Sean Miller yearns for NCAA tournament breakthroughby Javier Morales on Mar. 30, 2013, under Sports
Arizona’s 73-70 loss to Ohio State in the Sweet 16 Thursday night was the Wildcats’ season in microcosm.
The UA started strong then encountered a difficult stretch but never doubted its chances. The Wildcats scratched back to respectability but came up short. They did not lose because of a lack of effort but because of a defensive breakdown that left LaQuinton Ross open just long enough to drain a three-pointer to put the Buckeyes ahead with 2.1 seconds left.
Arizona started the season 14-0, struggled through must of the Pac-12 season, but never fell apart. They were a basket away from extending their game against UCLA in the Pac-12 tournament semifinals and against the Buckeyes at the Staples Center. Defense was one of Sean Miller’s concerns for most of the season. One defensive lapse in which freshman Grant Jerrett drifted to a double-team of Aaron Craft allowed Ross a chance to square up for the game-winning three-pointer.
“The last shot of the game, we switched probably 400 handoffs and ball screens in the game,” Miller said. “We didn’t switch the last one. That’s the other part. Players make big plays. Teams make big plays. The pressure of the moment, the Sweet Sixteen, going to the Elite Eight, two guys go on one.
“Whether he made the shot or not, I think we all live with it when it’s challenged and we do what we’re supposed to do. But part of the reason he had such a great look at the end there was two guys went with the ball, when, in reality, we’ve switched every single handoff and ball screen from the opening tip to that one right there.”
Jerrett did not immediately switch to Ross because of how dangerous Craft can be with the ball. His last-second three-pointer beat Iowa State and put the Buckeyes in position to play Arizona. Nick Johnson defended Craft well in the last sequence, but Jerrett got trapped in front of the play and left Ross open long enough.
Jerrett is a freshman who will play Ross’ shot in his head over the summer. Judging from Jerrett’s competitive nature — playing through foot and elbow injuries — the young 6-10 versatile player will grow from what transpired.
The Wildcats had three freshmen frontcourt players — Jerrett, Kaleb Tarczewski and Brandon Ashley — who underwent growing pains but showed flashes of why they were ranked as the No. 3 class heading into the season.
“We had a game plan in place to switch (on Ross), and it’s easier said than done,” Miller said. “He’s out there with some other really skilled and good players. … I couldn’t be prouder of our team.
“This is my ninth team I’ve coached as a head coach. I leave this season with no regrets. … Not that we’re perfect, but we practiced hard. We tried really hard.”
Not that we’re perfect, but we practiced hard. We tried really hard.
It was a grind. Miller and his staff worked long hours to get the pieces to fit.
Despite a No. 3 ranking at one point and a 20-2 start, they heard the criticism from some fans. The noise was mostly about the turnovers and defensive breakdowns. The Wildcats were stretched to the point of abandoning Miller’s man-to-man principles for a zone defense late in their only poor loss of the season at USC on Feb. 27.
They heard the noise about providing more opportunities for freshman guard Gabe York and sophomore Angelo Chol. Because Miller is still relatively new to the program in his fourth year — and he knows what fans expect because of the beast of a program Lute Olson built — he mentioned he would try to incorporate both of them in the rotation.
Miller could have — should have — only said he and his staff will play those who give the Wildcats the best chance to win.
Entering this season, the task for Miller and assistants James Whitford and Book Richardson was to mold a team with four new essential players — Xavier transfer Mark Lyons and the freshmen bigs — into a cohesive unit with the four returning players (Solomon Hill, Kevin Parrom, Nick Johnson and Jordin Mayes).
Lyons took over the point guard role out of necessity because of the failed experiment of Josiah Turner at that position. Lyons is not a pure point guard. He can create his own shot but not always opportunities for others.
Getting three freshman frontcourt players acclimated to the system is more difficult than transitioning three perimeter players.
Jerrett, Tarczewski and Ashley reacted to what their teammates provided. They had to adjust to a quicker and more physical game inside. UCLA’s freshman trio of Shabazz Muhammad, Jordan Adams and Kyle Anderson generated the Bruins’ execution and gained confidence through plenty of opportunities with the ball.
Miller’s job was not easy by any means, yet the Wildcats came perhaps a shot and overtime away from advancing to the Elite Eight.
The conference tournament champion of the best league in the nation — Ohio State of the Big Ten — needed a late three-pointer to squelch the dreams of a feisty Arizona team that finished fourth in the disrespected Pac-12 and lost in the conference tournament semifinals.
If anybody believes this season was a failure, they should withdraw themselves from the sport entirely.
Arizona entered the season as the No. 12-ranked team in the nation. With the effort they showed against the Buckeyes, they deserve to be considered among the top 12 teams in the country.
“We competed well,” said Hill, the last remaining link to the Olson era because he committed to the former UA coach while in high school.
“I think we did better than some people thought we were supposed to. We had some lapses in the year, but we picked it up when we were supposed to.”
Miller will try to replace Hill and Parrom with freshman phenoms Rondae Jefferson of Chester (Pa.) High School and perhaps Aaron Gordon of San Jose Archbishop Mitty. It is speculated that Gordon will announce his decision to attend Arizona during the McDonald’s All-American game on Wednesday.
Duquesne transfer T.J. McConnell and senior-to-be Jordin Mayes will occupy the point-guard position with Lyons gone. Another freshman guard, Elliott Pitts of Concord (Calif.) De La Salle — lauded by recruiting experts for his high basketball IQ — can earn significant playing time.
Junior college transfer post player Matt Korchek, a 6-10, 225-pound bruising type, can take fouls away from Tarczewski and relieve some pressure for the big man.
“My focus is on being back here next year and trying to break through,” said Miller, who has coached the UA to the Elite Eight and Sweet 16. “Sometimes you have to knock at that door a few times to break it in, and I like the group that we have coming in.
“I like some of the opportunities that we have to add to the guys that we have. Hopefully we’ll be a main stay in this tournament like Arizona has been for 25 years.”
WILDABOUTAZCATS.net publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner