40%. He was just outstanding. I believe he’ll be an All-Pac 12 performer. You have Benn (Mathurin) and Azuolas (Tubelis) that I think are right there to be on the All-Freshman team. Christian Koloko clearly at times look like an All-Defensive performer. And Jordan Brown doesn’t start but you can make a statement that he could certainly be in consideration for a Sixth Man of the Year. We had a lot of guys play and then, Kerr (Kriisa), you just have to recognize how difficult it is to be eligible with like six or seven games left in the year. Coming from a different country, being a freshman. And I think it’s fairly obvious when you watch a guy like him play, he has a bright future as well, and I was just really pleased with him. We recognized Terrell Brown. Terrell is a great kid and we’ll see as we talk to him about what his future is. And Dalen (Terry), I don’t want to forget Dalen because Dalen is kind of that unsung player in our program. He just works at it every day. And two of our biggest wins this year at Arizona State and at USC, we would not have won either game if Dalen Terry didn’t play the way he did. And, again, he’s somebody that I really enjoy coaching.”

On how the coaching staff handled the 2020-21 season: “Our coaching staff, we have a very, very good coaching staff. And as you guys know covering us, our coaching staff extends beyond just the assistant coaches and myself. Our trainer Justin Kokoskie, he slept at McKale 20-25 days this year, maybe more, just because of how far he lives, Oro Valley from McKale and what he needed to do as early as 5:30 in the morning. Chris Rounds, our strength coach, David Miller, Ryan Reynolds, we have a great group. So, I tip my hat to them because it hasn’t been easy. For me. I just got my head down and really just trying to do the best that I can leading and really looking forward to hopefully an opportunity to get us back on top of the mountain. We were there. And when you’ve been there and you’ve been off of it, you sometimes have a real hunger to get back there. And hopefully that day will come.”

On what makes a season successful: “You learn more as the season goes on. At the beginning it’s so much about a process of just doing things right, doing things the best that we can daily, weekly, monthly. Preparing, learning more about your team. In our case that was really important because we had so many new faces. But when Jemarl Baker was lost for the year, you have to remember Jemarl was on track to be an All-Conference player. He had 31 points in a game and he clearly was our most experienced player. That stretch where he was out and Kerr was not eligible, I really worried about us being able to survive. And we did. But, near the end I think we got to about where I hoped we could have been. Being greedy, maybe just one of those other games bouncing our way and maybe ending 12-8, 18-8, but I’ll probably have a better sense over the next month when you kind of reflect back, but we clearly were up against for a lot of reasons, and hopefully we were able to solidify a number of things moving forward so we’re not as vulnerable as maybe we would have been 12 months ago.”

On how much Miller enjoyed coaching this team: “I think every coach, you would like to have the sense that the talent level, the experience, who you have, what you’re capable of doing, that you get as close to that ceiling as you can. There’s a number of years where I might not have appeared to be enjoying it and maybe that’s on me. But the bullseye was right there. You’re trying to win the national championship. Look, expectations and kind of who you are and if you’re playing at your best, you could go all the way to the beginning of April. With this year’s team, there’s so much unknown. Again, I think if you have as much turnover as we have, and again, what I said was, we’ve not had a returning starter in three seasons. And this year, to have 10 new guys of the 12, especially with a lot of these guys are freshmen, you just don’t really know. And you throw COVID on top of that, I’m just really proud of the group, of how hard they worked. I really think we became a good team. You could ask the other coaches, I don’t think anybody saw us coming and was licking their chops. They knew they were in for a tough game. And sometimes we really played well and sometimes we didn’t, but our intent was very good.”

On the offense being No. 19 in the country but the defense being 95th: “There’s two sides to that coin. I’m very proud of our offense. I thought even tonight we had some looks in the second half that didn’t drop. Again, you’re playing three games in five days. We went from a 9 p.m/ game where our guys left the building at midnight and we went to a noon game on senior day, to flying up here the next day and playing this group. I know Oregon is on quite a test themselves, but for our group, based on where we are physically, some of the second half is a function of just being out of juice. But our offense, I think we did a lot of great things on offense with such a young group. Defensively, I wish we were better. If we were, instead of being 11-9, we would be 13-7. We lost games with our defense and we won games with our offense. Some of it is youth, some of it is inexperience. Some of it is some of the players that we have are more talented on offense than they are on defense. We have to fix that. We can do that through recruiting. We can do that through the weight room, maturation, experience, and then always you’re trying to reflect on what we can do better in terms of a scheme, in terms of our tactical part of things. So we’ll take a look at all that but I think that we’ll be a much better defensive team moving forward.”

On how many players Arizona might add via the transfer portal or for the 2021 class: “Well first we have to just determine how many scholarships we have. The next two weeks or so, meeting with each of our players, getting a good sense, making sure that we’re clear and we’re on the same page with each of them moving forward. Then we’ll have a better idea, but we don’t have a lot of scholarships. I can see us potentially taking one player in the spring. That will depend on how our returning roster looks. I can’t imagine us taking more than two because we have three incoming freshmen coming in. We’re really excited about all three of them. So it won’t be nearly as busy as maybe the last four springs. But we’ll know more about that in the next couple of weeks.”

On what was the difference in losing to Oregon: “First of all, I think we have to look and say how did we play? Again when you play single digit turnovers, kind of unique in that we had eight in the first half and only one in the second half, but when you play against Oregon and you can play with single digit turnovers, that is a really, really good thing. Offensively we did a lot of excellent things. We were 45% from the field, 35% from three. Again, we didn’t make as many free throws. We got there 19 times, nine turnovers. The thing that they’ve done in both games against us is they manhandle us on the rebounding part of things. That’s a real credit to their team. They are a bigger team than you think. They don’t have necessarily like six-ten or seven foot in the game at all times, but their wings and their guards are big, and those guys are men. They’re older, they’re experienced and then even Will Richardson as their point guard, he’s six foot five. They’re good. They are a better team than us, and for us to beat them on their court. not only would we have play had to play a great game, I thought we were solid, but they would have had to be a little off. The way they shoot the ball, it’s hard to beat them when they shoot it like they did against us.”

On Miller’s outlook for the rest of the Pac-12 this season: “Oregon is a very, very good team You have to realize between the two COVID shutdowns they had, they just had to survive for a period of time, but that team that we just played can make a big run in the NCAA Tournament. And between USC, UCLA, and Colorado and Oregon, those are all really good teams in the Pac-12 that I think will make us really proud in the postseason. I’m pulling for all of them. But this team, Oregon, Chris Duarte, make sure you guys write that name down. He’s really, really good. He’s gonna go on and do some great things when he leaves Oregon.”

On whether Arizona will schedule another game: “I don’t think it’s going to be a possibility. Between these other teams in their conference tournament and as we’ve started to explore even playing next week, it’s just so hard on our guys to have to extend it for 7, 8, 9, 10, 11 days. For what? There’s a time where we all have to kind of take our ball and go home. And I think now’s that time for us.”