There is a lot to like about Sean Miller’s 12 seasons as coach of the University of Arizona men’s basketball team. Notable highlights included a .735 winning percentage, five conference championships, three Elite Eights and multiple seasons where the program enjoyed No. 1 rankings.

On the recruiting front, with the exception of Duke and Kentucky, no program achieved more success. Much of that success had to do with an animation and vision, that, truthful or not, Miller was able to sell to elite prospects like 2019 McDonald’s All American and current Dallas Mavericks wing Josh Green.

“When I decided to sign with Arizona there were a bunch of reasons, but a big part was I wanted to play in the style he sold of getting up and down and dunking and I wanted to be coached hard like he coaches,” Green said in late 2018.

The intensity intrigued many recruits. But there was a price for that intensity. Miller toed the line a lot. He screamed. He was vulgar. One outburst highlighted by a viral expletive-laced Miller sideline tirade unleashed on former UA big man Kaleb Tarczewski in a late January 2016 home loss to the Oregon Ducks, became something of a banner for Miller’s propensity to walk the outburst tightrope.

Whatever qualms observers maintained, those worries were essentially muted because Arizona was winning.

Meanwhile, the other major West Coast powerhouse during much of this time operated in a much different way.

Whereas Miller reeled in an assembly line of top-10 prospects to Tucson, Mark Few and the Gonzaga Bulldogs relied on the occasional elite level player and a conglomeration of top-50 recruits, foreign players and transfers.

A taskmaster projecting calm with the occasional spark, Few’s demeanor couldn’t have been more different than his Tucsonan counterpart.

It was no secret in Spokane the steady and rapidly improving Gonzaga program relied heavily on the shoulders of a flourishing foreign dynamic led by the man behind the scenes: assistant coach Tommy Lloyd.

“Tommy was given a huge amount of responsibility during his time here,” said longtime Spokesman Review Gonzaga basketball beat writer, Jim Meehan.

“Mark told Tommy he wanted him to be able to do something that would distinguish himself from others, and Tommy, who is a very smart guy, figured out really quickly that he could add a new component to Gonzaga, the foreign aspect. Especially since he knew the lay of the land from his time overseas coaching and making contacts over there

Indeed, the foreign names that helped build the Gonzaga empire: Domantas Sabonis, Rui Hachimura, Kelly Olynyk and Elias Harris (and the list goes on) became household entities to the average college basketball fan.

However, Gonzaga was still relegated to second-tier status by many throughout much of the 2000s and early 2010s because it was unable to break through on the NCAA tournament stage. It was the top seed everyone wanted in their bracket. The pretender with lofty regular season credentials that ultimately didn’t have the talent to make deep runs. A good team in a mediocre conference that built its reputation on nice non-conference wins.

By 2016 that was about to change.

The ingredients were finally coalescing. Enough elite-level domestic recruiting. A strong foreign pipleline. Quality transfers. Experience. Oh, and they liked to run. The result? Gonzaga basketball steamrolled to the 2017 NCAA title game, before falling to North Carolina 71-65.

In the years since, the Zags have been a staple. Their tournament resume is as favorable as anyone during the current five-year time frame. Elite 8, what would have been a No. 1 seed during the Covid shortened season and an undefeated 2021 campaign that came one game short of achieving what no team had since Indiana in 1976.

In this same window, fortunes were not as bright in Tucson. The 2017-18 college basketball season was the beginning of the end for the Miller era.

The September 2017 arrest of longtime Miller sidekick and UA lead recruiter Book Richardson on federal fraud charges stemming from taking money to place UA basketball players to specific professional representation, sent shock waves through the college basketball world. Before the Richardson arrest there were suspicions that some of Miller’s success on the recruiting path wasn’t legitimate. Now there was evidence of assistant coach improprieties.

Arizona still entered the 2017 season armed with a top-five national ranking based on the returning talent of guards Allonzo Trier and Rawle Alkins along with big man Dusan Ristic. But the main reason for the excitement was the arrival of top-rated high school prospect Deandre Ayton.

On the court, Ayton didn’t disappoint. His averages of 20 points and 10 rebounds. Good numbers to be sure, but it didn’t begin to adequately illustrate the rare physicality and skill the big man showed off on a nightly basis.

The focus on the court would soon divert back to more alleged improprieties with a mid-February 2018 ESPN report alleging Miller was caught on federal wiretaps discussing a $100,000 payment to secure the services of Ayton, then a high school prospect.

Unlike the Book Richardson situation, these allegations against Miller were never proven and ESPN had to walk back much of the reporting, but severe damage was still inflicted upon the Arizona basketball program.

On the court, a season of great expectations resulted in an emotional roller coaster that ended when the No. 3 seed Wildcats were blown out by 14th seed Buffalo in the first round of the 2018 tournament.

Miller would never return Arizona to national prominence and was dismissed after the 2020-21 season.

When a team is winning a fan base and media, even if unwillingly, will generally put up with a coach shouting and screaming while taking on local media at any turn possible.

When the winnings stops, so does much of that acceptance.

And by early April 2021, with the program floundering and Miller the focus of the national media, a decision was made to move in another direction.

“Taking time to consider all the factors and consulting with President (Robert) Robbins we concluded that it was time for a fresh start,” said Arizona Athletic Director, Dave Heeke.

It didn’t take long for Heeke to move his focus from the desert southwest to Pacific Northwest. If you couldn’t get Few, maybe you could get the next best thing.

But Lloyd had it good, and other programs had tried to lure him away. He was in no hurry to leave.

“You need to remember, Gonzaga is at the top of the basketball world and Tommy is a huge reason why, plus he has the comfort of knowing that he would succeed Mark Few,” Meehan said. “But when a program like Arizona becomes open that can change things.”

And the interest was felt both ways.

“With Tommy it was clear he had all the pieces, he’s a very grounded and easy-going person but intense when it’s necessary,” Heeke said. “It’s the appropriate mix for a high caliber head coach. People and players can relate to him.”

Miller deserves credit for leaving a very talented roster, but it was apparent that under Lloyd’s leadership this would be a dramatically different program

Gone are the incessant snarls and the faux fast breaks. In its place a calm, but determined coach who vowed to run not because it was the best way to sell recruits, but because it was the best way to win games.

“I had a very good relationship with Coach Miller,” said starting point guard Kerr Kriisa at UA media day. “But when Coach Lloyd came in and explained how we are going to run and what it was all about it was hard not to buy in, and I think you’ll see the results.”

Indeed, at the midway point of the season, Lloyd is the favorite for national coach of the year while Arizona is ranked third nationally and exhibiting scoring outbursts not seen in these parts since Lute Olson roamed the sidelines.

“Tommy understands the importance of genuine and meaningful relationships,” Heeke said. “No question he was ready for this job and his style is a perfect fit.”

Author

Mike Luke is the second most famous descendant of Crete, Nebraska fame, a haven for basketball knowledge that also produced Oregon head coach Dana Altman. But around these parts, we don't talk about Altman. We talk Wildcats. And Wildcat talk is Mike's obsession. An information junkie, Mike quickly earned on-air radio opportunities and made the most of them with a depth of understanding rare on Tucson's airwaves with his numerous contributions to the UA flagship station. That vast...let's call it what it is...obsessively geeky desire to delve into Wildcat lore: past, present and future, has been an invaluable asset for listeners on the radio. Now he brings that untethered knowledge to PHNX. If you want to know about the Wildcats, this is the place. And Mike is the guy.

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