Arizona basketball coach Sean Miller frequently talks and tweets about building a “players” program.
He instills this mindset in freshmen before they step on campus, so that by the time they’re seniors they can instruct younger players in the same way Miller taught them.
No class in a coach’s recruiting career is as important as the first one at his new school. Without that first group of players buying into what a newly hired coach wants to teach, it’s hard to succeed.
There may only be three left, but Arizona’s Solomon Hill, Kevin Parrom and Max Wiepking are the last of Miller’s 2009 recruiting class and the glue that is going to hold the Wildcats together.
“When we came in our freshman year, it was all new to everybody,” Wiepking said. “No one knew much about coach Miller or his system.”
Miller’s first class proved to be vital in Arizona’s recent past, and their present and future successes rest not with this year’s talented corps of freshmen, but on the shoulders of three players who have been through the fire.
As freshmen, the three Wildcats were inexperienced, and underclassmen made up 70 percent of the Wildcats’ minutes played that year. Arizona struggled to a 16-14 record, breaking its streak of 25 consecutive appearances in the NCAA tournament.
“Freshman year we were still trying to figure everything out,” Wiepking said. “We did as well as we could that year.”
Hill, Parrom and Wiepking are only half of a senior class that included forward Derrick Williams, center Kyryl Natyazhko and guard Momo Jones. Williams left for the NBA after his sophomore season, Jones transferred to Iona before last season and Natyazhko left the UA to pursue a professional career in Europe.
As sophomores, a 30-win season and Elite Eight appearance helped to erase some of the struggles from their first go-around as Wildcats, but the process was ahead of schedule.
“Things take time,” Miller said. “A year ago, when I sat here coming off of an Elite Eight and 30 wins, a Pac-10 regular season championship — those are really special things. If that happens one time in a decade at many places or for a particular group it’s like, ‘wow.’
“I think because that happened so early here it was almost assumed that that is how it would be from this point on. We really had some things that we needed to work out.”
Expectations for Arizona basketball entering last season were high — not only on campus, but thanks to the Elite Eight appearance, there were national expectations to live up to as well. The Wildcats were ranked No. 18 in the preseason, but a 23-12 finish and first-round NIT loss to Bucknell suggested that the Wildcats had fallen behind.
“Without that first recruiting class, who knows that happens with that Elite Eight run?” Hill said. “It’s a great thing knowing that me and Kevin [Parrom] — some things happened to some guys, some guys ended up leaving, Derrick [Williams] was blessed to go No. 2 — but we understand that this is our last time to make an impact on that first class and be remembered.”
Miller’s trio of original seniors will undoubtedly have their chance to leave their mark, and will be expected to in a season that has once again, not only the campus buzzing, but the focus of national media.
“I was here when things weren’t going so well,” Parrom said. “I was here through it all, through the ups and downs. This year should be great and I’m glad to be a part of it.”