Arizona Wildcats basketball coach Sean Miller talked about the Wildcats and their upcoming NCAA tournament opponent Weber State yesterday on Sirius/XM’s Inside College Basketball show. The following is the Q & A with Miller, starting with a comment by Miles Simon, Arizona’s Final Four MVP in 1997, about the West Region bracket including the Wildcats (Simon is a co-host of the show):
Simon: I think the West is the softest bracket. I also think that Arizona, if they get by Weber State, that they arguably have the toughest 8-9 (seeded) matchup. … When you listen to a lot of analysts or read on Twitter, they are automatically putting Oklahoma State in that game. Gonzaga has flown under the radar this year. They’re 28-6. Kevin Pangos, their point guard has been banged up for most of the year. People don’t know that he’s playing with turf toe. He’s had a bad wheel but the Gonzaga team is very good. They’re underrated. Sam Dower is an excellent pick and pop 4 man (power forward) who can really shoot the ball. He’s filled in nicely for Elias Harris and Gary Bell as an elite-level defender. He can really score the basketball, so that 8-9 matchup is going to be one of the better games on Friday to watch.
Co-Host Jason Horowitz: Coach Miller talk about your preparation heading into Friday’s first round game with Weber State.
Miller: You either play in the Thursday-Saturday bracket or the Friday-Sunday bracket. I think we are fortunate to be in the Friday-Sunday bracket because we had a great Pac-12 tournament in that we got three games in three days. In particular, not because we lost to UCLA, but I think anybody who watched that game, it was a really high-level game. I think that our players left that game exhausted in a good way. Everything was left out on to the court, and you always worry when you play a third game in three days at that level that some times you can’t quite get that energy back. I believe that the fact we have all the way until Friday that we have a chance to be at our best when we play Weber State. So we’ve moved on and we’re worried a lot about us trying to get better. We certainly respect Weber State. They are an excellent coached team. They are skilled on offense and someone we’re really preparing for.
Simon: Coach, I thought you had a great quote after Brandon Ashley went down and you guys were struggling to score the basketball and had played some close games against Stanford and obviously you lose at the buzzer to Cal. And you know, play Oregon within two points, but the thing about the Ashley injury, it happened I feel and you said it right that you have time to figure things out because you still had nine games left after Brandon got hurt. I thought it was a brilliant move putting (Gabe) York in the starting lineup after I think Rondae Hollis-Jefferson played three games in the lineup replacing Brandon. What was the thought process and mindset about why you went with York and moved Rondae back to the sixth man role?
Miller: So much of it is not to put necessarily your five most talented players on the court as much as five players who are talented but can work together and most importantly can bring out the best in each other not just on offense but on defense. You know, it took us a little bit of time but with the way Gabe York plays the game, he’s an excellent three-point shooter. He’s really careful with the ball. I mean, if you look at his turnovers on the year he may take care of the ball as well anybody on our team. From a defensive perspective, Gabe is much more improved. With Nick Johnson especially, you can always move Nick around defensively, so it’s not as if we shelved Rondae. You look at Rondae’s role, the minutes that he plays clearly have increased since Brandon went down. But the balance of the minute total of who plays we have a more skilled team throughout the 40 minutes and we’re more well aware of that. I think that brings out the best in our other players. (Kaleb) Tarczewski benefits a lot by having more spacing on the court because he’s a true low-post player. So all of those things sort of went to our advantage. We would love to bring Brandon back. I think there’s always a sentiment because we have done well without him that we’re as good or better. That’s not the case. We have a tremendous upside with him. But we have to do the best we can because we can’t bring him back unfortunately. I credit our guys for really staying the course.
Horowitz: Is this as confident as you’ve ever been in a defensive team that if it comes down to it, you’re getting a stop?
Miller: That’s why we’re a No. 1 seed. That’s why we won the Pac-12. That’s why we were playing this past weekend against UCLA for the tournament championship. It’s been our calling card. We’ve had that in place from Day One. We’ve actually grown and become better as a group and as a team defensively. Our offense has come and gone. There are times when I wish it could be even better. We’ve struggled making free throws. There are times we’ve scored in the 50s or low 60s. We don’t want to be that team. We want to be good on both sides of the ball, but I think for us as long as our defense is great, we always have a chance to win.
