Arizona Basketball

Arizona Wildcats need mental toughness, commitment, coach on the floor



This Tweet by the Arizona Daily Wildcat shows when Sean Miller reached the boiling point with senior Kaleb Tarczewski, who talked back to his head coach.

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As beat reporter of the Arizona basketball team from 1995 to 1998 for The Arizona Daily Star, I observed Lute Olson endure 20 losses, including a humbling 25-point defeat against Utah in the 1998 Elite Eight.

The only time I can vividly recall Olson questioning the toughness of his team was ironically after a loss to Oregon, an inexplicable setback against a reeling Ducks team that lost eight of their previous 12 games. The Ducks ended a 12-game losing streak to Arizona with a 78-72 win at the old MacArthur Court in a game in which the Wildcats committed 22 turnovers — sound familiar? — including six by freshman star point guard Mike Bibby.

Oregon outrebounded Arizona 38-31 and showed more hustle throughout. The fans who stormed the court carried on their shoulders coach Jerry Green, who ended a personal five-year losing stretch against Olson.

A month earlier in Tucson, Miles Simon, Michael Dickerson, Bibby and the gang beat the Ducks 88-68 in a game the Wildcats outrebounded Oregon 37-26. Arizona was 12-3 overall and 5-2 in the Pac-10 after that win. Following the loss at Oregon, Olson’s team regressed to 16-6 overall and 8-5 in conference play.

When we reporters talked to Olson in the corridor of MacArthur Court after the game, he was not demonstratively angered by the 26-point swing from the first meeting with Oregon. He was, however, matter-of-fact about what he thought about his team’s fortitude, or lack thereof.


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“We have to be mentally tougher,” Olson said. “The team that played hardest and was mentally tougher won the basketball game, no question about it.”

Olson was not in despair or visibly frustrated, but it was obvious that he was concerned.

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Sean Miller, still one win shy of his 300th career victory, is younger than what Olson was then. Olson was 62 with 524 career wins at that time. Miller, a fiery sort, is 47. Miller also wears his heart on his sleeve as his spat Thursday night on the bench with Kaleb Tarczewski on national television indicated.

After the 83-75 loss to Oregon, snapping Arizona’s 49-game win streak at McKale Center, Miller did not sugarcoat anything. He didn’t do a song-and-dance offering excuses for the Wildcats’ lackluster interior defense and their 19 turnovers that led to Oregon attempting 21 more shots, most in the paint, where the Ducks had a 44-28 advantage despite Arizona’s size inside with Tarczewski, Ryan Anderson and Mark Tollefsen.

Miller opened his interview with Brian Jeffries on the IMG Sports Network postgame show talking about Oregon’s commitment to each other and the Ducks’ “cause”. His comments indicate he thought his team’s effort and will were the exact opposite.


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“They love each other, care about their university … they love their program,” Miller told Jeffries about Dana Altman’s team. “They are playing for their cause and that cause is to win.”

Miller later told reporters about his confrontation with Tarczewski, which happened after the senior center failed to aggressively track down a missed three-pointer by Oregon: “This isn’t tennis. This is basketball. There’s accountability on offense and defense.”


Who on this team is held accountable by a teammate? Does a coach on the floor exist a la Solomon Hill, Nick Johnson and T.J. McConnell?

Instead of Miller getting in Tarczewski’s face, it should be one of his players on the court doing that. Miller must feel as though he’s on an island as far as that is concerned. Helpless.

If say junior point guard Kadeem Allen or senior Gabe York felt comfortable enough grabbing a teammate’s jersey and demanding more effort, Miller would not feel the need to do what he did in front of the McKale crowd and television audience.

Will his veterans take heed of Arizona’s “cause” and relieve him of that concern? Tarczewski, who has 101 wins in his career, should fit that role but he was the one who talked back to Miller.

Olson’s team rebounded from the loss at Oregon in 1997 to win nine of its last 11 games, including a magical six-game ride through the NCAA tournament to a title. Miles Simon became the undeniable leader during that stretch instilling confidence in his team, including Bibby, who emerged as the most dangerous player who embodied the mental toughness Olson sought at MacArthur Court.

Former Arizona football and basketball player Kelvin Eafon, a co-host on the KCUB (1290-AM) postgame show, was one of the Wildcats’ top tough-nosed players in football.

“If we could all play as hard and as tough as Kelvin Eafon, we would win every game we played,” Dick Tomey once said of the tough-as-nails, fearless running back.

Eafon offered his analysis on the air after Thursday night’s game about Arizona’s leadership void in words players like him can understand.

“They need a player who will not back down to the pressure of the limelight or the opponent,” said Eafon, who expressed his desire for Kadeem Allen to step up and become more of a vocal leader as point guard.

Olson, in the stands as always at McKale, must have thought of the words he expressed after that forgettable loss at Oregon 19 years ago: “Mental toughness”.

“The team that played hardest and was mentally tougher won the basketball game, no question about it.” publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports,, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.

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