A Player’s Program in Name Only: Sean Miller Runs This Show

Posted by Tracy McDannald on November 14th, 2014

Whatever you think you know about Pac-12 runaway favorite Arizona in advance of tonight’s season opener, head coach Sean Miller can always provide the media with another line of thinking. He is no different with his own players, but what they know is that Miller will not sugarcoat the truth to spare their feelings. That brings us to the Wildcats’ exhibition contest against Cal Poly Pomona last Sunday. Typically there’s little to take away from anything on the court in such a mismatch. Preseason observations can be flawed, misleading and not meaningful. But there sat JuCo transfer Kadeem Allen, who never got off the Arizona bench for the entire 40 minutes of action. Afterward, Miller said the combo guard has welcomed the idea of a voluntary redshirt. The only surprise of any sort was that Miller revealed that much publicly. He is the same coach who last season went back and forth over what Elliott Pitts’ role as a freshman would be. Brandon Ashley’s season-ending injury changed everything, of course, but digging a bit deeper, it’s tough to recall a time when Miller ever wasted words on nonsense. Everything he says, and especially the things he doesn’t say with a sly read-between-the-lines smirk on his face, has a purpose.

Why Is This Man Smiling? Maybe Because He Has the Best Team in the League.

Arizona head coach Sean Miller can smile when he has the option of stashing away talent to make managing minutes a bit easier. (Getty)

That brings us to the top prize in Arizona’s 2014 recruiting class, freshman Stanley Johnson. The forward, a unanimous preseason choice for Pac-12 freshman of the year on this site and the same pick for just about anyone else with a clue, came off the bench to produce 12 points in 24 minutes in that game. It was junior Gabe York who earned the start, and those around the program got the feeling that strategy will trickle into the start of the regular season before Johnson inevitably takes over. Miller hinted at as much with that playful smile in his postgame media session, adding, “It doesn’t matter if he’s happy; it really only matters if I’m happy.” Miller also said the starting five on opening night isn’t in cement for the entire season. That’s his way of making sure the players aren’t too comfortable with their status when it comes to competing in practice.

Oh, you’re a top-three player in your class who would start just about anywhere else? Here’s a reserve role to start the season, Mr. Johnson. So you won Player of the Year honors on the JuCo level and can add to the depth chart? Let’s take it a bit slower and redshirt the year, Mr. Allen. Miller may pull in top-five recruiting classes almost every year now, but he’s not just going to roll the ball out onto the court and plug bodies into the lineup based on recruiting rankings. Respect will be earned, or you become another Sidiki Johnson or Josiah Turner if there’s a problem with that.

There is also a long-term look that goes well beyond any dreams of the 2015 Final Four. Miller knows the one-and-done culture can suck away all that talent once whispers of the NBA enters his players’ ears, so he has adapted nicely. There will almost certainly be at least two players, and maybe as many as four, who leave school next spring. T.J. McConnell will be gone, too. But stashing away Allen allows Arizona to reload the cupboard and give the transfer an extra year to learn (which helped McConnell tremendously in 2012-13, by the way), and pairs him with waiting-in-the-wings Boston College transfer Ryan Anderson, who will be in his fifth year when eligible in 2015-16. At the very least, also in the fold should be a senior York, a junior Pitts and sophomores Parker Jackson-Cartwright, Craig Victor and Dusan Ristic to go with the 2015 class. Loaded, much?

Bringing the focus back to this year, the idea of redshirting Allen may help Arizona in an addition by subtraction sort of way. Miller will tell you there are only so many minutes for so many spots in his rotation, and he will not hesitate to play seven guys when most programs could field solid 5-on-5s with the Wildcats’ personnel. But Miller wants as little drop-off in execution and understanding as possible, particularly on the defensive end, and there will eventually come a time for another player to emerge like Pitts did down the stretch last season. Miller already has drawn a clear line as to where his top six players stand compared to remainder of the roster. Allen may be a case of too much talent, not enough chemistry, and just the right scenario for a redshirt when you think about how those minutes between York, Johnson and himself would have been doled out. A phone conversation with Anthony Gimino of FOX Sports Arizona even planted the thought of how beneficial 15 spotty minutes, if that, would be compared to a full season of strength training and learning. Allen on the sidelines makes for more clarity on a team that Gimino told me is still trying to figure out how to play as a unit. Think about it: Aside from the defensive end, what is Arizona’s identity?

But too much talent must be a nice problem to have, and the calendar still reads November. The tagline and Twitter handle at Arizona may be “A Player’s Program,” but it’s no secret who has complete control in Tucson and why this run of success may last awhile.

Tracy McDannald (18 Posts)

Tracy McDannald spent the last three years covering the Arizona Wildcats. Baseball ends when college basketball is getting ready to begin, and vice versa. Coincidence? Nope, just perfect.

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