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DeCourcy: Miller has done ‘phenomenal job’ this year

Arizona head coach Sean Miller calls a play while his team plays against Michigan State in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game at the Armed Forces Classic, Friday, Nov. 11, 2016, in Honolulu. (AP Photo/Eugene Tanner)
LISTEN: Michael DeCourcy, Sporting News college basketball writer

The seventh-ranked Arizona Wildcats have exceeded expectations so far by going 18-2 and improving upon their No. 10 preseason ranking.

The biggest reason for that is the coaching job of Sean Miller, according to Sporting News’ Mike DeCourcy.

“Sean has made that team immensely better than anybody would have expected back on Oct. 15,” DeCourcy said Wednesday on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM‘s Doug and Wolf.

Miller has helped his team overcome adverse circumstance after adverse circumstance this season and Arizona has thrived in spite of the hardship.

“I don’t think people really understand what a phenomenal job Sean Miller’s done with this basketball team this year,” DeCourcy said. “The adversity that they’ve gone through to start with Allonzo (Trier) being absent… And then there’s the fact that they lost Terrance Ferguson before the season and then the terrible injury to Ray Smith and even the short-term injury to Parker Jackson-Cartwright. They’ve had so much adversity.”

Ferguson left the Wildcats on June 30 to play in the Australian National Basketball League, Smith retired on Nov. 3 after suffering a third ACL tear in an exhibition game against the College of Idaho, and Jackson-Cartwright missed six games after suffering a high ankle sprain on Nov. 30 against Texas Southern University.

But perhaps the most significant loss for Arizona this season has been Trier, who was suspended for the first 19 games of the season after testing positive for performance enhancing drugs in September. Before the season, Trier was considered one of the top players in the NCAA, with ESPN ranking him as the 24th best player in the country. The sophomore guard accounted for 12 points, 7 rebounds and 4 assists during his first action of the season in the Wildcats’ 96-85 upset of then-third ranked UCLA.

Another reason DeCourcy credits the Wildcats’ success to Miller is his ability to shore up the weaknesses of his incoming freshmen, such as guards Kobi Simmons and Rawle Alkins.

“I follow recruiting really well and I watched Kobi Simmons play in high school,” DeCourcy said. “Of all the really good players – and there were a lot in the 2016 recruiting class – Kobi was a guy that a lot of us were like, ‘I don’t see it. I mean, I know he’s talented but I just don’t see the gear. He doesn’t seem to play as hard as all the other guys.’ And then (with) Rawle Alkins everybody said, ‘Yeah he’s got the talent, but he doesn’t seem to want to do anything but shoot the ball and he never seems to want to do anything else.’ And Sean got both those guys to blow way past those limitations or those assessments. And Kobi plays really hard now and Rawle passes the basketball and plays with great physical toughness.”

Simmons and Alkins currently rank second and fourth on the team, with 12.1 and 11.9 points per game, respectively, while fellow freshman Lauri Markkanen leads the team with 17.1 points per game.

The talented freshmen have filled the hole left by the absences of Trier, Smith and Ferguson and have Arizona tied for the Pac-12 lead with University of Oregon with a 7-0 conference record.

Miller’s Wildcats currently find themselves on a 12-game winning steak and look to continue that momentum with Trier in the fold.

“They’ve got a team that is really tough, really resilient and now empowered by the return of Allonzo Trier,” DeCourcy said.

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