Friday, March 25, 2011

Overlooked, But Still Overachieving

Originally a fallback for Arizona, Sean Miller now has Wildcats one game away from first Final Four since 2001. (Photo courtesy of USA Today)

On an episode of the classic sitcom "All In The Family," Archie Bunker said of former President Gerald Ford: "He's doing a good job for a guy nobody voted for," a reference to Ford's succession of Richard Nixon following Nixon's Watergate-induced resignation. Last night in Richard Nixon's native California, those in attendance and the millions fortunate enough to watch or listen to the second game in the West regional semifinals took notice of a man who was initially overlooked before moving across the country to take over a program that has earned the reputation of a giant among men in a very quiet fashion.

In a rematch of the 2001 national championship game, Arizona put together a twenty-minute masterpiece in the second half to erase a six-point deficit over reigning champion Duke to defeat the Blue Devils 93-77 and gain a measure of revenge for their loss a decade ago. As the Wildcats prepare to face a red-hot Connecticut team with a trip to the Final Four at stake, not enough has been said about the man on the bench; one whose own success makes him a perfect fit for a program like Arizona. A man that has spent his career living in the shadows, yet somehow managed to go about his business and be one of the final eight in what is now three of the last six years. Brad Stevens may be underrated, but even he doesn't come close to matching the impressive, yet wrongfully disregarded, resume of Arizona coach Sean Miller.

The country and media seems to have fallen in love with Stevens as the 34-year-old has guided Butler back to the Elite Eight after their near-miracle in the title game a year ago; and while their fascination with the man in charge of the Cinderella story from Indiana is definitely justified, Butler and Stevens do not compare to Miller. A former Division I player himself at Pittsburgh, the 42-year-old Miller made a name for himself as a coach while an assistant to Herb Sendek at North Carolina State in the mid-1990s before leaving for a small school named Xavier University in Cincinnati, accepting a position as the top assistant under former Butler and current Ohio State coach Thad Matta. When Matta left Xavier for the higher-profile gig two hours north on Interstate 71, Miller took over and had the Musketeers in a regional final three years later. It was the first of two occasions where Xavier would advance into the final eight; doing it again two years later and advancing to the regional semifinals the following year, only to come up short against the Pittsburgh program Miller had played for two decades earlier.

Here's where Miller's status of being overlooked comes into play. Longtime Arizona coach Lute Olson had announced his retirement prior to the 2008-09 season due to health problems, and interim coach Russ Pennell was not being retained after a season in which he guided the Wildcats to a regional semifinal appearance as a No. 12 seed. Pennell himself was overlooked initially, as almost everyone assumed Olson's interim replacement would be renowned tactician Mike Dunlap, who is currently the offensive mind on Steve Lavin's staff at St. John's. After the decision to look in another direction was made, the first choice of the Arizona administration was former Iowa State and Chicago Bulls head coach Tim Floyd, at that time the head man at Pac-10 rival Southern California. Floyd turned the Wildcats down to remain at USC, only to leave the Trojans two months later in the aftermath of an investigation surrounding former USC and current Memphis Grizzlies star O.J. Mayo. Miller, who himself had initially decided against leaving Xavier after being rewarded with a contract extension through the 2017-18 season, changed his mind three days later and arrived in Tucson. Two years and two recruiting classes ranked within the top fifteen in the country later, (including the one coming into the desert next year) Sean Miller has made Arizona relevant once again after their longtime icon called it a career.

With all the talk about Cinderellas and mid-majors across the nation ever since Gonzaga shocked the world and came within a game of the Final Four in 1999, everyone has become intrigued with the next rags-to-riches story in college basketball. There's nothing wrong with that, as even I have wondered who would be next to assume that throne after watching the rise of programs such as George Mason, Davidson and Butler over the years. However, in a world where we all look for diamonds in the rough, there is a program that has become something out of nothing over the years since Lute Olson took it over back in 1983. A program that came into last night not getting half as much attention as Butler, and walked off the court in Anaheim having literally shocked the world.

Twenty-seven consecutive winning seasons. Twenty-five consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances. The only school to defeat three No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament on the way to winning the program's lone national championship back in 1997. It will never match the history and tradition of UCLA, but the University of Arizona has carved out its own niche in the Pacific 10. Just as the state of Arizona's largest city, Phoenix, has quietly grown year after year to the point where Phoenix and its metropolitan area rank in the top ten most populous cities in the United States, Arizona Wildcats basketball has never lost sight of the brass ring, adding one accomplishment after another to its record book despite not having the same glamour possessed by blue blood schools like Duke, North Carolina or Kentucky. The program defines underrated in that it has been able to earn respect more from its overall body of work than its name or any number of high school recruits could possibly give it. Head coach Sean Miller has grown the same way, a former teenage guest of Johnny Carson turned scholarship student-athlete before paying his dues as an assistant coach that eventually got a program of his own and turned it into arguably the most successful in the Atlantic 10. After just two seasons at Arizona, Sean Miller is doing the same thing he did so well at Xavier; and just like his tenure in Cincinnati, it is unfortunate that not enough people are taking notice.

Arizona will almost certainly be underdogs on Saturday against Connecticut as the Wildcats look to return to the Final Four for the first time since their runner-up finish in 2001; so with that in mind, I propose this:

Perhaps, given how Arizona and its coach have similar success stories of having made something bigger of themselves after being largely overlooked, maybe this year's Cinderella is not Butler. Maybe, just maybe, the Cinderella story of this year's NCAA Tournament comes to us from the Valley of the Sun, being written by a coach who really is doing a good job for a guy nobody initially voted for.


  1. Arizona has a habit of making deep tourney runs when no one expects them to. Then they usually don’t perform up to expectations in the seasons when they are expected to go deep in the tourney. This team reminds me of the ’97 team that caught everyone by surprise. I feel bad for UConn; I think they have no answer for Arizona’s talent.

  2. First, let me thank you for the comment. Second, after reading it, I couldn't help but notice that you're right. The 1997 Arizona team was the same bunch of overlooked kids that managed to knock off three No. 1 seeds and win it all in one of the more underrated title games ever, defeating Kentucky in what would be Rick Pitino's last game at the helm of Big Blue Nation. Williams and Jones are a lot like Simon and Dickerson to some degree, and I agree with UConn being in for a surprise. Especially after seeing Lute Olson and how well he looks now, Arizona also has some motivation on their side that I think they'll carry into Houston.

    Thanks again for reading!