Editor’s Note: This is the first installment of a three part series on Arizona Basketball and Head Coach Sean Miller. In Part 1, we take a second look at what happened in Arizona’s 73-72 overtime loss to Oregon. In Part 2, we take a deeper dive into Miller’s offense and defense philosophy. In Part 3, we consider the 1-and-done athlete and Wildcat fan frustrations.
The impulsive response in sports is to blame the head coach. While coaches undoubtedly shoulder the blame for losses, fans are far too often uber-critical of coaches and far too lenient on the actual players performing on the court or field.
Last Saturday, Arizona blew another late-game lead against the Oregon Ducks by folding down the stretch in a match up that could very well prove to be a pivotal outcome in deciding the Pac-12 Conference regular season race.
Miller, in his postgame press conference, was not impressed by his team’s performance in the clutch. Miller was also not accepting excuses for having four true freshmen playing significant minutes on a team with seven new faces seeing action this season. As Miller pointed out after the loss to Oregon, Arizona is now 27 games into the season. They’ve played two teams that, at one point in the year, were ranked No. 1 in the country. They’ve played at home, on the road, and at neutral sites. In short, nobody is a freshmen or a newbie this late in February.
The hard truth is no matter how talented this Wildcat team is – and they are wildly talented – something seems to change in the closing minutes of tight games. The bigger the moment, the more this team seems to cower while its opponents rise up. Suddenly, Arizona can’t secure a defensive rebound. They get confused on defensive switches or help rotations, they start standing around on offense waiting for someone else to make the big play, they watch as opposing players are chasing down loose balls, or diving on the floor. It’s incredible.
Following the game, Miller talked about how former Wildcat Rondae Hollis-Jefferson would go up for a rebound and grab the basketball off the rim at a height near the top of the box. He talked about squeezing the basketball on the way down, landing cleanly, and fending off any remaining would-be defenders. Not to blame Zeke Nnaji for Saturday’s loss, but the Arizona big man had his hands on the basketball twice in the final moments of overtime, only to lose it back to Oregon on both occasions. The first was an offensive rebound with less than 30 seconds to play. Nnaji would be called for a tie-up, with Oregon owning the possession arrow. On the ensuing possession, a blocked shot attempt by the Wildcats saw the loose ball literally go off the hands of Nnaji and out of bounds back to the Ducks. Oregon then proceeded to miss its first shot attempt, chase down the long rebound, and work the ball back into the paint, resulting in a point blank layup by Shakur Juiston with only 1.4 seconds to go. Juiston’s make proved to be the game winner even though Arizona would get one last chance to win or force a second overtime at the free throw line.
They didn’t, which leads to the next problem.
Arizona made just 10-of-21 free throw attempts against Oregon. The Ducks finished the game 11-for-14 from the line. In a one point overtime loss, at home, it’s a stunning statistic.
Whether it’s late game rebounding or missed free throws, to blindly blame the head coach is borderline ridiculous. The blame assumes the Arizona coaching staff is not working on this stuff, consistently, in practice. It also assumes that it’s the coaching staff out on the floor missing free throws, failing to secure rebounds and loose balls, failing to communicate on defensive rotations, and failing to make open shots when they become available.
To be clear, nobody’s blaming Nnaji for the loss. Unfortunate things happen in sports in the heat of the moment and oftentimes how they happen are unexplainable. One could even fairly argue that Nnaji was actually fouled by Oregon on the tie up.
All that aside, how fans can go off the rails on Miller is shocking. While a coaching staff is somewhat limited standing on the sideline, the one thing they can do is try everything possible to keep their team in the game and put the players in a position to win. Miller and his assistants did just that, twice, against Oregon.
Where this becomes infuriating is no one needed to do anything special against Oregon to get the win. Instead, all they had to do was secure one or two extra rebounds late, or sink a single free throw.
Miller has shouldered the blame
To his credit, Miller has openly shouldered the blame this season. He even admitted a few weeks back that it took some convincing from his assistant coaches to more routinely work on late game situations in practice. Miller has sat at podiums and stood before the press on road trips, accepting the blame for not figuring out more ways to get Nnaji the basketball and for his team’s failure to execute in clutch moments. He has talked about needing to be a better coach. However, outside of stepping on the court and literally grabbing a rebound or making a free throw himself, there’s very little else he can do right now.
Consider the final moments of regulation and overtime.
At the end of regulation in a tie game, Arizona perfectly executed a ‘designed’ play to get Josh Green going full steam toward the basket on a fake hand off. Similarly, in overtime, Arizona perfectly executed a home run pass with 1.4 seconds on the clock. On both plays, the result was an Oregon foul and Arizona free throws. Are we to pretend that had Green sank one free throw with 2.5 seconds to go in regulation, or if Koloko had hit one or two free throws with 1.0 seconds to play in overtime, that Miller is suddenly a coaching genius?
The answer is no.
We can certainly credit Miller and his assistants for adding more focus to practicing late game situations that resulted in the players perfectly executing two critical late game situations, but the bottom line is the players still missed the free throws. The other bottom line is the Wildcats failed to secure the defensive rebound with about 15 seconds remaining in overtime, while protecting a one-point lead. On that long rebound that wasn’t secured until the ball bounced multiple times and finally reeled in outside the 3-Point line, it was Oregon, not Arizona, doing everything it had to do to come away with the basketball.