Well, the college basketball recruiting season has just about wrapped up. The Wildcats have a serviceable lineup for next season that’ll have a shot at the Pac-12 title. Sean Miller went out and fought for four and five-star kids that’ll play for him for a year and transfers with one year of eligibility left. Miller’s affinity for the flashy high school kid has been a trend as of late, and that looks to have been setting a low ceiling in March.
High school talent wins in the Pac-12. Developed talent wins in March. Arizona’s best teams under Sean Miller were led by non-freshman. Derrick Williams led Arizona to an Elite Eight as a sophomore. TJ McConnell and Nick Johnson led the ‘Cats to the Elite Eight as juniors, and McConnell did it again as a senior. It’s a proven formula — Sean Miller has been great at developing talent (Editor’s note: lololololol the 2017-2018 season lolololol.
Coaches are like everyone else on a basketball court, they have strengths and weaknesses. Sean Miller’s strengths lie in his ability to develop overachieving, heady basketball players who are extensions of Miller on the floor. Miller’s weaknesses have been shown in Arizona’s losses to Buffalo, Xavier, and Wichita State. Sean Miller can and will be outcoached by smaller schools.
The direction in which the Arizona basketball program needs to go in is the one that plays to Miller’s strengths. He needs to find the players that he’ll be able to mold; players that fit in his system, rather than the just “the best” basketball players at all costs. That’s not to say that Miller shouldn’t go after the great athletes, the Deandre Aytons, the Aaron Gordons, the Rondae Hollis-Jeffersons. But of those three, the latter two won a game in March. What’s different about them? They won in high school. Gordon and Stanley Johnson actually faced off in the 2013 California state championship.
This past year was tricky for Miller. He did a great job of putting together a decent team after the most embarrassing season of my lifetime. This next season may very well be similar to the previous two — a conference regular season trophy as well as a conference tourney championship, but an early exit in March.
It’s been a really hard few months on the program and the fan base, and this next season is a rebuild to an extent. However, it does offer a great opportunity. It allows Arizona to establish themselves, not for the style the ‘Cats are going to play — Miller’s done that and has been beaten way too many times because of it — but rather, who Arizona is going to play. Miller needs to reward successful high schoolers with an affinity for defense. Miller needs to reward court generals that can and will take over games. For the love of all things holy, Miller needs to go after kids who are willing to put in work to develop over the course of a few years before seeing the court.
Arizona should follow the model of another Wildcats team, one that is widely more successful: Villanova. Jay Wright’s Wildcats have won two national championships in three years. John Marshall of the Chicago Tribune wrote that Villanova had great freshmen contribute to this year’s title run, but they aren’t one-and-done freshmen. No freshmen from this year’s Final Four will be drafted in the first round, according to Jerry Brewer of the Washington Post.
Miller needs to follow this model and seek out the player that won’t mind limited minutes or even redshirting in their freshman year because they have the raw tools to be great but need to be developed.
Dusan Ristic is a great example of this type of player. Ristic averaged just 8.6 minutes per game and 3.4 PPG as a freshman before developing into both a starter and cult legend in Tucson as a senior. He averaged 12.2 points in 27.1 minutes per game this past season. However, the opposite was also on display this past season, as well. Both Parker Jackson-Cartwright and Allonzo Trier started as upperclassmen. Trier especially improved greatly since his freshman year, but neither gained the leadership skills to take Arizona to the next level and be a floor general. If PJC and Trier are the best that Miller can do at developing guards, and the early stars like McConnell and Johnson improved on their own, Arizona could be in trouble for the next several years in March.