Andre Miller walked around McKale Center earlier this year, hat over his head, taking in the sights. He even sat for a while on the Utah bench before the Utes’ game against Arizona.
Not many among the red-clad Arizona fans noticed that one of the great villains in the Wildcats’ NCAA Tournament history was in their midst.
It has been 19 years since Miller had one of the greatest performances ever against Arizona — any game, anywhere, anytime — 18 points, 14 rebounds and 13 assists in Utah’s regional final upset of the No. 1 Wildcats in the 1998 West Region final in Anaheim, Calif.
While the pain still lingers for the UA faithful, it’s part of Miller’s best memories of playing basketball, which includes a 17-year NBA career that ended after last season.
“The whole college experience for me is better than anything I went through in the NBA,” Miller told AllSportsTucson.com before he was inducted into the Pac-12 Hall of Honor during the league tournament in Las Vegas a couple of weeks ago.
“The NBA was fun, and it was my dream to play against the best players in the world and travel and meet all these different people. But it was a business after a couple of years. College was just like kids. All you had to do was go to school, have fun and be a kid. That Arizona experience, as well as that run we had that year … there was no comparison.”
Miller laughed when it was suggested that the term “triangle-and-two” is still a bad word in Tucson. While Miller may be a villain, Utah coach Rick Majerus was the evil mastermind who unleashed the gimmicky defense against the Wildcats, who were 30-4 entering the game, trying to win back-to-back national titles.
Utah won 76-51.
“The triangle-and-two is just something we did,” Miller said. “We played around with it in practice and we the guys who knew how to communicate.”
Majerus told his team the morning of the game that he planned to scrap the team’s usual man-to-man defense and try to stop Arizona with the triangle-and-two. The idea was to chase, hound and deny the ball to point guard Mike Bibby and shooting guard Miles Simon with two man-to-man defenders. Utah’s Drew Hansen and David Jackson mostly split duties on Bibby, while Alex Jensen had the primary assignment on the smaller Simon.
Miller was the top of the triangle. Michael Doleac and Hanno Mottola formed the base. Jensen also helped out at times.
“We were all forced to think and communicate,” Miller said of the triangle. “We were pretty good communicators and we knew what each other was thinking. That’s what made it work because we were like brothers.
“They knew why I went over there, and I knew they where were they were. I never experienced that in basketball.”
Majerus’ scheme worked. Bibby was 3 of 15 from the field, missing all seven attempts from 3-point range. Simon was 1 of 9 shooting, missing all three of his tries from beyond the arc.
“They were the best players in the country,” Miller said.
“The could shoot; they were playmakers. We just had to take them out. We couldn’t just let them play basketball, because they were too good. We were going to take our chances. We were not going to let Mike Bibby and Miles Simon beat us.”
Utah’s strategy had one potential fatal flaw. Arizona still had small forward Michael Dickerson. He could destroy the zone part of the triangle-and-two.
“We knew if he starts making jump shots, then we’ll lose,” Miller said. “And, luckily, you know…”
Dickerson was 2 of 12 from the field and, like Bibby and Simon, was unable to find deep range. He misfired on three 3-pint attempts. Utah didn’t have to guard Dickerson, didn’t have to come out of its zone.
Former Ute Andre Miller visits with Arizona alum Bob Elliott before the Pac-12's Hall of Honor induction ceremony Friday in Las Vegas. pic.twitter.com/SfXkL6nehT
Miller, meanwhile, seemed to do whatever he wanted on offense en route to his triple-double.
“I think it was just the scheme that allowed that because in that triangle-and-two I was a drifter, meaning I didn’t have to guard anybody. I just had to be in the area, get rebounds and go,” Miller said. “It was a fun time.”
Utah went on to beat North Carolina in the Final Four before losing to Kentucky in the national championship game.
Despite the pain he helped inflict on March 21, 1998, Miller isn’t a classic villain who has spent the past 19 years gloating. The Elite Eight upset was barely talked about — if it all — across his 17 NBA seasons as he encountered Wildcat after Wildcat. He even was a roommate of A.J. Bramlett for a couple of months in Cleveland.
“It was just a respect thing,” Miller said.
“I always respected Mike Bibby. I respected Jason Terry. I see Miles Simon from time to time. I have known him since he was Mater Dei High School.
“For me to see those guys, and others, over the past 19 years, we have all done something positive with our lives, we’ve all be able to impact people’s lives.”
Miller attended Verbum Dei in Los Angeles in admiration of what coach Lute Olson was doing in Tucson.
“I can remember pretty much all the players that went through Arizona when I was in high school and junior high school,” Miller said. “Arizona to me was like North Carolina, the Kentucky, of the West Coast. I liked UCLA and USC, but there was something about that school. …
“I have a lot of respect for the University of Arizona and everything they have done. But I was excited about going to Utah and having my own identity and being associated with what went on there.”
He created an identity, all right. Utah hero. Arizona villain.