Simon: What are you seeing from this Weber State team that can give you guys problems?
Miller: First of all, Miles, they are a tremendous three-point shooting team. As a group, as a team, they shoot almost 40 percent from the three and they are not shy about the attempts. So that’s No. 1. It really grabs your attention. They have an all-conference guard, Davion Berry, who averages 19 points a game. He really gets to the foul line and he makes free throws. In addition, he’s a prolific three-point shooter. He kind of sets the tone from beyond the arc for their team. They also have a low-post player Kyle Tresnak who they do a great job of getting him the ball. He’s a double-figure scorer and somebody who is really adept on the blocks, so they have a number of shooters and they have that low-post player. They have been good the entire year. They’re very, very disciplined and well coached team so we’re making sure from our perspective that we’re preparing for them and hoping to be our best on Friday.
Horowitz: Do you think the gap between the No. 16 and No. 1 seeds is getting closer? Not this year with you guys but do you see a No. 16 beating a No. 1 in the near future?
Miller: No doubt it will. Parity makes college basketball so great. It’s what makes this tournament so captivating. I mean on any given night on a neutral court in a 40-minute period of time if you just look at it from this perspective with just foul trouble alone in a 40-minute game on a neutral court in March can take a favored team or a team that maybe is better and all of a sudden make it even or at times lesser. Two quick fouls and all of the things can happen. It’s a one-shot deal. It isn’t a seven-game series. It’s just who’s the best team on that particular day. If you’re here playing in March, you know that you are a team that has won a lot of games and is good in its own right. So the other part of it is this is my first time being a No. 1 seed. We also have to stay away from the thinking of that, of a 16 vs. a No. 1. The way we’re looking at it is we’re just trying to be our best on Friday. We’re trying to break the game down like we always do. Hopefully, we’ll be the better team because if you start playing that game in your mind as the No. 1 seed your success almost works backwards against you and you start to become tight, playing not to lose instead of to win.
Simon: Have you talked to your brother (Archie Miller of Dayton) since his at-large bid? Which game is your dad going to be at?
Miller: My dad is gonna see Arch play. You know Pittsburgh and Buffalo are not too far away. They’re both so cold right now people can’t do anything but watch basketball. I’m happy for Arch. You know Dayton is not a program that goes every year to the NCAA tournament. For him as the new coach in his third year to guide them into the NCAA tournament is a heck of a thing. I’m happy for him, proud of him and also very happy for Dayton because they took the leap of faith to hire him as an assistant coach, not from the head coaching experience tree. They ended up getting somebody who will take them to a high level here in the future.
Horowitz: How big is it to get that chance against Ohio State (coached by the Millers’ good friend Thad Matta)?
Miller: Everybody in Ohio admires Ohio State and respects them. They are so big any where in the country, but especially in their own state. If you play them it’s such a great opportunity. I’m sure on Thad’s end it’s not something he enjoyed seeing when it came up on the screen, but I know it will be a great game and I’m just happy that Arch is in the tournament.
Simon: What has made Nick Johnson become a first-team All-American?
Miller: Nick has done all of things that you hope a talented player does when they enter your program. You know, each year, No. 1, on the court, he’s added to his game. He’s a much more confident shooter. He’s a much more balanced scorer. He knows how to get to the foul line better. He scores not just because he can jump but he has a great mid-range game. His three-point shot has gotten better. His ball-handling, being able to go both directions, left and right … And he plays three positions every game for us — the 1 (point guard), the 2 (shooting guard) and the 3 (small forward). From a defensive perspective, he’s always been really quick, but he’s smart now. He knows what to do and how to do it. He’s guarded every type of guard in his three years with us that you possibly can and off the court, he’s just a very unselfish kid. He has a great personality. He’s the true leader of our team. You know, early in the summer and last spring, he made it his job to make sure that our team grew closer not just on the court, but off of it. Eight of our players live together. That really started with his mindset of making sure that we were invested in being together and it’s a reminder for me as a coach, Miles, that it’s not just the practice planning or how much you do on the court. His process of winning started a long time ago for us. The fact that we’re a No. 1 seed I would say happened almost the day after we lost last year in the Sweet 16 and Nick had a lot to do with that.