Arizona had just won their second game of the season. The Cats beat Rice in a game that saw them storm out to a big lead, let a mediocre Owl team cut the lead to just six, then pour it on at the end for a somewhat lopsided, if misleading win.
When it came time for his post game comments, both to the radio audience and the collected media a few minutes later, Sean Miller did not talk about the Cats’ 16 turnovers or the fact that they got out-rebounded. He did not talk about the Cats letting an 18-point lead dwindle down to 6. He didn’t even heap any praise on his players. Instead he praised the Zona Zoo student section.
“I would like to personally, on behalf of our team, thank them,” Miller said during his post game press conference. “One of the things that helped our start defensively was how ferocious our crowd was. Anyone who was in the building will understand that our students were almost like another defender out there early on.”
Miller took time during the week to open practice to the student body and actually orchestrated the “boink, pass, brick” chant for the students to use during the first four minutes of each half.
A few people questioned why Miller was worried about the students, when admittedly the team still has a ton to learn and was just days away from the Maui Classic. I had one person ask me if Miller was not detail oriented. I argue that it was exactly the opposite. Miller is supremely detail oriented and knows that for the long-term success of the program he needs McKale to become a true home court advantage.
“There has never been an Arizona team that needs McKale to be at a heightened environment like this team,” Miller explained.
While the students were very good, they still left upwards of 1,000 seats open. Miller’s comments, in my opinion, were not only to give thanks to the students who did show up, but to try and get the section full.
The student section has been inconsistent for years. When it is full, it is as good as any in the nation, but all too often tickets are left. Lute Olson courted the students (as well as the community as a whole) when he first took the job, and then years later fought to get the student section consolidated into the single section it is today.
You get the feeling that while Miller is worried about winning games today, he is also keeping an eye on the future. Almost all of the great programs have strong student sections. The fact that much of the McKale crowd is older means that the students will be even more vital in making it a loud, crazy place.
Taking the time this week, from practice to the post game interviews, was clearly a calculated move.
But hardly his only one.
While my exposure to Miller has been limited to about a dozen press conferences, I get the impression that he is straight forward and honest, but at the same time calculating in his comments. It appears that he has certain things he wants to convey in each press session.
That is most clear as he echoes many of the same sentiments in his post game interview with Brian Jeffries as he does when dealing with the collected media.
Case in point, he made it clear that Kyryl Natyazhko’s poor performance against Rice was not indicative of what he has shown in practice. He made sure to praise the freshman center’s talent and potential.
He has taken similar stances with other players. When dealing with Nic Wise, all of Miller’s comments are those of respect and admiration. When asked about a between the legs pass, Miller said, “I think he’s earned the right to make that play.”
Miller had to re-recruit Wise and I am sure part of that process was to convince Wise that he was going to be “his guy” and get to run the show. Giving him respect seems to be part of that process.
Conversely, when talking about Jamelle Horne Miller goes out of way to praise his ability and hard work. It seems as Miller is trying to keep Horne motivated, through positive reinforcement. Miller seems acutely aware that Horne was Kevin O’Neill’s whipping boy two years ago and had bouts of last confidence at times last year.
Miller seems to be trying to avoid Kevin Parrom losing confidence. Although the freshman will not play for at least a month, Miller has mentioned him in a number of press conferences, making sure to stress that Parrom is still a vital cog to the team.
You see this with other players as well. He has made sure to praise Kyle Fogg and MoMo Jones, hyped Solomon Hill’s basketball I.Q. and improved conditioning and has told anyone who will listen that Derrick Williams and Natyazhko will be better players in February than they are now.
Overall, Miller comes off as a straight shooter, but one who clearly knows what he wants to convey every time he opens his mouth.