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Arizona's Sean Miller on the Coaching Life: 'Basketball Is What You Do'

Jason King@@JasonKingBRSenior Writer, B/R MagJuly 6, 2015

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Painful as Arizona's Elite Eight loss to Wisconsin may have been, Wildcats coach Sean Miller moved on quickly.

He didn't have a choice.

Almost immediately after his squad's season ended a weekend shy of the Final Four, Miller began preparing to coach the USA Basketball's U-19 squad in the World Championships in Greece. After two weeks of workouts at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, the team departed the country June 20 and has been competing overseas ever since.

Thanks in no small part to Miller, the Americans were able to capture the gold medal, with a 79-71 overtime win over Croatia on Sunday. 

I caught up with Miller in Colorado Springs a few days before he and his players left for Greece.

B/R: Why did you want to coach this U-19 team?

Miller: Anyone who has a chance to be affiliated with the USA and compete with your country for a gold medal in the World Championships...that in and of itself is a responsibility. If you're given that opportunity, not only do you embrace it, but hopefully you come through and deliver and take a team into that type of tournament and win.

B/R: What do you get out of it?

Miller: As a coach, you grow a lot. We're using so many [more] different styles than we play at Arizona. We're formulating a team with a lot of young guys that you have to teach to play together. When you go overseas, there are amazing coaches and styles to prepare for. The hope is that I'll return to Arizona better equipped to coach and deal with new experiences as they come.

You work with two other excellent head coaches (Dayton's Archie Miller, Sean's brother; and Providence's Ed Cooley). You're sharing ideas, and you strengthen who you are as a head coach.

B/R: How challenging is it to get these guys to mesh so quickly?

Miller: At this age it's incredibly challenging. We have some incredibly talented kids who haven't even played their senior year of high school. We have another group of kids who just finished their senior year but have never been in a college practice. Then you have another subset of guys who just finished their freshmen year of college. Blending those groups together is more complex than people realize.

B/R: How much does this cut into your offseason?

Miller: When you involve yourself with USA Basketball, there's no question there's a compromise. No matter how much you want that free time in April and May and June, there just isn't very much of it. Before you show up here, you have to at least give some thought and rationale to what you're going to do and familiarize yourself with the roster.

Sometimes, for me, it's healthy for me to leave Arizona for our players there. They get tired of the same voice. Our staff has more of a chance to be the voice for a few weeks. Then when you come back, it's fresh, and everyone feels rejuvenated.

B/R: Switching gears, your Arizona squad lost to Wisconsin in the Elite Eight for the second straight season. As a coach, how did you deal with that?

Sean Miller and T.J. McConnell as Arizona lost to Wisconsin in the NCAA tournament this year.
Sean Miller and T.J. McConnell as Arizona lost to Wisconsin in the NCAA tournament this year.Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press

Miller: I don't know if there's a map to follow. When you get to the Elite Eight, it's a death blow when you lose because the prize is so strong when you win. ...We've done it in back-to-back years, so it stings a little bit. The longer you reflect back on it, winning 34 games last year, it's hard to feel bad. We've knocked on the door. Hopefully we'll eventually break through.

B/R: Was either loss more frustrating than the other?

Miller: Two years ago, we lost on a last-second play, a controversial call in overtime, lost by one. That was tough to take. This past season, I don't want to say it wasn't as difficult, but the way they shot in the second half, there weren't a whole lot of answers. The remarkable thing is that we were still right there, only losing by three at halftime. Wisconsin was good, though. They were really good.

B/R: What did you do in the days after the loss?

Miller: We got away. My wife and our family went up to a cabin in the White Mountains [of Arizona] for a few days. I didn't go to the Final Four. That was therapy in and of itself.

B/R: Do you have any hobbies outside of basketball?

Miller: I'm not the most balanced guy. If you watch me golf, I'm not really a golfer. Growing up in a house like I grew up in [his father was a coach], it becomes a custom that basketball is what you do.

We all take time away. I have three sons. Youngest is an eighth-grader. My middle son is in the 10th grade, and my oldest is a freshman manager at Arizona. Between those three, that's really what I do most of the time. Sometimes it's bizarre. Even when I'm around them, it's still about basketball, because I've got three boys.

B/R: How much feedback do you give your sons when it comes to basketball?

Miller: I let go. I don't say a word. I don't say a word. I don't think there's a coach that's ever coached one of my sons that I've talked to about them. I just want them to have their space. I would go mentally insane trying to coach them. I need a break. There's only so many dribbles you can coach.

B/R: Recently we've seen an increase in college coaches being targeted by NBA teams. Butler's Brad Stevens, Florida's Billy Donovan and Iowa State's Fred Hoiberg all left for the pros. Has something about being a college coach changed in recent years?

Billy Donovan became coach of the NBA's Oklahoma City Thunder this year.
Billy Donovan became coach of the NBA's Oklahoma City Thunder this year.Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press

Miller: It's a lot harder right now. Think about this: Not long ago, if you had a stellar recruiting class of four or five players, that would stabilize you for four or five seasons. You'd start recruiting younger players knowing that you have a great group for several years. You always seem to be ahead of the game.

Now, the more successful you are recruiting, the more you have to do it and the more turnover you have. It's nonstop. Until the rosters slow down a little bit, it's going to continue to be difficult. You can't be good every year. You just can't.

B/R: And you also have to "re-recruit" your current players each spring, correct?

Miller: Yes, there are a lot of moving parts. April and May were always the time to recharge as a coach, even as a player. Now April and May are two of our busiest months. They're as hectic as any two months on our calendar.

We have young people looking to leave for the NBA. You have to help them make the right decision. You have transfers going out. You have transfers coming in. You never really clearly know who is going to be on your team until the middle of May.

B/R: Is coaching in the NBA one of your goals?

Miller: I don't have any experience there. I'm focused on getting to the Final Four and doing a good job at Arizona.

B/R: Your Arizona squad lost key players such as Stanley Johnson and T.J. McConnell. Do you foresee a transition year, or will you be in the Final Four hunt?

Stanley Johnson was the No. 8 pick in this year's NBA draft.
Stanley Johnson was the No. 8 pick in this year's NBA draft.Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Miller: We have some hidden depth. We're probably deeper than some people realize. We may not have the marquee player like Aaron Gordon or Stanley Johnson that we've had in the past. Our point guard is going to be different. But I believe in our guys. Our depth is going to be our strength.

B/R: Two of your key players will likely be guys who sat out last season: Boston College transfer Ryan Anderson, a forward, and JUCO transfer Kadeem Allen, a point guard. How are they coming along?

Miller: They practiced with us all season. Both of them will be big parts of our team. I think so.

Kadeem is more than capable. Scoring comes easily for him. Now he's really focused on improving the other parts of his game, getting stronger on defense and learning how to play with other great players.

B/R: Speaking of point guards, your starter from last season (McConnell) didn't get drafted. But there has been a bit of buzz about him in NBA circles. Do you think he has a chance to make a roster?

Miller: He's a shorter version of [the Cavaliers' Matthew] Dellavedova. If you [look at] his last two years statistically, no matter what stat you choose—field-goal percentage, assist-to-turnover ratio, total assists, steals, wins—he's one of the great guards that has played at Arizona. I really believe if he gets with the right team this summer, they'll love him. 

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