Say what you will about Sean Miller, but the Arizona Wildcats basketball coach is not dumb.
Which is why, when asked about his contract status and its impact on recruiting during one of his final non-postgame press conferences of the season, he declined to go into any detail.
“You know, I’m just not there right now,” the coach said, before adding that it is a fair question but one he has not really thought about because he’s instead focused on his team’s final games of the season.
Here is what we do know:
Miller’s contract was extended to five years in 2017, meaning it is set to expire at the conclusion of the 2021-22 season. That’s next season, by the way.
This undoubtedly has a negative impact on the team’s recruiting — just as it would for any coach entering the final year of their contract. That’s obvious.
Another thing we know is Miller absolutely has thought about his contract, because, well, there’s no way he hasn’t. Following Arizona’s season-concluding loss to Oregon, he said he looked forward to speaking with his bosses about the future.
On the surface there is good reason for why his contract has not been addressed. The coach has also not won a tournament game since 2017 when the Cats were upset in the Sweet 16 by Xavier, and in the time that has passed he has come under fire and scrutiny for his potential involvement in a scandal that has enveloped the program.
While last year’s team would have made the tournament had their been one, few expected any kind of deep run. This year’s squad was banned from the postseason early on so it’s impossible to know how things would have played out with that carrot in front of them, but even still this was likely a bubble team that may be a year away from something big.
That marks three consecutive seasons of not being elite, and many will stretch it to four after the team was smoked by Buffalo in the first round of the 2018 Dance.
A lack of on-court success (as measured by Arizona standards) and a scandal? With that in mind it’s difficult to understand why an extension would even be considered.
But it should be.
The hope is the program self-imposing a postseason ban will mean that when it’s all over with, Arizona will be eligible for the tournament(s) from here on out. Miller’s ability to construct talented rosters the last two seasons speaks to his ability as a recruiter, and this year’s squad has buoyed his case as a talent developer.
This year’s team was built differently than previous Miller teams, with an apparent focus on players who are likely to be in town for more than one season. That concept only works if players get better, and it’s difficult to argue that freshmen Benn Mathurin and Azoulas Tubelis have not improved, nor would it be wise to ignore the better-than-expected play of James Akinjo, Terrell Brown and Jemarl Baker, Jr., before he was lost for the season to injury.
No one can be sure of how many of this year’s players will be back next year, but assuming there aren’t multiple surprise defections the talent will be there to compete at the highest of levels. Maybe even more than their talent, their mindset is the kind you want to see. There has been ample reason to “give up” on the season, and yet they continue to play hard for Miller despite the lack of postseason opportunities.
In fact, the players seem to like actually like their coach.
300 wins at Arizona.— Arizona Basketball (@APlayersProgram) February 21, 2021
Congrats coach!#APlayersProgram pic.twitter.com/ZrMORAxltn
Now, one win over a ranked team does not mean Miller should come back, but it coming this late in a tough season can be seen as a sign that the talent on the roster is good. Similarly, while the players celebrating their coach after a win does not mean Miller’s contract should be extended, it’s clear he has not lost a team that could have given up on the season and their coach a long time ago.
Miller has since won his 301st and 302nd games with Arizona and even with Monday’s loss in Oregon the team finished with a record of 17-9 (11-9). Not great, but solid — especially given the roster makeup and circumstances. It’s fair to say that had this been a normal season Miller would have reached that personal win total sooner while his team would have notched 20 wins for the 10th time in the coach’s 12 seasons at the helm.
The 30-win teams that were Final Four contenders seem like a distant memory, though, and the question is if Miller is the guy to get Arizona back to that level. If so, then keep him. If not, move on.
Fear of being unable to do better than Miller should not prevent the school from trying.
While the Arizona job is a good one, given the circumstances it’s fair to wonder what top coach would want to take over the program. Sanctions could be coming, after all.
Maybe the uncertainty would prompt Miller to leave on his own? It would be understandable, although it’s difficult to imagine what program would bring him on, baggage and all.
The smart thing for both sides, at least right now, is to plan to stick together for at least another few years — pending penalties and revelations, of course. Arizona should look to extend Miller’s contract another two years or so in order to buy some time.
Time to let the investigations conclude and, perhaps even more importantly, time to see if the coach can get the Wildcats back to a level that would have them contending for a national championship.