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Arizona Wildcats basketball finds success faster than expected

Arizona has rapidly improved under the watchful eye of Sean Miller.
Photo by Chris Morrison-US PRESSWIRE

(Note: This is a longer version of a column I wrote for Saturday’s edition of the Arizona Republic, our Gannett big brother in Phoenix.)

Underrated. Disrespected. Whatever.

What a nice problem to have.

Arizona basketball coach Sean Miller, in the highlight of his weekly news conference this week, mentioned how he had talked to two national writers who didn’t know anything about the Wildcats’ last game. Their loss. That game just happened to be a thrilling triple-overtime win at California.

“In terms of national attention, I don’t think we get any,” Miller said.

OK, that’s a conference-wide theme and it has to do with the Pac-10′s television deals and stuff like that … but is it really such a bad thing for Arizona?

That Arizona might even consider itself under-appreciated is a sign that Miller has turned this thing around faster than anybody had a right to think possible. Quite famously among UA fans, ESPN’s Andy Katz wrote during the athletic department’s coaching search in the spring of 2009 that “whoever gets the gig better get at least seven to eight seasons to turn it around.”

How does a season-and-a-half sound?

It sounds faster than expected.

Arizona has 20 wins by early February. The Wildcats lead the Pac-10 with a 9-2 record. They are 15th in the AP poll, their best ranking in more than four years. The team has a new locker room. The fanciest, newest, trendiest Nike uniforms. A new weight room is nearly completed in the fairly new Richard Jefferson Gymnasium practice facility.

Miller signed a top-10 recruiting class for next season and still has a hook out for another big fish, big man Angelo Chol from San Diego.

Order. Restored.

But it was just last week when Miller was talking about the team being a work in progress, saying “I don’t look at us as, ‘Hey, we’ve done it.’ We’re far from that.”

He needs to continue to use the “lack of national respect” card as a motivator, not a complaint.
Because while the conference record looks pretty, Miller notes, correctly, “The difference between us being 9-2 and 6-5 is about four plays.”

The thing about Miller is that he has been relentless about process over results since he arrived. Be better today than yesterday; that kind of thing. Previous Arizona teams had been about results over process, with players arriving with a sense of entitlement before ever squeaking their sneakers on the McKale Center floor.

At this point, the perception of being underrated serves Arizona’s sensibilities far more than pats on the back, excessive or otherwise.

“We’re Top 15 right now, and most people are hating on us, saying we haven’t played anybody, stuff like that,” said sophomore forward Derrick Williams, an All-America candidate. “You can’t really look at that too much. You just have to keep playing and you’ve got to earn your respect.”

In what would turn out to be Lute Olson’s last game as Arizona’s head coach — a first-round NCAA Tournament loss to Purdue in 2007 — senior Jawann McClellan lamented that the Boilermakers were the team that hustled, that scrapped, that played defense, despite an inferior collection of individual talent.

“Coach Olson would love to coach a team like that,” McClellan said.

Now, Miller is.

That’s not an accident.

Everything that was wrong during the late stages of Olson’s tenure and through two seasons of interim head coaches — no depth, no defense, no chemistry — has been fixed.

But, let’s face it. Arizona is lucky to be where it is this fast. Hmmm … has Miller ever sent Tim Floyd a thank-you card?

Former Arizona athletic director Jim Livengood courted Floyd, then head coach at USC, only to turn back to Miller when Floyd didn’t bite on the job. Not only did Livengood save the day by luring Miller from Xavier, Floyd had to resign months later amid NCAA violations. Three USC recruits — Williams, point guard MoMo Jones and forward Solomon Hill — fell into Miller’s lap.

Timing is everything, right?

Kevin O’Neill had the misfortune of directly following Olson as interim head coach, at a time when nobody knew if or when Olson would return from his leave of absence, during a season in which the Pac-10 was as mighty as it has ever been.

Put it this way: O’Neill’s team, which featured a young core of future pros — Jerryd Bayless, Chase Budinger and Jordan Hill — finished seventh in the Pac-10. That team could very well be leading the Pac-10 this season.

Good and lucky. Lucky and good. Miller has been both, and Arizona avoided an Indiana-like fall from grace.

And it’s only going to get better from here.

The Wildcats need to enjoy their under-the-radar status while they can. It’s not going to last much longer.

More Arizona basketball coverage from the TucsonCitizen.com Sports Network:

Nick Johnson, Josiah Turner to meet at weekend tourney (but not play against each other)

Polar opposites: The gap between Arizona and ASU basketball has never been wider

Big shot: From the start, MoMo Jones welcomed the pressure

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