Evidently, March Madness has not ended for Sean Miller. The disappointment of an earlier-than-expected tourney exit was just the beginning.
The University of Arizona head basketball coach is just seven days removed from being eliminated from the NCAA Tournament in the Sweet Sixteen round and now has to deal with the announcement by his 7-foot freshman phenom, Lauri Markkanen, that he won’t be returning next season.
That has to really hurt since Miller traveled 5,528 miles to recruit the native of Finland. And then he benefits from his recruiting efforts for just a single season before his No. 2 scorer decides to declare for the next NBA draft. There’s also a good chance that Miller’s top point-producer, Allonza Trier, may be taking the same path to the pro game. Together, they combined for 33 points a game.
Trier, a sophomore, isn’t the only one with a decision to make. Most observers believe Kobi Simmons, also a freshman, may be another one-and-done. The 6’5″ guard from Georgia played in every game this season, starting in 19 of those, and averaged 8.7 points a game.
(*Update 4/7/17: Simmons announced earlier this week that he will be following Markkanen out the door, after averaging 8.8 points, 1.6 rebounds, and two assists in 23.5 minutes a game – but his playing time began to fall off late in February. During the NCAA Tournament, he averaged about eight minutes a game. Coming out of high school, he was ranked by 247Sports as No. 29 in his recruiting class and analysts now project him to go somewhere between the 50th and 80th pick in the 2017 draft.)
And, as if the Markkanen announcement yesterday wasn’t enough, it appears Miller will also be losing the guy that led him to the huge recruiting find. Associate head coach Joe Pasternack is reportedly in the process of accepting an offer to become head coach at University of California Santa Barbara.
Pasternack, who has been on staff for the past six years and was promoted to associate head coach in June of 2013, heard about Markkanen and made the initial contact with his school coach. After watching film of the big guy, Miller and Pasternack hopped a plane in September of 2015 and headed for Helsinki.
It turned into one of the most eventful recruiting trips of his 13-year head-coaching career.
Their plane was forced to return to New York 45 minutes into the flight when a generator went out. That meant a 24-hour layover in order to catch the next 12-hour flight. That plane had just one seat available, so Miller proceeded alone and eventually got to sit down to dinner with his prized prospect and his family in a Helsinki restaurant in an effort to make the most of the one-day stay before turning around and heading back to the States.
A month later, Markkanen and his family made a whirlwind trip through the U.S., visiting those college suitors on his short list. When he arrived in Tucson, the last stop on his itinerary, he made a commitment to return to Tucson to play for the Wildcats.
The herculean effort paid off. Big time. Markkanen became the force that propelled the Wildcats through a 32-5 season that concluded with a Pac-12 Conference championship and a Pac-12 Tournament championship. They went into the NCAA Tournament as a No. 2 seed in the West Region and advanced to the Sweet Sixteen.
Markkanen was a First Team All-Conference selection and also named to the Pac-12 All-Freshman Team. He averaged 20.5 points and 7.5 rebounds per game during the conference schedule.
It took him just one season to secure a place in the school’s record books. He finished his short career in an Arizona uniform among the top five in program history in scoring, rebounding, made 3-point field goals, made free throws, and free throw percentage.
“I don’t know if I have ever coached a player that has given more of himself and has cared more about the University of Arizona, his teammates, our team, our program, than this guy,” Miller offered in addressing Markkanen’s decision to leave.
“It’s bittersweet today. Any time you see somebody recognize his dreams and you see the bright, bright future. He’s given us a lot and, hopefully, we’ve given him something he can always remember.”
Yes, the future is bright for the youngster. But for Miller and his program, the future’s a little cloudy right now.
(Photo: Arizona Athletics)