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November, 2015


by salim'sheadband


Critically acclaimed.

That’s how Bill Simmons described the Seven Seconds or Less Suns. Great team. Never won anything that really mattered. Like a movie you look back on 10 years later and think “Man, that movie never won any Academy Awards?” On all the top ten lists. Great actors. Good director. And you’ll be able to win some money off of your buddies someday betting that it was at least nominated for Best Picture when it wasn’t.

Want another way to define critically acclaimed? Sixty-seven wins in two seasons at a power conference school without a Final Four. Mike Krzyzewski won at least 67 games twice, winning 69 from 1997-99, and 67 from 2009-11, but he made one title game and won another in that span. John Calipari did it twice, winning 67 from 2010-12 and 2013-15, making four Final Fours and winning a national championship. Bill Self won 70 from 2006-08, winning a championship, and 67 from 2010-12, making another, only missing when he won 68 from 2009-11. Billy Donovan won 68 in two years in which he won back-to-back national titles. Rick Pitino won 69 going to back-to-back title games. Roy Williams won 67 from 2006-08 when he went to a Final Four, and then 70 when he bookended that 2007-08 Final Four with a title in 2009.

Jim Calhoun never won 67 games in back-to-back seasons. The most he won was 66 from 1997-99 when he won his first title. Tom Izzo never did it, winning 65 from 1998-2000 when he went to a Final Four and won a title the next year. Jim Boeheim never did it, winning 64 from 2011-13, the year he went to his fourth Final Four. Lute Olson never did it, winning 64 from 1987-89, when he went to his second Final Four.

There are undoubtedly others I am forgetting, but you see where I’m going with this. From 2013-15 Sean Miller won 67 games, tied for the most in the country with a team—Kentucky—that went to two Final Fours. Sean Miller, and the Arizona Wildcats, for the fifth straight time after making the Elite Eight, did not advance to a Final Four. At least, unlike the previous four times, this time they spared their fans the agony of a last-second possession.

I have thought and re-thought and gone back and forth as to how I feel about the last two seasons, and finally decided I needed to write it out of my system. I loved Nick Johnson’s heart and determination even though he was less than a complete guard. I loved Aaron Gordon’s character and athleticism even though he couldn’t hit water if he fell out of a boat. I loved TJ’s energy and passion, and the way he harassed and annoyed his way into his opponents’ hearts. I loved Stanley’s fire and talent, tempered by his decision-making and, as we discovered later, some of the personal burdens he carried with him. I loved Rondae’s smile and spidery arms and the barely-in-control way he careened through the lane like a young deer whose limbs weren’t quite working yet.

I loved the big wins and how hard we played, even if the offense was harder to watch than a crush video at times. I loved that we beat Duke at North Durham and heard U of A chants at Crisler Center in Michigan and ground Utah into dust at Huntsman and won the Pac-12 tournament, finally knocking that monkey off our back. I loved AG blocking Xavier Johnson into the netherworld and finishing off SDSU at Viejas with an alley-oop, and Stanley winning the Maui MVP, and TJ firing up the Cal crowd, even though we lost that game on Cobbs’s shot, and the dark ferocity of the McKale Center crowd when we took Gonzaga to overtime, and Rondae dunking on Mamadou N’Diaye, and Brandon winning Pac-12 tournament MVP, and Gabe York sinking Ohio St. with five three-pointers. I love how Brandon put his arm around Nick Johnson after the first Wisconsin loss and that we were able to think that we would get there next time, even though I know now that we didn’t. I loved TJ kissing the McKale Center court in his last game, proving true the age-old maxim that converts are the biggest fanatics. Even though I hated it, I loved that he cried when he lost to Wisconsin for the second time, because above all else, we project onto our athletes the attributes and emotions we hope we would have were we blessed enough to be in their position.

And, like Roy Williams said some time after we beat Kansas in 1997, I will probably go to my grave thinking about how at least one of those teams didn’t go to a Final Four.

I wish the Final Four didn’t mean so much, but it does. I can’t explain why. It’s just one more game. Why don’t our Elite Eights, divided by two, in the aggregate equal one Final Four? Why does it irritate me so much that, in the intro video, the number of Elite Eights increase while those Final Fours, announced by players now old enough to have grandchildren, stay static? I don’t know. But it does.

I am frustrated as hell that we couldn’t score the first time around. I am frustrated as hell that we couldn’t defend the second time around. I am frustrated that Nick Johnson gets called for an offensive foul that doesn’t get called 999 times out of 1,000. I am frustrated that a career 32% three-point shooter plays the game of his life. I am frustrated that both times, we left something on the court. We got beat.

