Last week, the University of Arizona’s men’s basketball team lost to Oregon while head coach Sean Miller sat out the game following a story by ESPN that he was caught in an FBI wire tap discussing a $100,000 payment to get the nation’s top high school recruit, Deandre Ayton, to commit to play for the Wildcats this season.
But the school, after discussing the matter with Miller and doing some investigation of its own, decided to stand by their high-profile coach, and Miller returned for the final two games of the regular season, home wins Thursday over Stanford and last night against California. Those wins secured the regular-season Pac-12 title for the Wildcats.
Ayton poured in 26 points and collected 20 rebounds to bury the Golden Bears, 66-54, on Senior Night.
The leading scorer in the Pac-12, the 7-footer who will be a one-and-done, has insisted that neither he nor his family was involved in a pay-to-play proposition from Arizona, or any other school, and has been cleared to play while the investigation goes forward.
And Miller has been adament in his defense, holding a news conference last Thursday to formally deny allegations contained in the ESPN article and insisting he will be vindicated. A few hours later, the administration issued a statement supporting Miller’s decision to continue coaching.
With Miller back on the bench, Ayton cleared to continue playing, and freshman guard Allonzo Trier back in the lineup, it appears the Wildcats may be able to get back to being the kind of team that earned them a preseason ranking as the No. 2 team in the country.
Trier, another one-and-done in this year’s recruiting class, had been sidelined for a couple of games after failing a drug test.
A cloud has hung over this team since the start of the season, following the arrest of assistant coach Book Richardson, who was caught up, along with four other assistants from major college programs, in an FBI investigation into corruption in college recruiting.
First there was the Richardson surprise. Then the team lost three in a row at the Battle4Atlantis tournament shortly after the season started, knocking them from the list of ranked teams. Then there was inconsistent play as the team was working its way through conference play, losing four games against Pac-12 opponents. And finally, the Trier suspension.
Now, the foundation of his 2019 recruiting class, Shareef O’Neal and Brandon Williams, have de-comitted from what would have been another top-10 class.
But right now, there might be just a sliver of sunshine peeking through the clouds of uncertainty that continue to create distractions for a team that once held such high hopes, picked by many to make it to an NCAA Final Four appearance that has eluded Miller throughout his career.
Miller’s decision to address the issue and take a firm stance of innocence has seemed to re-energize Wildcat Nation.
The fans are still with the team — 14,644 fans showed up for the Stanford game and almost 12,000 for Cal — and the players appear to be putting in a good night’s effort. However, the Cats (24-7, 14-4) are going to need both Ayton and Trier to bring their ‘A’ game to the Pac-12 Conference. They need to push through the fog of distraction that envelopes the program right now.
However, that’s not a sure thing. Trier is showing some rust from being out of the line-up. He scored 18 points against Stanford, but was just 1-for-5 from behind the arc. Against Cal, it was worse: 1-of-10 from the field and 0-for-7 from three-point range for a total of just two points.
Arizona’s play in the Pac-12 Tournament, which starts next Wednesday in Las Vegas, will give a good indication as to whether the program is rallying behind Miller’s stand in the face of adversity, or will let the increasing burden of the last couple of weeks de-rail its drive for a conference title and, ultimately, a deep run into the NCAA Tournament.
Arizona has a first-round bye, so will play its first game next Thursday against the winner of the Arizona State vs. Colorado game, setting up a potential rivalry game smack dab in the middle of the tourney. ASU lost in overtime the first time the two teams played this year, but beat the Buffaloes by 14 points in the second game.
The Wildcats won both previous meetings with the Sun Devils this season, but by just six points the first time and seven the second time. A third match-up could be really interesting.
And that would give Sean Miller just one more thing to worry about.