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Sean Miller, Arizona rebound from FBI investigation, controversial season

Arizona basketball coach Sean Miller said he was “looking forward to the future” in his first offseason press conference Thursday. (Photo by Jack Harris/Cronkite Sports)

TUCSON, Ariz. – On the first day of March, Sean Miller was “outraged” and “sickened,” caught in the crosshairs of a scandal that had rocked college basketball and left him defending his job. The Arizona Wildcats basketball coach was forced to call a press conference that day when he vehemently denied any involvement in a pay-for-play scheme.

On the last day of May, Miller returned to the podium, holding a formal news conference on Thursday for the first time this offseason. Now months removed from a tumultuous 2017-18 season, he and his Wildcats appear to have turned the page.

It’s business as usual again in Tucson.

“I feel good,” Miller said. “I’m very much looking forward to the future.”

For good reason. The past year has put the third-winningest coach in Arizona history through the gauntlet.

It’s been over eight months since Book Richardson – a long-time assistant on Miller’s staff – was arrested as part of the FBI’s investigation into college basketball. Barely three months ago, the infamous ESPN report was published that alleged Miller had been caught on a wiretap discussing impermissible payments to Deandre Ayton. It was exactly 11 weeks ago Thursday that Arizona was embarrassingly bounced in the first round of the NCAA tournament after getting routed by Buffalo.

Miller had kept mostly quiet since.

“The totality of our season … took a toll on all of us,” he said.

He declined to comment on the FBI investigation that has kicked up a storm of controversy around his program. The program’s future remains unclear because of the federal government’s continued involvement.

But this offseason, some of those dark clouds have receded, allowing rays of optimism to return. For the time being, off-the-court uncertainty has drifted to the background.

Despite operating under near-impossible circumstances this offseason, Miller orchestrated quite the salvage job.

He hired two young assistant coaches (Danny Peters, 31, and Justin Gainey, 41) to replace Richardson and Lorenzo Romar, the latter of whom left to become the head coach at Pepperdine. Miller said the moves will create “the most stability that we can have.”

After losing six of his top seven players, including all five starters, from last year’s team to either graduation or the NBA draft, he’s bolstered Arizona’s once-frighteningly thin 2018-19 roster with a mix of transfers and a freshman recruiting class ranked in the top 30 in the country by ESPN.

He has the support of the athletic department, too.

“I feel good about Arizona basketball,” UA athletic director Dave Heeke said on Thursday. “I’m very bullish. I feel very confident in our leadership.”

The recruiting accomplishments were extremely important. Arizona is the only Pac-12 school to not return a 20-game starter (and only one of two teams to not have at least two 20-game starters back). When their season ended in mid-March, the Wildcats had zero recruits signed or committed. Blue-chip prospects Shareef O’Neal (son of NBA legend Shaquille O’Neal) and Brandon Williams had each rescinded their verbal pledges late in the season amid the FBI scandal.

“They had to fill out their class completely after the season,” said Ralph Amsden, a recruiting analyst and publisher of ArizonaVarsity.com. “It’s definitely a much trickier situation recruiting-wise than they are used to being in.”

Miller had to construct a class from scratch in the offseason.

“For a lot of obvious reasons, we did a lot of our work in the spring,” he remarked on Thursday.

The Wildcats worked fast too. They landed four-star guard Devonaire Doutrive and promising European product Omar Thielemans. In the graduate transfer market, they snagged ex-Pittsburgh forward Ryan Luther and former Samford guard Justin Coleman.

Then in early May, Miller pulled off his biggest recruiting victory of the offseason by getting Williams to recommit, a triumph Miller wasn’t sure was possible when the four-star guard decommitted two months earlier.

“We had to recruit him all over again, from start to finish,” Miller said. “I don’t want to say ‘rebuild our relationship’ because, in the end, that strong connection between him and I was probably the one thing that never got divided but it was a hard fight. I’m glad that we won.”

Jake Weingarten is a national recruiting analyst for ScoopDuck and Future150.com and followed Williams’ recruitment closely. He said Williams’ family “looked into everything” about Arizona before he decided to sign with the school for good.  

“They’ve done pretty well for themselves after that (ESPN) report,” Weingarten said of Arizona. “Clearly Sean Miller is still doing well.”

Amsden thinks that although there will be some concern from top recruits over last year’s scandal, the Wildcats will continue to land big-time prospects. Miller is too good a recruiter and the school has too many successful NBA alums not to, he believes.

“The ends justify the means,” Amsden said. “(Going to Arizona) is still worth the risk.”

Miller spoke for nearly an hour on Thursday. He wasted very little of his time on the FBI investigation. Instead, the 10-year UA coach went in-depth discussing his team’s incoming talent, the importance of its returning crop of players and his views on the NBA Draft and Pac-12 conference.

It was the first time in some months he sat behind a mic and was able to just talk about the game.

Miller claimed his message to recruits and their parents “really hasn’t changed” in the wake of the FBI investigation. He reaffirmed his belief that his program does things “correctly” both on and off the court.

“It’s not pressing a reset button and doing things completely different,” he said. “There’s a lot of things that we’re proud of that we don’t want to change. There are some things that I think we have to improve on and that’s the job of the leadership, me being on the top of it.”

Of course, there are still lingering doubts on the periphery of his program.

The FBI probe is far from over. An NCAA investigation is likely to follow. Richardson’s court case could take years to resolve, as reported by the Arizona Daily Star. Though Miller promised back in February that he would be “vindicated” after the ESPN report, the proverbial “other shoe” could drop at any moment.

Amsden said without receiving an official declaration of innocence from the NCAA – an organization Amsden reminded “moves at a snail’s pace” – there will always be concern regarding Arizona’s future, on the recruiting trail or otherwise.

It was all too painfully ironic on Thursday when an unsilenced cell phone in the Lohse Room inside McKale Center – the site of Miller’s press conference – received an ESPN app notification, ringing out the trademark SportsCenter chime in the middle of one of Miller’s answers.

For now, the uncertainty hasn’t completely derailed Miller’s program. The flames of scandal haven’t flared up again this offseason, allowing Miller to rectify some of the damage inflicted by last year’s controversies. Now, he can enter the summer focused almost entirely on basketball and able to sidestep questions about the FBI investigation.

He can only hope it stays that way.

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