Editor’s Note: This is the final installment of a three part series on Arizona Basketball and Head Coach Sean Miller. In Part 1, we took a second look at what happened in Arizona’s 73-72 overtime loss to Oregon. In Part 2, we took a deeper dive into Miller’s offense and defense philosophy. In Part 3, we consider the 1-and-done athlete and Wildcat fan frustrations.
Miller, the 1-and-done, and “Trusting the Process”
Where Sean Miller might be weak is in his ability to coach the true 1-and-done athlete. Interestingly, it’s not that Miller can’t coach these star athletes. Instead, it’s that his overarching philosophy of “trusting the process” is not exactly tailor made for the student athlete that will only be on campus for 9 or 10 months.
Think about it.
If Nico Mannion turns pro after this season, he’ll have been under Miller’s tutelage for less than 10 months. Mannion arrived at Arizona in June of last year. The Wildcats season, even if they win it all, will end in early April. That’s simply not enough time to truly grow as a player at the college level under a “trust the process” mantra. The quandary for any Power 5 conference coaching staff is you can’t just ignore the 5-star high school athletes. In some way, shape, or form, you need these stars. They’re accurately ranked by the recruiting services, they are elite athletes, and it’s difficult to win championships without them. However, if these athletes truly are 1-and-done, then they come with loads of risk. If they deliver, then awesome. Everyone’s happy. John Calipari and Coach K have had success in this area. However, they’ve also had various teams wildly underachieve. This year, it’s Roy Williams’ turn to suffer through elite athlete recruiting as the Tar Heels simply can’t beat anybody this season. It’s not that Williams is a bad coach this year. Far from it as Williams is arguably one of the 10 best coaches of all time. Instead, it’s a run of bad luck in a sport where the margin for error is minute.
For Miller and Arizona, there’s no denying the talent on this year’s team. And to Miller and the coaching staff’s credit, they’ve tried a reverse 1-and-done formula by bringing in 1-year graduate transfers to gain some college-level experience and offset the 1-and-done freshmen on the roster. It’s sort of working, but due to the small margin for error, it’s also sort of not working. On Thursday in Los Angeles, it basically imploded as the Wildcats again shot below 30 percent from the floor and looked discombobulated, defensively.
Every offseason, fans get to play the most frustrating game of ‘what if’? What if Player A didn’t turn pro? What if Player B didn’t transfer? What if Players A, B, and C had stayed together for two or three years?
I don’t envy any elite Power 5 coaching staff having to deal with this stuff, even the Calipari’s of the world. In the end, these coaches are teachers, and it’s difficult to have to teach so much in so little time. The NCAA mandates the time a coach can spend with a player during the season and in the offseason. While the rules are fair, they certainly aren’t designed for the 1-and-done athlete. These rules are designed to account for a student athlete being in a program for three or four years, not nine or 10 months.
Miller won’t make any excuses and he shouldn’t. Like many of his peers, he’s making millions of dollars to deal with these issues. In the end, the coaches are responsible and Miller has never shied away from responsibility. Perhaps the answer is going back to the days when Miller first looked a player’s toughness and commitment to defense on the high school level before even considering offering them a scholarship. That formula helped him reach four Elite Eights (three with Arizona). Meanwhile, in recent years where Miller has sought to recruit players to fit a more fan- and player-preferred up temp style of offense, his Arizona teams have been bounced in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament, missed the Big Dance entirely last season, and reached a single Sweet 16 back in 2016-17.
Fan Frustration and the 1-and-done athlete
Where things get really crazy is more and more fans seem to be tiring of the 1-and-done rule. The more fans I engage, the more these fans wish these 1-and-done players would simply go straight to the NBA. Honestly, nobody would fault them. Go make the money they deserve now and stop wasting our time. Fans want players they can relate to. Sure, it’s selfish, but again, these fans will be rooting for the Arizona Wildcats for the next three or four decades. Why should they pour their heart and soul into a player that they will only see on the court for three or four months?
Naturally, if a collection of true freshmen end up winning a national championship in their only season at a school, then all is well, the student athletes will be remembered forever, and everyone walks away happy.
However, more times than not, the 1-and-done athlete wins zero games of significance and bolts without a regular season conference title, a conference tournament championship, a deep NCAA Tournament run, or sometimes, even a single NCAA Tournament victory. At that point, what was the point?
The difference between the 1-and-done student athlete and the fans is the fans are never going to go away. While the short-term student athlete certainly has an affinity to their college of choice, the fans live and breathe their school forever.
Big picture, it’s like a tree falling in the forest when nobody is around to see or hear it. If a student athlete doesn’t accomplish anything of significance for the school in their lone season, few will even remember they played after a couple of years. Fair or not, it’s the truth.
Like so many others, I have no problem with these young men and women pursuing their dreams and don’t think they should be forced to go to college for a year to achieve them. It’s not their fault they are on a college campus right now. That said, don’t expect any special thanks or unwarranted praise for taking up temporary residence on campus for two semesters unless the real goods are delivered in the form of league titles and memorable tournament runs.