LAS VEGAS - NOVEMBER 26: Head coach Sean Miller of the Arizona Wildcats reacts during his team's 82-59 victory over the Santa Clara Broncos during the third round of the Las Vegas Invitational at The Orleans Arena November 26 2010 in Las Vegas Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Previously on Profile Of A Possible Savior...
It's the hot name flying around NC State circles at the moment, so let's do this thing. Sean Miller is the 42-year-old head coach at the University of Arizona. Including the 2011 season, Miller has seven years of head coaching experience and has compiled a career 163-69 (.703) record.
As always, the existence of this piece is not meant to imply that the subject is either interested or an especially realistic option. We aren't talking, we're just talking.
Important Questions, In Rough Order Of Importance:
1. Has he coached teams that have won a national title, made multiple deep NCAA tournament runs, and/or consistently been highly ranked?
Yes. He took Xavier to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament twice and advanced to the Elite Eight in 2008. The Musketeers cracked the AP top 10 in each of his final two seasons and finished in the top 20 both years. Prior to Miller's tenure, Xavier had finished the year ranked in the AP Poll just six times.
He'll be making his first NCAA trip with Arizona this season, which represents a speedy turnaround after a rebuilding year. The Wildcats spent the bulk of the season in the polls, climbing as high as 10th in the AP. They finished at 17.
2. Has he built a program from the ground up?
No. Xavier has had a solid run of success that began with Pete Gillen in 1986. Gillen was followed by Skip Prosser, who was followed by Thad Matta. Gillen established the program as a Horizon League heavyweight; the Musketeers won six regular season league titles in Gillen's nine seasons and made seven trips to the NCAA tournament, including one stretch of six in a row. Gillen won 20+ games in a season seven times. Prosser won three league titles in seven years, made four NCAA appearances, and won 20+ games in a season six times. Matta won 26 games in each of his three seasons, won the regular season or tournament title every year, and made three NCAA appearances.
So Miller's task at Xavier was simply to keep the ball rolling. By the time he took over for Matta (I wonder what happened to that dude), the program had made a habit of winning conference titles, reaching the NCAAs, and appearing in the polls. In fact, since 1986, they've made 20 NCAA tournament appearances. To Miller's credit, he did keep that ball rolling.
Arizona went through a lot of turmoil after Lute Olson's abrupt departure; they couldn't settle on a successor, and some rules violations got the program put on probation (they're still on probation, BTW) and forced them to vacate the 2007-2008. Miller is dealing with a reduction of 1 scholarship this year and next, and the NCAA has cut down on the number of official visits he is allowed to schedule. These penalties were the result of transgressions committed by Olson.
Naturally, because of Olson's sins, Kevin O'Neill's coaching record was damaged. O'Neill was head coach during the year that had to be vacated from the record books. Good ol' NCAA.
Despite the turmoil, Arizona continued to make NCAA tournament appearances, so the program was not exactly a disaster. It was a far cry from their heyday under Lute Olson, though, that is for sure. Year one for Miller was a rebuilding effort, but he never faced a lengthy project (he can thank Tim Floyd for that) and has the Wildcats back on their feet.
3. Has he substantially improved the program from when he took over?
Yes. While the program continued its impressive NCAA tournament streak, it clearly lost momentum toward the end of Olson's tenure. In his final two seasons, they were 20-13 (11-7) and 20-11 (11-7), respectively, good but not up to their standards. The next two seasons saw them slide a little further, to 19-15 in 2008, and 21-14 in 2009. In '08 they had a losing record in Pac-10 play for the first time since 1984 (Olson's first year). In '09, they finished 41st in the Pomeroy Ratings, slipped to 92nd in 2010, and rose to 25th this season.
In the four years prior to Miller's arrival, they were seeded 8th, 8th, 10th, and 12th in the NCAA tournament. This season they're a five seed, which means that Miller has gotten them over the hump from "happy to be here" to "legit deep threat."
4. Has he succeeded at more than one head coaching job?
5. Does he have significant high-major experience as either a head coach or an assistant?
Yes. Prior to becoming a head coach, Miller worked as an assistant at Pittsburgh and NC State. It's arguable as well that Xavier is more of a high-major job than it is a mid-major job.
6. Is his team one of the best in its conference right now?
Indeed. Arizona finished 14-4 in the Pac-10 and won the regular season league championship.
