Sean Miller can’t win in March.
Arizona still isn’t back among the college basketball’s elite.
Except neither of those statements is true.
After the UA’s fifth consecutive loss in an NCAA tournament regional final, Wildcat Universe will have to combat the emotional whispers with facts.
The conversation to defend Arizona’s season started immediately. During the press conference after the loss to Wisconsin Miller said, “I’m not going to apologize for being 34-4, and I’m not going to apologize for not making the Final Four.”
Then Miller fired off this Twitter missile late Sunday night:
Finally to the people that try to make us feel like our season was a failure. Go cheer for ASU! #BearDown
— Sean Miller (@UACoachMiller) March 30, 2015
I’m 100% on board with sticking up for this year’s team. Only four previous UA squads had pulled off the Pac-12 championship double and none since 1990. And any chance to take a shot at Arizona State is certainly time well spent. But for Miller I hope this is the end of it. Don’t mention the Elite Eight anymore. Don’t debate definitions of success.
What do you change after losing one game short of the Final Four for the second straight year? Nothing. There’s nothing broken. Everyone inside McKale should keep doing what they’re doing and the results will speak for themselves.
For the fans? I know it’s painful. We The People want so badly for Arizona Basketball to return to the very top of college hoops and it won’t be official until the Cats survive enough March Madness to play in April.
As fans we can’t do anything about what happens on the court but we can avoid falling into the trap of lazy narrative.
It’ll be easy for people to start saying “Arizona always loses in the Elite Eight” just like it was easy to say “Lute Olson always loses in the first round” even though he went 9-1 in the opening round as the better seed to end his career.
Don’t let the disappointment of the season’s final game cloud these facts:
Sean Miller is not a “bad tournament coach.”
Here’s his entire tournament record:
2006 – #14 Xavier lost to #3 Gonzaga (by four)
2007 – #9 Xavier beat #8 BYU then lost to #1 Ohio State (in overtime)
2008 – #3 Xavier beat the 14-seed, 6-seed and 7-seed then lost to #1 UCLA (by a lot)
2009 – #4 Xavier beat the 13-seed and 11-seed then lost to #1 Pitt (by five)
2011 – #5 Arizona beat #12 Memphis, #4 Texas and #1 Duke (by 16) then lost to #3 UConn (by two)
2013 – #6 Arizona beat the 11-seed and 14-seed then lost to #2 Ohio State (by three)
2014 – #1 Arizona beat the 16-seed, 8-seed and 4-seed then lost to #2 Wisconsin (by one in OT)
2015 – #2 Arizona beat the 15-seed, 10-seed and 6-seed then lost to #1 Wisconsin (by seven)
That’s a 14-1 record as the better seed which is remarkable. Miller has had the chance to lose multiple regional finals only because he’s been really good on the tournament’s opening weekend.
Miller isn’t Tom Izzo who could take five traffic cones to the Final Four team but he is winning every game he should and he’s been battling great teams to the final horn on big stages.
While we’re at it:
Arizona does not “choke” in the Elite Eight.
Collectively the five straight losses are glaring but you have to look at each game independently:
2015 – #2 Arizona lost to #1 Wisconsin by seven
We all saw the Badgers shoot 83% on 3-pointers in the second half. Even if the Cats play a perfect game, on this particular day, Wisconsin still wins.
2014 – #1 Arizona lost to #2 Wisconsin by one
Last year’s overtime heavyweight bout.
2011 – #5 Arizona lost to #3 UConn by two
Two missed buzzer-beaters against the eventual national champs.
2005 – #3 Arizona lost to #1 Illinois by one
OK, you got me on this one. Yes, the final four minutes would be considered choking but don’t forget the Illini were 35-1 and playing in their home state. Arizona had no business holding 14-point lead at any point in this game.
2003 – #1 Arizona lost to #2 Kansas by three
Another missed buzzer-beater.
So of the five “choke jobs” only two were as the better seed and both times it was No. 1 vs. No. 2. Four games came down to missed buzzer-beaters and two were one-point losses in overtime. That looks like regular ol’ sports to me.
I know it’s frustrating but the fact remains it’s really hard to beat one of the eight best teams in the country. These are true coin-flip games and they’ve come up tails for Arizona five straight times. So the Universe waits.
The thing is, Arizona isn’t waiting for one Final Four. For a high-end mid-major program like Gonzaga or Xavier that’s the end goal. A single trip to the Final Four would be the university’s crowning athletic achievement and the school could bask in its glory for years to come.
I truly believe – and I’ve said it before – that once Miller gets that first Final Four this thing is going to bust wide open. He’ll have so much momentum, so much clout that the UA will be looking at a string of Final Fours and automatic inclusion in the national championship discussion on a yearly basis.
College basketball’s old guard retires and the remaining pillars are Kentucky in the east, Kansas in the middle and Arizona in the west. That’s the goal. And it’s a goal worth waiting for, even if it takes a few years, right?
Sean Miller has won 76% of his games at the UA including 88% over the past two seasons. If you let five individual losses spread across 13 seasons and two coaches get in the way of that you’re missing out on a lot of fun.
The Cats’ future is very bright. But the present is really bright too.
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