Arizona Wildcats coach Sean Miller was so worked up that he discarded his jacket before the game was five minutes old. He entered his postgame press conference with his jaw set and his tie loosened, hanging askew.
It was only an exhibition, but Miller meant business.
“It wasn’t like this was a practice game that was OK to lose,” he said.
Miller isn’t tolerating any nonsense.
His team lost an exhibition game to Division II Seattle Pacific last week and then stumbled to a 12-point deficit in the first half Tuesday night against another D-II team, Humboldt State.
Arizona rallied to an inartful 60-51 victory at McKale Center in a game in which the Cats clumsily committed 20 turnovers.
“We all realize our starting point isn’t very high,” Miller said.
In college basketball, it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish. So when Miller says, “There is no panic in me,” that should be a reasonable cue to take a deep breath. The real season has yet to begin.
So, OK, no panic. But there’s little time. Everything counts for real on Monday against Valparaiso at McKale Center.
This isn’t time for the coach to be Sean “Mr. Nice Guy” Miller.
Some players, he said, might not need to play at all. That 10-man rotation might be better off at eight. Freshman big man Sidiki Johnson? You want to shoot a 3-pointer with about 5 minutes left in a tight game? You can came sit here on the bench instead.
Miller, on more than one occasion Tuesday night, singled out a trio of veterans — senior guard Kyle Fogg, junior forward Solomon Hill and senior forward Jesse Perry — as players who must take leadership of this team.
“When you want a bigger role and you don’t play well … that’s the burden you have,” Miller said.
“They have to play well. There is more expected of them. And as more is expected, we need them to deliver.
“Around them is a group of guys who will keep getting better. No question, we have some talented freshmen, but it’s unfair to put the burden on those guys right now. It’s the experienced veterans who need to play well.”
Here’s the deal:
Arizona is a work in progress because Miller is working in four new freshmen, he doesn’t have junior wing Kevin Parrom because of injury and all the other veteran players have way bigger roles in the post-Derrick Williams era.
In a sense, almost nothing is the same.
With Williams, everyone fit comfortably into their complementary niche. Now, Hill has to score more than eight points a game. Fogg has to shoot better. Perry can’t coast at all, and has to attack as he did for much of Tuesday night’s game, as he finished with 12 points and 14 rebounds.
What if Arizona has a team full of Robins and no Batman?
“A lot of guys talk about having and wanting a bigger role,” Miller said. “There it is. I have seen that a lot, where it’s like ‘Man, Derrick Williams is gone, now I have the opportunity.’ He is gone and here’s your opportunity.
“Nine turnovers between Solomon and Jesse. We’re not going to be able to beat anybody when you have a senior and a junior who have nine turnovers. They have to get better.”
Miller says his team got better from last week to this week, but the mountain ahead looks taller than what most would have thought. The Wildcats are ranked 16th in both major polls, which seems pretty laughable right now.
Has a team ever lost its ranking based on exhibition games?
“There is nobody, coaches or players, who should be walking around here like everything is OK,” Miller said.
“We have a long way to go and we have to make sure that in each game, especially in November, we are at our best to have a chance to win.”