USA Today, our Gannett partner, posted this Q&A with Arizona’s Sean Miller on Friday, covering a variety of topics. Here it is:
TUCSON, Ariz. – Sean Miller’s roster looks quite different these days, but one thing hasn’t changed around the Arizona men’s basketball program: Expectations.
They’re still high, as the Wildcats are coming off a 27-8 campaign and an NCAA tournament Sweet 16 appearance. Miller has brought in yet another highly touted recruiting class, featuring the No. 4-ranked player in the class of 2013 in Aaron Gordon, a 6-8, 210-pound forward.
USA TODAY Sports college basketball reporter Nicole Auerbach caught up with Miller in his office this week to discuss Gordon’s role on the team, a new-look roster and current issues that college basketball:
Q: You have a player (Aaron Gordon) who made the U.S. U-19 team, and two others who tried out. Some coaches prefer their players to stay on campus in the summer, and others encourage international play. Why do you support it?
Miller: I really leave it up to them and their family. These are young guys who have goals, and every one of them seems to have the same goals: being a part of the NBA, playing in a Final Four. But the opportunity to compete for a gold medal for your country is quite an honor. In recent years, with the Dream Team, it’s made it even a bigger deal for the younger guys. So, it’s become one of their goals. If they’re all in and want to do it, I want to support them. The competition alone, being coached by college coaches, the travel – in a sense, it better prepares them for what’s to come when they get (back on campus). When I was in college, I played in the World University games. I look back now, and it was a long time ago, but it’s still one of my great memories.
Q: Aaron Gordon, who is on the U-19 team, has been quoted recently saying he expects to play small forward at Arizona, not power forward. Where do you envision him fitting in/playing this fall?
Miller: It has to do a lot with our current team, who we have. … We happen to have two starters back: Brandon Ashley, who played the four for us, and Kaleb Tarczewski, who played the five. They both as freshmen played a significant role, and they’re going to work even harder to be even better as sophomores. It makes a lot of sense for us to have the ability to play Aaron with those two and in between two guards. I believe in many ways that’s his most natural position, when you consider that he doesn’t get enough credit for what a good defender he is. When you talk about what position a guy plays, everybody thinks offense. Most of the time the dealbreaker is defense. You’d say, ‘I’d love to play him there but he can’t guard the typical small forward.’ In Aaron’s case, that is seamless. Now, it’s about me as the coach helping him play to his strengths, stay away from his weaknesses. … Aaron’s versatility, and we have Rondae Jefferson as well – there are times where (Gordon) is going to be able to play with just one post player with Rondae on the court. (Gordon’s) greatest gift is his versatility. He’s going to play the forward. Certainly, he’s going to play with two big guys throughout.
Q: Good problem to have, having too many big men?
Miller: We lost Grant Jerrett, who declared for the NBA draft. Grant’s really talented, and I think he has a chance to be a first-round draft pick, or certainly a draft pick next week. Angelo (Choi), because he didn’t play as much, he left. So we were even deeper at one point. In today’s day and age, I don’t want to say you can have too much. … Part of it is, players can play different positions and with different combinations. I think this year’s team really has that. We can really develop that chemistry and hopefully stay healthy.
Q: In addition to Grant and Angelo leaving, your team lost a few guys to graduation, making this incoming team a lot younger than last year’s team. Do you notice that youth and do you have to coach any differently?
Miller: We’re fortunate because we have guys like T.J. McConnell. He practiced with us everyday last year, and he played two years at Duquesne prior to coming here. Although he’s new, he’s not an 18-year-old freshmen. Certainly with Nick Johnson (a junior) and Jordin Mayes, a senior who’s been a role player. We talked about Kaleb and Brandon. I think we have a good balance of returning experience and blending some new players in. So much of it is health and chemistry. From one year to the next, it’s such a significant change. That’s not just at Arizona. (The sport) is so fluid. To compare today’s college basketball landscape to yesteryear, it doesn’t work. It’s a completely different model now.
Q: You have brought in some highly touted recruiting classes in your years here. Do you have to change your philosophy/approach at all when you’re recruiting and coaching guys who come in with a lot of hype?
