Ironic that in the Sean Miller era at Arizona, with one-and-done players like Aaron Gordon, Stanley Johnson and Lauri Markkanen, and yes, Grant Jerrett — long-term gratification outweighs the instant variety in terms of building the foundation for a conference championship-caliber program.
Miller has a pair of teammates on this year’s team who have shown the most successful endurance in the history of a program known for its many achievements.
Dusan Ristic is the Arizona career victories leader now with 111 and teammate Parker Jackson-Cartwright is tied for No. 5 at 106 with Matt Othick. With the potential for 10 more games with today’s game against Cal and perhaps three games in the Pac-12 tournament and six in the NCAA tournament, Ristic and Jackson-Cartwright can have the top two spots to themselves.
Two years ago, Kaleb Tarczewski (110 wins) and Gabe York (105) wrapped up their four-year Arizona careers together under Miller.
No other tandem in the top 10 of career wins at Arizona concluded their careers in the same season. Othick and Matt Muehlebach (110 wins) were a backcourt pair for Lute Olson but Muehlebach exhausted his eligibility in 1991, a year before Othick.
Ristic and Jackson-Cartwright will take part in what will likely be an emotional Senior Day at McKale Center. What the future holds for Miller after this season is up for debate. The possibility exists this could also be the last game for the nine-year coach at McKale Center.
San Jose Mercury News writer Jon Wilner, a former Arizona beat reporter for The Arizona Daily Star who has a pulse on Pac-12 athletics as much as anyone, wrote the other day that it might be in the best interest for Miller and Arizona to part ways after the turmoil from a published ESPN report alleging a pay-for-play conversation between Miller and an agent runner involving Deandre Ayton.
One basis of Wilner’s argument is the alleged transgressions of former assistant Book Richardson, who was arrested in September by the FBI on federal bribery charges under Miller’s watch even if Miller did not know as he claims. Wilner labels it a “failure to monitor, or worse.”
Personally, I hope Miller stays, but I can’t argue against the philosophy of Wilner and others who share his viewpoint who either cover the team or are associated with the program.
“Miller agrees to move on; he gets paid handsomely for doing so; he goes after ESPN; and eventually, he works again,” Wilner writes. “It is the best thing for the program, and Miller has always stated he wants what’s best for the program. For Arizona, the separation would mitigate the seemingly inevitable NCAA sanctions (failure to monitor, etc) and provide an essential fresh start.
“The climb out of the muck with Miller in charge would simply be too difficult and would take too long. It’s time to move on.”
If Miller tries to wipe the slate clean on his terms and departs after this season, as Wilner suggests, four- or five-year seniors who stuck it out under the coach will be remembered as fondly of this era as the ones who bolted after a year or two for the fame, fortune and glory of the NBA.
The signature players of Miller’s operation will be Ristic, Jackson-Cartwright, Kadeem Allen, Tarczewski, York,Solomon Hill, Kyle Fogg and Kevin Parrom as much as Derrick Williams, Nick Johnson, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Gordon, Stanley Johnson, Kobi Simmons and Markkanen.
To wit: The most popular player of the Miller era is not a five-star one-and-done recruit but T.J. McConnell, a transfer from Duquesne who did not have a star rating out of Bridgeville (Pa.) Chartiers Valley High School in 2010. Only Duquesne offered him a scholarship upon his graduation from Chartiers Valley.
Miller is known for rivaling Kentucky’s John Calipari and Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski for attracting five-star recruits.
Ristic, a Serbian who was not fluent in English when he arrived in the United States in 2013, and Jackson-Cartwright, a perceived undersized college player at 5’9″ and 140 pounds, were a step below that level as four-star recruits in the Class of 2014.
Both are essential to Arizona trying to claim its third outright Pac-12 regular-season title in their four years today when the Wildcats play Cal.
Ristic is a realistic All-Pac-12 candidate — a far-fetched notion at the beginning of this season — because of how he has performed in the conference portion of the season. Ristic has scored 10 or more points in 12 of his last 13 games, which is the best such streak of his career. In his last 13 games, he is averaging 14.8 points and 7.2 rebounds per game while shooting 64.9 percent from the floor and 72.7 percent at the foul line. Ristic has also made six of his eight 3-point field goal attempts during this stretch.
With three assists against Stanford on Thursday, Jackson-Cartwright has 443 assists in his career. He is 12 assists shy of cracking the career top 10 list in Arizona history with 10th place currently held by Miles Simon (1995-98) with 455 assists.
Making the top 10 ranking that much more impressive is the fact that Jackson-Cartwright started only 16 games in his previous three seasons before starting all 30 to this point this season. Jackson-Cartwright has averaged only 21.5 minutes a game in his career.
The top player in career assists in the Olson era was Mustafa Shakur with 670 assists in 31 minutes a game from 2003-07. If Jackson-Cartwright played at the same rate of minutes as Shakur in his career, he would have 650 assists presently.
That’s more than 200 assists than what he has now. Miller has gotten everything possible out of Jackson-Cartwright for the amount he has played him, including a calming influence he brings to the team with a remarkable career assist-to-turnover ratio of almost 4 to 1 — 443 assists with only 168 turnovers.
Ristic and Jackson-Cartwright conclude their games at McKale Center today — along with Keanu Pinder (a two-year player as a junior college transfer) and Tucsonan Talbott Denny (a Salpointe grad who transferred from Lipscomb) — but their legacy in the arena and around Tucson will endure because they endured.
Ayton, the potential No. 1 pick in the NBA draft, will likely also play his last game at McKale. Other players may leave also, including Allonzo Trier and Rawle Alkins, to the NBA. And who knows who stays or goes if indeed Miller steps away.
All of these subplots makes for a very emotional day at McKale Center to the point in which one can forget a game will even be played.
The ideal snapshot in the end for Arizona and its fans will be to watch Ristic and Jackson-Cartwright cut the net and Miller hoisting it in the air. That would again signal Arizona always has the potential for greatness.
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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.