Arizona's reconstructing a giant
With the No. 1 class in 2012 and No. 7 in 2011, Miller is putting the pieces in place
On an otherwise nondescript Saturday last month in Tucson, Ariz., the past, present and future of Arizona basketball converged. And that alone made it a momentous event for Sean Miller.
Miller, the 42-year-old in his third season as coach of the Wildcats, talks about the Red-Blue scrimmage with reverence usually reserved for a postseason game.
"If you were there, you could feel it in the building," Miller said.
Yes, it was a scrimmage. But more than 14,000 fans showed up to watch the Wildcats, champions of the Pac-10 last year who won 30 games and advanced to the Elite Eight, and enjoy this ceremonious night one week into practice at the McKale Center.
Lute Olson, the legendary former coach who took Arizona to four Final Four berths and a national title, was there, alongside ex-Wildcats Jason Terry, Richard Jefferson and Andre Iguodala, among other pros, and recent UA departures Chase Budinger and Derrick Williams, inducted into the program's prestigious Ring of Honor on that night.
Also in attendance: Every member of the Wildcats' 2012 class of prize recruits -- forwards Brandon Ashley (Oakland, Calif./Findlay College Prep) and Grant Jerrett (La Verne, Calif./La Verne Lutheran), center Kaleb Tarczewski (Claremont, N.H./St. Mark's School) and guard Gabe York (Orange, Calif./Orange Lutheran).
The group, with three players ranked in the top nine of the ESPNU 100 and all four among the top 36, is set to sign letters of intent Wednesday at the open of the early signing period, cementing Arizona's hold on the No. 1 spot among signing classes nationally.
This comes on the heels of a recruiting class last year that ranked seventh, infusing the Wildcats with star power in the backcourt in addition to frontcourt depth. True freshman guards Nick Johnson and Josiah Turner are set to fill key roles immediately.
"I'm so excited about what Coach Miller is doing," said Johnson, who scored 14 points in 25 minutes as Arizona opened with a nine-point home win Monday over Valparaiso. "He's one of best coaches in the country and definitely, I'd say, the best recruiter."
The coach landed Johnson out of national powerhouse Findlay Prep in Henderson, Nev., the same school that produced Ashley, the highest ranked of the 2011 recruits at No. 4 overall in the ESPNU 100.
See what Miller is doing here? He's reconstructing a college basketball giant.
Arizona advanced past the second round of the NCAA tournament only once in the five years before last season. It missed the tournament altogether in Miller's first year, the Wildcats' first absence since Olson's initial season of 1983-84.
The Wildcats, young this season, need time to account for the loss of Williams, an unheralded recruit who blossomed in two seasons under Miller to go No. 2 (to Minnesota) in the NBA draft five months ago.
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"When we go out and play right now," Miller said before the opener, "for whatever reason, we're not very good."
They'll likely improve as Johnson, Turner and 6-foot-8 classmate Angelo Chol continue to develop. But Miller said he expects to experience the real leap next year, when the likes of Ashley and Tarczewski, rated sixth in the ESPNU 100, arrive.
On that night 2½ weeks ago, though, Miller, for the first time, saw all the ingredients in one building.
"We want to treat the past, the future and the current team right," Miller said. "When that's at the forefront of how you do things every day, a lot of success will follow."
A former sharpshooter at Pittsburgh, Miller coached Xavier to NCAA tournament berths in the last four of five years at his first stop as a head coach. He took a "leap of faith," he said, to venture across the country after growing up in Pennsylvania and coaching as an assistant at four schools, none further west than Wisconsin.
In leaving Xavier for UA, which went through two coaches in two seasons after Olson coached his final game in 2007, Miller said he relied on the teachings of his father, John Miller, a longtime Pennsylvania high school coach.
"He was one of the great coaches that I've been around at any level," Sean Miller said. "Just about everything I have in my blood as a coach stems from him."
His dad instilled in Miller a love of the game and an unending desire to improve his players on and off the court. With such a foundation in place, Miller said, where he coached mattered little.
"People understand honesty. They understand hard work," Miller said. "They understand a great product like we have here at Arizona. It doesn't matter where you're from; it's who you are.
"Credibility transcends where you're from."
York had no trouble relating to Miller.
"Knowing he was from the East," York said, "it made me want to play for him. He brings some of that East Coast toughness to the Arizona program. I want to learn that."
York, the only guard in Arizona's current class of recruits, said he's a longtime friend of the 6-10 Jerrett, ranked ninth nationally. The Wildcats remain among the contenders for No. 1 prospect Shabazz Muhammad (Las Vegas/Bishop Gorman), the 6-6 small forward who will wait to sign until spring.
Clearly, Miller sought size in recruiting this year. He said he noticed the need for it as much as ever last year in the postseason, when Arizona beat Memphis, Texas and Duke before a loss to eventual national champ Connecticut 65-63 in the West regional final.
The programs blessed with size and depth create a better practice environment throughout the season and thrive in March. Miller looks forward to it at Arizona.
Don't worry, said the 7-footer, Tarczewski, it's coming.
"I think we'll have one of the great teams if we all work hard and play together," Tarczewski said.
Miller's work with Williams, a second-team All-American last season as a sophomore, was not lost Tarczewski. He said he took note of how Williams developed in the Arizona program and that it loomed large in Tarczewski's decision to turn down Kentucky, North Carolina and Kansas.
He committed shortly after the scrimmage that resonated so deeply with Miller. The coach has branded Arizona as a "players' program," he said. His recruiting fuels that vision. And fan support -- like the full house in October -- enables everything.
With such backing and the increased success come lofty expectations for Miller and every class of recruits.
Not a problem, the coach said, as long as all involved embrace the situation.
"I don't try to temper expectations at all," Miller said. "For anybody to come to our basketball program as a player or coach and try to temper expectations or be scared of what's expected, it's almost irresponsible.
"This is one of the best products in college basketball. You have to come here, knowing what's expected. That's what we all signed up for."
Mitch Sherman is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Follow Mitch Sherman on Twitter: @mitchsherman
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