Miller: All of us are in search of what the balance is. The balance is a few things. One, mixing in guys who are older, who may have transferred for a variety of reasons. If you have guys sitting out who are older and more experienced, that offsets a player leaving early for the NBA or (a transfer). … You have to be reasonable about expectations. Trying to recruit everyone who wants the same thing is not going to be healthy. There are plenty of terrific players who want to come to Arizona for four years and who understand that earlier in their career, their role may be less. But as they grow older, their role can be more. We’re always trying identify that. Then, there’s the difference-maker. You have an opportunity for him early, you know he’s talented enough to do it. That’s the key. Sometimes, that seems easier to predict than the reality of it. Derrick Williams is a great example of that. … When Derrick came here, nobody could have predicted he could have done what he did in two years. There were a lot of people asking me, ‘Should we redshirt him?’ Sometimes, you get surprised. That’s a great surprise when they’re better than you ever realized. Once in awhile, after you recruited them and hoped it would happen, it just doesn’t happen. That’s the hard part, when they want or you’re in this mode where it has to happen in a year or two. There are things that are out of your control as a coach.
Q: You said it’s hard to compare the current state of college basketball to the past, and one are we see that is the high transfer rate. Is there a way to fix that or is that just part of the game now?
Miller: The way it is right now, I don’t see it being fixed. … The more you’re able to transfer for a variety of reasons and not sit out, the more transfers there are going to be. That’s human nature. We had Mark Lyons a year ago (as a grad student transfer), and that really helped our team. But that would be an example of, five years ago, eight years ago, that wasn’t even a possibility for him. And now, the more you see people transferring and having success, the more it keeps going.
Q: On the flipside, there’s a lot of coach movement. According to this database, nearly half of rising seniors have experienced coaching changes since they arrived on campus. What are your thoughts on this trend?
Miller: I know from following the NBA, you just look at the change there. Go to the NFL six months earlier, and it’s just sports today. It’s different. It’s so much about the moment. One of the things I try to do here at Arizona is always have the big picture; we do want to run a true program. We want to make sure our oldest players are in a position to graduate. It’s more than just trying to win in that season. But at the same time now, more than ever before, you really have to look at it in a seasonal approach. There can be such a drastic difference between one season and the next, like you’ve never seen before. Look at Kentucky, a team that was this close to winning 40 games. A year later, look where they’re at in the NIT. If you look at so many of the Final Four, national championship teams over the last 10 years, they’ve all kind of taken a turn outside the NCAA tournament. As we go from one year – last year, we won 27 games and we’re in the Sweet 16 – that has little to do with how we’ll be this year. It can change drastically. Why? Maybe you lost a freshman you didn’t think would leave, and it makes perfect sense. You’re counting on younger, more unproven players. You’re an injury away. I think we all are making decisions now more than ever to make sure you’re set for that next year.
Q: Maybe it’s Twitter and other parts of the Internet, but it just seems like there’s more impatience and shorter leashes for coaches.
Miller: You could say that’s also spearheading change with kids … you can see why there are more transfers, they’re playing for multiple coaches. I can also tell you that some of the coaches who are leaving are leaving because there’s change in the four years of their roster. It’s just fluid. One year is different from the next. From a fan’s perspective, maybe it’s more exciting than ever before (because the sport is unpredictable).
Q: Last season, the Pac-12 went through a resurgence after a couple of down years and losing top players to the draft. We saw the SEC go through that a bit last year. Do you feel that the Pac-12 retained most of its key, young players and will build off of last year’s successes?
Miller: Our conference is really stable. Oregon returns some really good players from a successful team. Cal and Stanford will both be good, Stanford in particular with their experience and depth. Colorado has some of those young, successful players back. Arizona State with Jahii Carson. I don’t think you can count UCLA out. They don’t have a lot of depth, but they have some key players and Steve (Alford) does a great job. One of the things that really hurt our conference wasn’t necessarily how strong our top teams were. It was how bad some of our bottom teams were in particular seasons. Every time you play a team with an RPI of 270, it affects you negatively. Put one of those teams in your league, it’s a disaster. It’s almost like an anchor across the board. A year ago, we experienced a bottom that had really improved.
Nicole Auerbach, a national college basketball reporter for USA TODAY Sports, is on Twitter @NicoleAuerbach. Coach’s Corner runs weekly during college basketball season and occasionally in the offseason.