The Arizona Wildcats won a gritty contest against Saint Mary’s on Saturday and will face the Xavier Musketeers in the Sweet 16.
Xavier was lucky enough to advance after absolutely pummeling the three-seed Florida State Seminoles. The final count read 91-66, and FSU’s defense did little to stop the surprise onslaught. Trevon Bluiett led all scorers with 29 and Xavier finished the night with a 56 percent clip from the field, a 65 percent mark from three and 20-of-26 made free throws.
After a year between appearances, the Musketeers are back in the Sweet 16 and will face the Wildcats, who also have been off for that same amount of time. As I alluded to, Arizona got by the skin of their teeth against the Gaels and pulled off the 69-60 victory thanks to Lauri Markkanen‘s huge play down the stretch. The freshman finished with 16 points and 11 boards in 37 minutes of action, but it was the outstanding coaching of Sean Miller that played just as big a role.
He’s toward the end of his eighth year at the school, and he’s managed to maintain the incredible success that the fanbase, and athletic department, have grown accustomed to. When Arizona hired him, he already had the reputation of being a great coach, and that’s thanks to the job he did at Xavier.
Miller spent five seasons with the Musketeers from 2005-09 and quickly became one of the most winning coaches in school history. He was the successor to Thad Matta, who brought Xavier to the NCAA Tournament each of the three seasons he was there. On top of that, Matta brought home two conference tournament titles and amassed a 73-28 record.
When Miller got brought on, the bar couldn’t have been much higher. The 2004 squad was arguably the greatest team in school history, and Matta had led them to their first-ever Elite Eight. Before finishing the year 26-11, that team dropped 10th-seed Lousiville in the first round of the Big Dance and followed it with upsets over two-seed Mississippi State and three-seed Texas — those wins came by 15 and eight points, respectively.
Duke ended the Cinderella run, but the Musketeers played like a Final Four team and only lost 66-63 to a loaded Blue Devils squad.
In comes Miller. The three best players from the year before are gone, and he’s now tasked with having to rebuild a program that was on cloud nine just months earlier. Granted, the process could’ve been much worse. Miller still had capable players, and he led that team to a modest 17-11 record, highlighted by 10-6 in conference play. Xavier started to gain steam the following year and returned to March Madness despite a first-round exit. They finished 21-11 and brought home another A-10 Tournament crown.
Without having big name prospects each year, Miller’s teams were some of the country’s most potent, and Xavier was cementing themselves as the A-10’s premier team. Each of his last three seasons ended with them atop the conference, and that certainly helped them make returns to the postseason each year.
Arizona’s vacancy came after Russ Pennell helmed the team for one season. The 21-14 Wildcats got shredded by Louisville in the Sweet 16 (a demoralizing 103-64 smackdown), and Miller had originally rejected the offer when it first came up. Eventually, he changed his mind. After the first 31 games on his new campus, the Cats were just 16-15. They did, however, have a couple of nice pieces in Derrick Williams and Nic Wise, and recruiting was going to be way easier solely on the fact he’s at a top school.
The following year was sensational. On the shoulders of All-American Derrick Williams, a sophomore who averaged 19.5 points and 8.3 rebounds while shooting 59.5 percent from the field, the Wildcats marched through all of their opponents and gave Miller his second 30-win season. Memphis, Texas and Duke all fell during their March Run, and Kemba Walker and the UConn Huskies got the better of Arizona in the Elite Eight.
Only adding to their deep run was their more in-depth recruiting class. Arizona scooped up two top-25 prospects, and their class was ranked fourth in the nation by 247 Sports. They did, however, fall off tremendously relative to their previous year.
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Williams had bolted for the NBA, and the committee had also bolted on the Wildcats. Despite the highly-touted freshmen being added, Arizona stumbled to a 23-12 record and missed the tournament for the second time in three years. Miller never looked back.
He just had a player go second overall in the NBA Draft, and that, without a doubt, is a major selling point to recruits. Because of that, the Wildcats brought on three five-star players heading into 2012. The influx of talent and improvement of the guys already on the team led the Wildcats back to the tournament, where they waltzed by Belmont and Harvard before losing their Sweet 16 match against Ohio State.
Arizona spent most of the season inside of the AP’s Top 10 and reached their highest ranking during Miller’s short tenure when they got voted as number three on back-to-back weeks. The following two seasons solidified Miller as a sensational coach in one of America’s most competitive conferences. The Wildcats reeled off 33 wins in 2014 and 34 in ’15 and got as high as numbers one and two in the AP Poll, respectively.
It’s been the same story almost every year since Miller left Xavier: Arizona gets a great group of freshman, they torch the Pac-12 and finish as one of the nation’s best teams while clinching a tournament berth and — typically — making an extended run.
In his eight seasons (and counting), Miller’s the third-winningest coach in school history trailing Fred Enke and Lute Olson. He’s got the best winning percentage of anyone who’s coached at least 100 games, and his six tournament appearances are second behind Olson. Xavier is the team standing between Arizona and Elite Eight. The schools last met in 2015 in the Sweet 16, except the Musketeers were a two-seed. That was the best group Miller had coached turning his time, and what he has this year has a chance to be even better.
Stats courtesy of Sports-Reference. Recruiting information from 247Sports.
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