7. Do his teams actually play, what is this thing called, "defense"?
It would seem so. The results at Arizona are not stellar just yet, but if his work at Xavier is any indication, this is something that takes him a few years to establish. His Xavier program's defensive trajectory was impressive. Their defensive efficiency rankings each year:
That's clear progress year after year. What began as a weak defense was molded into an elite defense. Arizona ranked 108th in defensive efficiency in 2010, and they're up to 67th in 2011, so again, he has them moving in the right direction.
The pack line man-to-man defense is also called a "sagging" man-to-man defense. The idea is to clog the inside, protect the paint, and prevent dribble-penetration. Instead of defenders (whose man is one pass away) playing on the line in denial, they will sag back inside the imaginary "pack line". The pack line is an imaginary line two feet inside the 3-point arc (see diagram A). You will usually have one defender pressuring the ball outside, and the other four defenders inside the pack line. This allows the pass on the perimeter, but closes down the gaps and prevents dribble-penetration. The prime goal, as in any defense, is to stop the ball.
This particular style of play does not result in a lot of turnovers, relying instead on forcing a lot of missed shots and cleaning up the glass. His best defense at Xavier was 282nd in turnover percentage but 7th in eFG% defense and 16th in defensive rebounding percentage. It's a similar philosophy to what you see from Tom Izzo at Michigan State. Force opponents to take bad shots, pound the glass.
Obviously, this system is more than capable of being the foundation for a great defense.
8. Any indication that he can recruit McDonald’s All-American-type players?
Yes. His first class at Arizona featured four 4-star recruits, including future Pac-10 Player of the Year Derrick Williams. Scout rated it the 12th best class in the nation. His 2011 class is even better: three 4-star players and one 5-star. His recruiting efforts at Xavier weren't as impressive, though he was able to land a few 4-star guys. Clearly he has the skills to recruit well, and results are to some extent the product of environment, and now that he is at a top-tier program, those skills are translating accordingly.
9. Does he run the Princeton offense?
No. I think it's important to note here that Miller left NC State before Herb Sendek installed the Princeton. At Xavier, Miller's offenses were three-heavy for a couple of seasons, but not extremely so, and there's no consistent pattern in terms of his offense's three-point attempt rate. For example, 32% of Arizona's field goal attempts were threes in 2010 (that's pretty average), while this year that figure is up to about 37%. I think it's one of those things that will vary based on the team's strengths in a given year.
He's had no trouble building efficient offenses, either. Twice at Xavier he had an offense finish in the top 20 in offensive efficiency, and his worst offense there finished a respectable 54th. Arizona's offense, one of the best shooting offenses in the nation, currently ranks 15th.
Miller's offenses tend to shoot well from the field and get to the line at an above average rate, while the TO% and offensive rebounding tends to vary from decent to good. In general, they've been well-rounded.
10. Does he have any connection to NC State, North Carolina, or the ACC?
Miller spent five years as an assistant at NC State (1996-2001) and of course his brother, Archie, played at State and currently works on Sean's staff. The Millers have some family in North Carolina, I believe. Archie's wife went to NC State as well.
11. Any other random red flags or positives?
Nothing comes to mind at the moment. I would suggest his association with Herb Sendek as a minor red flag, not that it means anything at all in terms of what he can do, just in that it might create some negative vibes, but I don't think there's anyone who gives a shit about that anymore.
Would he be better than Herb?
I think definitely, yes. With the way he recruits, I think he'd translate well here, bring in consistently solid classes, and give us a real chance to take off. His mid-major track record is more distinguished than Herb's, and he's already shown that he can handle a high profile program in a major conference. Not just handle it, but take it to the top of the standings. No guarantees, but I think we could get to a double-digit conference wins on a regular basis with Sean Miller.
Would he take the job if offered?
You know it! (Greetings, Arizona fans.) Honestly I have no idea. If the reports coming out of Arizona are to be believed, then the answer is no. Would he listen if we're willing to shell out the big money as people seem to think we are? Is there any inclination on his part to get back to this area/the east coast? It'll be a tough sell, no matter what. He's making plenty of money in Tucson, which is a fabulous place to live in my opinion (I spent three years in high school there), and he appears to be in a position to win big with the recruiting class on the way.
How would I feel if he were hired?
You want to talk about celebration beers, let me tell you about celebration beers. I would get drunk and wander around downtown Raleigh randomly kissing and hugging people until I got arrested.
How would the fan base as a whole feel if he were hired?