Of course, we have Frank Kaminsky to thank for that. I want him to either be a star in the NBA or a total bust. Anything in the middle will annoy me. But I know that he’s going to be in the middle—a 8 point, 6 rebound guy for 10 years and everyone except his teammates and parents will forget he exists except for those times we remember the great Wisconsin teams, and their success that came, of course, at our expense.

I think of the contrast between these two Miller teams—which sort of glom together to one team in my mind, as they will with most people, who I think will swear that Stanley tossed an alley-oop to AG in one game years from now—and Olson’s teams. Olson played harder schedules top-to-bottom. The Pac-12 was also harder, generally, than it has been for Miller. As a result Miller put up somewhat gaudier stats, but his post-season results have been more consistent. Olson’s teams’ highs were higher and his lows were lower in the tournament. I think it would be hard for any of us to conceive of a Miller-coached team losing to a double-digit seed in the first round, as it is hard for any of us to conceive, as we sit here today, the moment when the clock strikes 00.00 on another Elite Eight game and we, FINALLY, are the ones cutting down the nets.

But we are consistent. Consistency is one of those double-edged buzzwords, either functioning as a compliment or, in the converse, to damn with faint praise. The ironic thing is that consistency was perhaps the word I would have used to describe Arizona during Olson’s tenure as well. Tournament every year. Final Four every four or so, at least until 2005 when the wheel broke and the space-time continuum diverged, throwing us into a parallel universe where, for reasons I don’t fully understand, we continue to pay in blood for our sins. Miller’s Arizona teams are consistent too. Exciting! You know who wasn’t consistent? UCONN. You know who has four national championships in 16 years? UCONN. I once heard Olson’s Arizona teams described as the (90s) Atlanta Braves. At least the Braves made it to the World Series.

So maybe consistency isn’t the greatest thing in the world. You can be consistently bad, mediocre, underachieving, disappointing. But if you unpack the consistency here, you find everything necessary to support the pillars of creation. Sean Miller has 94 wins over the past three seasons—most of any power conference school (behind Wichita St. and Gonzaga). He has 147 the past five seasons, behind the aforementioned Wichita St., Gonzaga, Kentucky, Duke, Kansas, and Louisville. The power conference quartet each has at least a Final Four apiece in that span. He has 163 wins in his six seasons here. Olson had 165 from 1988-93.

The tournament results are also (sigh) consistent. If Sean Miller makes a tournament, he’s getting to the second weekend. Whether he’s getting past that remains to be seen, although it would be historically unprecedented for him to never reach a Final Four. Not impossible, but unprecedented. It’s clear beyond doubt that Sean Miller is a very good—not perfect, but very good—basketball coach. He has been, and in all likelihood remains, notwithstanding the salvos of Cuonzo Martin and David Grace, a luminescent recruiter. He is young enough to continue to get better and adapt to and change the things he needs to change. But in six short years he’s basically gone through three eras already with Arizona (the Williams Era, the Hill-Johnson Era, and the TJ-Rondae Era) and has done well to very-well every time. There is really no reason to believe that he will suffer any measurable drop-off in the future.

But the last two years hurt. We won’t know how much they’ll hurt until some time has passed. Maybe 2016 or 2017 will bring something that will make the irritation of dim. Or maybe they’ll further cement the reputation of Miller as someone who only ever has to pack two suitcases.

On the other hand, the successes are why we are excited for the upcoming season. Or at least why I am. We’re basketball fans. I’m interested to see if Zeus steps up and becomes even half the player we always hoped he could be when he signed with us. Or if York becomes half the player the people around him thought he would be when he signed with us. What the transfers can do. What the young guys can do. Whether this is a team that is going to win the Pac, or whether it’s going to be a team we’re going to look at in February and think “Man, these guys are just outmanned across the board.” Maybe this is a year, not unlike a certain year a former Arizona coach had where expectations waned, will be the year Miller breaks through. Or maybe it won’t. But we are excited, because when you have a coach like Sean Miller, and a program like Arizona, that is your constant privilege. Hope springs eternal.

Regardless of what the future holds, I have no doubt that I will, eventually, look back with incredible fondness and pride on the sixty-seven-win era of Arizona basketball. Besides the memories, I think, above all else, it proved that Arizona was more than a one-coach program. It continued our great and important legacy in the NBA. The memories it did give us were mostly good and some bad, which is both life and a metaphor for life. The wondrous unfairness of it all, interspersed with fragments of rapture so exquisite they sustain you through all of the bad times that follow and retroactively make up for all the bad times that came before. Like the fisherman who I met sitting on a dock, rhapsodizing that one little tug on his line was enough to keep him out there all night. I didn’t know what he meant then. I do now. It almost sounds like art.

Critically acclaimed, indeed.