Sean Miller has built a juggernaut at Arizona but still hasn’t reached a Final Four. This Wildcats team is his best shot to get there in his 13 seasons as a head coach.
Sean Miller drenching a pair of white dress shirts with excessive perspiration provided lasting images from the 2016 NCAA Tournament. The material clung to his soaked torso, giving an unwanted deeper look into Miller’s body of work.
It’s not uncommon to see Miller frantically pacing the sidelines as he did throughout that 65-55 first-round loss to 11th-seeded Wichita State. It would be rare, though, to ever witness Miller fretting over his inability to reach the Final Four in his previous 12 seasons as a head coach.
It’s certainly been well-documented. Miller reached the Elite Eight with Xavier in 2008 and made the Sweet 16 the following season before accepting the Arizona job. The Wildcats have been to three Elite Eights and another Sweet 16 since Miller took over, but he hasn’t yet gotten them over the hump.
Miller isn’t exactly sweating over the fact the Final Four has eluded him, though. Talk of it occurs more on the outside than in, especially with this year’s edition being held not far from Tucson in Phoenix. But the fact remains that this Arizona team is his best chance to finally get there, and one determined to help make that happen. Especially after last year’s first-round defeat, marking his earliest exit from the NCAA Tournament since his first appearance with Xavier in 2006. The Musketeers and their coach Chris Mack, a close friend and former assistant of Miller’s, await Arizona in Thursday night’s Sweet 16 matchup in San Jose.
“It kind of feels funny, because last year he didn’t have that deep run in the Tournament that he usually has,” sophomore Allonzo Trier said earlier this week.
Trier is Arizona’s 6-foot-5 star who averages 17.1 points per game and gives opponents fits. But he’s played only the last 17 games after serving a suspension for mistakenly using a banned substance in the offseason, something the NCAA acknowledged during its investigation.
Miller deftly guided the Wildcats through that adversity, as Arizona’s four losses this season have come against fellow Sweet 16 teams – Butler, Gonzaga, Oregon and UCLA. They went 17-2 without Trier, and those rare defeats came with Kadeem Allen suffering a knee injury and fellow guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright spraining his ankle.
Miller mostly relied on a trio of freshmen, ones he prepared for the rigors and expectations of a grueling Pac-12 season in which Arizona tied for the conference’s regular-season title and won the tournament championship.
Lauri Markkanen has had a stellar campaign, averaging 15.8 points and 7.2 rebounds while displaying a beautiful 3-point touch to complement his inside presence, and guard Kobi Simmons averaged 11.7 points during Trier’s absence.
Rawle Alkins scored 20 points in Arizona’s first-round win over North Dakota before suffering a dislocated finger on his right hand in the second round against St. Mary’s. Alkins will play against Xavier – just another example of the Wildcats continuing to fight.
“Throughout the whole season, we’ve faced adversity and they’ve been the rock of this team all year,” Allen said of the freshmen.
Xavier will be trying to pull its third straight upset as a No. 11 seed, and there’s certainly some added fuel for Mack to defeat his mentor. But there’s no doubting that Miller has the more talented and complete team. That’ll be the case as well if Arizona faces No. 4 seed West Virginia or has a rematch with top-seeded Gonzaga in the Elite Eight.
Miller’s elusive first Final Four appearance is within sight, and he believes the Wildcats have what it takes.
“The fight that we’ve had from start to finish has really prepared us,” Miller said. “Nothing is easy in this Tournament. The unexpected happens and you have to be able to fight through it to get there.”