In eight years as the head basketball coach of the Arizona Wildcats, Sean Miller has compiled a record of 220-66 with four Pac-12 Conference Championships. Six of the last seven years have seen Arizona make the NCAA Tournament as they are one of the premier basketball programs in the nation, but there is one thing has continued to allude both Miller and his Wildcats.
Arizona’s last trip to the Final Four came in 2001 when they were the runner-up to the national champion Duke Blue Devils. Since then Arizona has gone on to remain as a hotbed for future NBA talent, but they’ve been unable to get back to the Final Four.
Former Arizona head basketball coach Lute Olson led the Wildcats to the Elite Eight in 2003 and 2005, but he was denied his sixth trip to the Final Four and fifth with the Cats. After Olson retired in 2007, Arizona’s program took a step back before they lured Miller away from the Xavier Musketeers in 2009.
In five years with Xavier, Miller showed his ability to lead a program as he got the Musketeers to the Elite Eight in 2008. It didn’t take Miller that long to get Arizona back on the national scene as he led them to the Elite Eight in 2011. But heartbreak would await the Cats in the West Regional Final where they fell to the Connecticut Huskies 65-63. After failing to make the NCAA Tournament in 2012, the Wildcats would storm back in 2013. This time Arizona would lose by three points in the Sweet Sixteen to the Ohio State Buckeyes. 2014 and 2015 would each see the Cats make the West Regional Final. But each time Arizona was denied a trip to the Final Four.
This season the Wildcats were projected to once again have a strong team as they began the season ranked tenth in the Associated Press Poll and they lived up to the hype. Arizona went 16-2 in the Pac-12 Conference with their only losses coming against the UCLA Bruins and Oregon Ducks. The Cats would also go on to win the Pac-12 Tournament for the second time in the last three years. The Cats finished the regular season with a record of 30-4 which earned them the second seed in the West Region for the NCAA Tournament. And although that the Gonzaga Bulldogs were the top seed in the region, Arizona was still the favorite to advance to the Final Four.
The Wildcats would easily take care of the North Dakota Fighting Hawks in the first round before they survived against the Saint Mary’s Gaels in the second round. And with the West Regional taking place in San Jose, California, the Wildcats were expected to coast over Xavier who was an 11-seed.
With just over two minutes left in the contest, Arizona had a 71-64 lead and they appeared to be set to meet Gonzaga in the West Regional Final. However the Wildcats would not score again while Xavier would as the Musketeers finished the game on a 9-0 run to stun Arizona 73-71. But unlike Arizona’s other stumbles under Miller in the NCAA Tournament, this one stings a little more since this was arguably the Wildcats best path to the Final Four since 2001.
The Wildcats had a team comprised of future NBA players such as sophomore guard Allonzo Trier and freshman forward Lauri Markkanen leading the way, but they were unable to reach the Final Four which will be played in Glendale, Arizona which is just two hours away from their campus in Tuscon. Now including Miller’s time at Xavier, he is now 0-4 in the Elite Eight, and in spite of the fact that he is one of best coaches in the nation, he cannot shake the fact that a trip to the Final Four is still not on his resume.
However Miller can take solace in knowing that it took some of the game’s best coaches a long time to reach the Final Four and eventually win a championship. Jay Wright became the head basketball coach at Villanova in 2001 and it took him until 2009 to make his first trip to the Final Four. And after years of disappointments in the tourney, Villanova was finally able to break through and win the national championship last year. It took former Connecticut head coach Jim Calhoun 13 years to break through and win a national championship as he had previously gone 0-3 in the Elite Eight.
There’s a possibility that Markkanen and Trier could be headed to the NBA Draft, but Miller has done an excellent job of recruiting since he took over in Tuscon. The Wildcats have another solid class coming in next year which includes center DeAndre Ayton as this will once again make Arizona one of the top teams in the nation. The abrupt ending to a stellar season for Arizona will sting, however hope always springs eternal.