LOS ANGELES — It’s hard not to feel bad for Arizona coach Sean Miller. I mean, what does the guy have to do to get to a Final Four?
The easy answer? Beat Wisconsin, either last season or on Saturday, when the Wildcats were beaten by the Badgers 85-78 in the West Region final, ending the UA’s season in the Elite Eight again.
In Miller’s last eight seasons as a head coach (six at Arizona, two at Xavier), Miller has reached four Elite Eights, bowing out each time before getting a chance to play in the national semifinals. Yeah, his team has been the higher seeded team only once in those games, but you would think the cards would fall in his direction at least once, right?
He certainly feels that way.
“Yeah, no question,” Miller said while laughing when I asked if he felt snake-bitten by his luck in these games. “I mean, when you lose in this game, it’s hard. You lose four times in eight years, and that’s probably a record, right? It is what it is.”
He’s actually wrong on that. There is recent precedent for going to four Elite Eights in eight years without getting to the Final Four. Current Kansas coach Bill Self took his Tulsa, Illinois and Kansas teams to the Elite Eight four times in eight years from 2000-2007. What happened with Self and Kansas in the next year?
Kansas won the national championship.
Now, I’m not saying that Miller and Arizona are going to go out and win the national title in 2016. But we shouldn’t look at Miller’s track record and say that the guy can’t win the big one, either. After all, what happened against Wisconsin was an offensive performance that we likely won’t see replicated any time soon.
The Badgers made 10 of their 12 3-point attempts in the second half, and dropped 1.62 points per possession with a ridiculous 105 percent effective-field goal rate (yes, the Badgers shot better than 100 percent when accounting for the fact that a 3 is worth more than a 2). And they did it against the fifth-best defense since 2006 according to KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric, which makes it all the more crazy. And the last time a team dropped 85 points on an Arizona/Sean Miller team? Try Feb. 27, 2013.
Even Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan — who has been coaching college basketball for 40 years — said after the game that he can’t remember one of his teams getting hot the Badgers did in the second half of this game.
“I can remember getting hot the last five minutes, hitting like your last seven shots, 10 free throws in a row,” Ryan said. “I can remember some of those. But this one I’m going to enjoy quite a bit because Arizona gave us everything they had. And I’m sure Sean is looking at that and going, ‘Come on, how many times is that going to happen?’ You know, they’re a team that won their league, won the conference tournament, got to this point. We were in the same position. One of us had to stay home. But, no, I don’t remember one like that, not for a half.”
Miller felt the same way when he compared this one to his other Elite Eight defeats.
“You get to this level and lose — tonight actually felt a little bit different in that it didn’t come down to the last possession,” Miller said. “The last couple that we’ve been in, [there] kind of was a single play that you hold on to. Tonight, I think over this summer when you have a perspective, I mean, my God, there were so many threes going in. It almost took the bite out of the loss somewhat.”
Miller kept perspective and noted that the Wildcats’ season shouldn’t come down to the last 20 minutes they played, and in a way he’s right. The Wildcats won 67 games in the last two seasons and lost only nine. He’s won 147 games in the last five years. At some point, your track record speaks for itself, and anyone betting against the Wildcats having success at the highest level sometime soon is probably throwing money down the drain.
But, right or wrong, Miller will (still) be known as the “Best Active Coach to Never Make the Final Four” until he reaches it. It’s something he’s aware of, and something he takes on his shoulders instead of putting it on his players.
“The way the world is today, people will jump all over us for losing in the Elite Eight,” Miller said. “And I just want to protect our players. Because if you’re T.J. McConnell and you’ve won 69 games in two years and you never lost a home game and you’ve gone to back-to-back Elite Eights, no kid should walk out of here with anything other than their head held high.”
I’m sure McConnell will walk out of here with his head held high, as will whichever underclassmen decides to depart for the NBA this June.
As for the man that will be left over? He’s optimistic about his chances the next time he gets to this point.
“We’ll see. Maybe the fifth time that I get back here, maybe I’ll break through.”