March started with Arizona head coach Sean Miller defiantly denouncing any wrongdoing in an alleged pay-for-play scandal, investigated by the FBI. Miller’s March, season and possibly his tenure in Arizona is over after an embarrassing 21-point loss to 13-seed Buffalo.
There’s the FBI scandal — first reported on in September of 2017 — when ESPN first reported the allegations that Miller was caught on wiretap discussing “paying $100,000 to ensure star freshman Deandre Ayton signed with the Wildcats.”
There’s an upset fan base who has been frustrated that despite being considered one of the best programs in the country, Arizona has not been to a Final Four since 2001. This year, Miller received the best recruit to ever land in Arizona. The Wildcats were the top-ranked team in many preseason polls. Yet for one reason or another, the team never seemed to play up to the level everyone expected.
Now it leaves the college-basketball world in shock after an early exit from the tournament.
Arizona thought it had its second home-run hire when Miller was hired in 2009. Rick Pitino, Tom Izzo, John Calipari, Jamie Dixon and Mark Few were linked as possible candidates to replace legendary Lute Olson. In the end, former Arizona Athletic Director Jim Livengood went with the younger Miller.
Since then, Miller has continually underperformed despite having some of the most talented teams in the nation. Three times he has led Arizona to the Elite Eight. Four out of the last five years the Wildcats were upset in the tournament. Arizona is losing its starting five and currently has no one committed for the 2018-19 season.
If the administration was going to make a move, now is the time.
This time around, obvious choices with Arizona ties have some baggage. Josh Pastner, Joe Pasternack and Lorenzo Romar have all had success coaching, but all have been linked to the current FBI investigation. Former players like Jason Gardner and Damon Stoudamire have yet to establish themselves as viable candidates.
Should Miller be fired — or no longer patrolling the sidelines in Tucson — here are five possible replacements.
There are many tied to the program who would like an insider — someone with Arizona ties — to be the next head coach. For those people, you can’t get much more closer than Olson’s grandson.
Brase is from Tucson and was a part of Arizona’s basketball team from 2003-05. His coaching career started in McKale as an assistant the year before Miller was hired. Since then, he’s worked his way around both the collegiate and professional level.
He currently coaches in the G League for the Rio Grande Valley Vipers. This past season Brase led the Vipers to the G League Finals.
Hurley has the proven coaching pedigree and has been very successful at every turn as a head coach. Last year, he led Rhode Island to a near upset of Oregon — who would go on to the Final Four. In eight years as a collegiate head coach, he has a 147-101 record.
It would also continue the trend of Arizona hiring successful Atlantic 10 coaches. Not to mention it would kick the Arizona rivalry up a few thousand degrees with brothers coaching at rival schools.
Arizona has been down this road before with Few. Why would this time be any different?
It’s highly plausible, but highly improbable that Few could view last year’s national runner-up team as the best he can do at Gonzaga. Despite how well the program has done and the success he has had, they will always be limited on what they can achieve due to certain things Few can’t control.
There have been rumors that Arizona is one of the few schools Few would leave Spokane for. Should he choose to, it would be solely due to the opportunity compete at an equal level to the other established blue-bloods in college basketball.
If Matta is healthy — and that’s a big if — he will certainly be a widely praised hire. Two Final Fours, five Big Ten regular season championships, four Big Ten Tournament championships, nine first-round NBA draft picks and an average of 26 victories per season in 17 years as a Division I coach, Matta has nothing else to prove, except winning a national championship.
The tradition of Arizona could lure him out of retirement to reach that goal. Again, if he is healthy enough.
This all comes down to a question of whether or not Walton would leave the most glamorous job in the NBA to coach his alma mater. When Walton was being recruited, his dad Bill encouraged Luke to go to Arizona because he would be mentored and taught in Tucson, not just coached on the basketball court. Has it left a big enough impression on Walton?
Walton would be welcomed back by past players, he would be well received by current players, and he would have a leg up in recruiting based not only in his time in LA but based on his youth and ability to relate to prospective players. In LA the team is young and his future is not promised given what could happen and free agency.
Has the Lavar Ball circus — only in its infancy — helped add to the tension and uncertainty that it has given Walton second thoughts?