Sean Miller is demonstrative. Everybody knows that. We’ve seen the pictures of his many game faces.
Miller exposed an even more wild side — if that is possible — in last night’s 91-88 overtime victory over a talented UNLV team at the Thomas & Mack Arena in Las Vegas.
I sat in the nosebleeds with my daughter — couldn’t afford or justify paying $90 to $100 each for a ticket to sit closer — and from that distance, I was still able to observe Miller at his finest. The outbursts:
— He slammed the scorer’s table with all of his might — both open hands in a swinging motion when kneeling — after his guys had yet another breakdown defensively in the first half.
— He pointed angrily, red in the face, at some of his veterans — the way a dad scolds a son for not doing what he’s told — on more than one occasion after he called a timeout.
— After a shot-clock violation late in the second half, he got on his knees, pounded the court with both hands in front of senior guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright and let Jackson-Cartwright have it. I couldn’t hear what he said but it had to be along the lines of, “For the Love of God, communicate!”
This is Miller’s ninth season at Arizona. Last night was his 294th game coaching the Wildcats (225-69 record). Never have I seen Miller more irate in a game when the refs were not involved.
No question about it — Miller’s intense behavior toward his players impacted Arizona’s win a great deal. It occurred following his remarks to the media questioning his players’ toughness following Wednesday’s win over Long Beach State at McKale Center.
“We’re working hard. We’re not gonna just turn it around. You’ve got to kind of get better by inches and I think if you talk to the players they would echo that,” Miller told Bruce Pascoe of The Arizona Daily Star following last night’s game.
It took seven halves of basketball away from McKale Center for Miller to finally get his guys to play the way he wants them to play on offense and defense. The losses to N.C. State, SMU and Purdue in the Bahamas, and the first half of last night’s game involved an Arizona team that played passive on both ends, unsure of itself, with the players showing little or no confidence in their roles and each other.
Picking up on the need to exhibit similar passion, Miller’s assistants Lorenzo Romar and Mark Phelps were also in the faces of players often. On many occasions, Romar, a veteran of 15 seasons as a head coach in the Pac-12 with Washington, pulled aside players individually heading to the huddle after a timeout was called and reinforced their responsibility.
Make no mistake, Miller is allowing Romar to be him, not trying to keep Romar in his place as an assistant, and it is refreshing to watch.
Arizona’s young players need that buffer from the abrasive Miller to the more moderate Romar and Phelps, especially with the affable Book Richardson no longer in the program after the FBI probe into bribery with agents involving potential recruits.
Miller’s energy kept Arizona focused last night and that parlayed into better defensive possessions in the second half — the Wildcats still have a long way to go with that but showed improvement here and there — and it brought some intensity out of some of the players he needs to break out of their shell.
Dylan Smith, dormant through the first six games of the season, pumped his fist after making a shot that led to a 3-point play in the second half. The play gave Arizona its first lead of the game with 9:42 remaining in regulation after the Wildcats trailed by 13 points early in the second half.
Brandon Randolph showed a lot more confidence in his shot, making two significant 3-pointers in the second half, part of Arizona’s 62.9 percent shooting performance after halftime.
Ira Lee played with reckless abandon and tied for the team lead with two steals in 22 minutes. Once he gets the “reckless” part out of the equation, Lee will be a force to be dealt with. His hustle is contagious.
“It’s about rising to the challenge and trying to set an example for these freshman,” Allonzo Trier told Pascoe. “I can’t just worry about me. I can’t just be good enough and say, `I’m doing all right’ and not setting an example, setting the tone for these other guys. I could give a little more of myself and try to lead this team.”
Nobody stopped the ball. @APlayersProgram takes advantage.
Allonzo Trier rolls through the lane for the strong finish through contact. pic.twitter.com/IrJi94f2Kf
Arizona (4-3) next faces its biggest challenge to date — a game with No. 9 Texas A&M (9-0) in Phoenix on Tuesday.
UNLV post player Brandon McCoy dominated Arizona inside with 33 points on 13-of-17 shooting and 10 rebounds. Deandre Ayton, Dusan Ristic, Keanu Pinder and Lee must deal with Texas A&M’s interior athleticism, led by potential NBA lottery pick Robert Willams. He is a 6-foot-10, 240-pound prospect with a 7-foot-5-inch wingspan.
The Aggies have veteran playmaking guards Duane Wilson and Admon Gilder (each at 4.4 assists per game) who can distribute the ball and score.
Miller will show the same type of intensity he exhibited last night for a while. Eventually, that rage will turn into a controlled fire when his players finally play to their capability between the ears. The Wildcats need that prodding. They are far from 10 players playing as one.
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com 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 CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, 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.