The heavy load of bricks that has been steadily piling up on the University of Arizona basketball program since an assistant coach was swept up in an FBI probe 17 months ago may finally be taking its toll.
A 69-55 loss to Washington State last Saturday made it five in a row, marking the first time in 35 years that an Arizona men’s basketball team has gone five games without a win. You have to go back to the 1983-84 season when hall-of-fame coach Lute Olson took over the program to begin a quarter century on the Wildcats’ bench.
Part of the current slide can be attributed to injuries. The Wildcats’ 6’10” starting center, Chase Jeter, missed three of those five games with a back injury and Brandon Williams, the freshman guard who is one of the team’s best shooters and back-up to Justin Coleman at point guard, has missed the last three games while nursing a bum ankle.
But injuries are an accepted part of the game. Veteran coaches like UofA’s Sean Miller, in his 10th year guiding the program, always work their way through those stretches when the team isn’t at full strength.
However, what can be even more debilitating are the pressures that come with off-the-court distractions.
And Miller has plenty of those.
The crescendo began in September of 2017 with a federal indictment of Miller’s long-time assistant coach, Book Richardson, who was ensnared in an FBI probe into college recruiting practices. A few months later, ESPN reported that Miller had been sucked into the investigation when he was reportedly caught on a wiretap discussing with a sports agent a large payment to Deandre Ayton, the No. 1 recruit in the nation who had committed to Arizona.
Miller adamantly denied he had done anything wrong, the university stood behind its head coach, and Ayton followed through on his commitment and gave the Wildcats his only year of college ball before entering the NBA draft. He’s now playing for the Phoenix Suns.
But the lingering question of a possible major NCAA penalty led to the loss of a number of prized recruits. Before the news of the corruption investigation broke, Miller had assembled the No. 1 recruiting class in the country for 2019. But before the end of last season, the key recruits began having second thoughts and, one-by-one, began de-committing.
Miller and his staff went back to work on the recruiting trail and rebuilt the class to become the eighth-best in the country, according to at least one major recruiting service. The Wildcats appeared to have survived a year of turmoil.
Then the NCAA tossed another brick on the pile. Earlier this month, Arizona announced it was moving to terminate the contract of another Miller assistant, Mark Phelps. According to media reports, Phelps is being tied to an NCAA violation regarding the academic transcripts of Shareef O’Neal (son of Shaq), one of those elite recruits that de-committed from the 2019 class.
Phelps claims he will be exonerated and will return to his coaching career. But in the meantime, this has caused further disruption to the Wildcat program – and may lead to more problems. Phelps has been instrumental in pulling in some of the top recruits, including playing a major role in signing Nico Mannion, the five-star guard from Pinnacle High School in Phoenix who is the crown jewel of next year’s class.
And throughout all of this, the increasing weight on Miller has to be affecting his concentration, and that can easily contribute to the team’s current troubles. The Cats are 14-10 overall and 5-6 in Pac-12 play as they prepare to take on Utah and Colorado on a weekend swing through those states.
That hasn’t given them much time to recover from one of their worse performances of the season, shooting 31.7 percent and failing at any reasonable defensive effort against Washington State, a team just one rung above the cellar-dwelling California. For the record, the Cats were six-for-22 from behind the arc and 11-for-20 at the free throw line.
It’s that kind of shooting that has plagued Arizona throughout most of the five-game skid, during which they lost three games by double digits.
When Miller addressed their shooting woes following the Washington State game, he made it clear the slump is taking its toll. “We don’t have a lot of confidence right now,” he admitted.
Unfortunately, there’s not much time to regain their mojo. There are just six games to prepare for the rivalry game with Arizona State, and just seven before the Pac-12 Tournament starts.
And this team will most likely have to win the conference tournament to secure a seat at the NCAA Tournament next month. Their body of work can’t be expected to earn them an at-large selection this year.
(Photo: Arizona Athletics)