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Almost 4 years ago to the day, The University of Arizona Men's Basketball Program was gearing up for a very promising 2007-2008 campaign, and leading up to a storybook 2008-2009 season.
Lute Olson seemed to have everything in place for his final two year run, calculating his steps and organizing his program. On May 1, 2007, Coach Olson dug deep into the Arizona coaching tree and hired long-time friend and respected basketball mind Kevin O'Neill.
O'Neill was hired to provide detail and strategy to game plans along with energy, toughness, and stability to the program.
The Wildcats were returning a solid core of players that included Chase Budinger, Jordan Hill, Jawann McClellan and Nic Wise along with a top 10 recruiting class. The jewel of that class was the highest rated prep recruit from the state of Arizona since Mike Bibby, McDonald's All-American and two-time Arizona High School State Player of the Year, Jerryd Bayless.
Bayless, a Phoenix product had been wooed to Arizona after a brief flirt with Texas under a gentleman's agreement that he and Olson would give two years to each other.
Highly regarded five-star small forward Jamelle Horne out of San Diego was the other strong component of that class. Horne, a gifted athlete, was looking to thrive in Olson's open court system.
The schedule was structured in typical Arizona fashion with nonconference games against Virginia, Kansas, Illinois, Texas A&M, UNLV, San Diego St., and Memphis. It was set, Arizona would push for another Pac-10 Championship immediately and position for another deep run in March.
It was the following year, 08-09, which was known inside the program to be Lute's final season, that Olson would welcome the top prep talent in the class of 2008, Brandon Jennings. Adding the dynamic point guard Jennings to what would be a veteran returning group, would make Arizona a top 3 team and one of the favorites to win the National Championship.
During that final season, Lute would get his rocking chair tributes from gym to gym and be able to say his goodbyes on his terms; all while his NBA Developmental team of Jennings, Bayless, Budinger, and Hill made McKale Center the place to be in College Basketball.
Three months later, all that promise came to a screeching halt as Olson announced his indefinite leave of absence from the program. He handed the keys over to Kevin O'Neill and the result over the next several months was downward tick after downward tick.
Team chemistry was shot and uncertainty clouded the program. Dissension thickened and back stabbing became the norm. Amid the controversy the team played uneven and uninspired as Arizona limped into the NCAA Field losing in embarrassing fashion to West Virginia during the first round.
Shortly thereafter, Jerryd Bayless hired an agent and declared for the NBA Draft and Brandon Jennings made no effort to qualify while shifting his focus to playing in Europe for a year. Things at Arizona would never be the same…some would say.
Fast forward to the fall of 2008, The University of Arizona and its Athletic Director were facing one of the biggest decisions for the University over the last thirty years. Beloved Coach Lute Olson had announced his retirement and the responsibility to find a replacement for the living legend was at the administration's feet.
Behind the scenes everyone wanted to believe they had an idea of which way things were headed. Coaching lists were generated and internet hot boards with wish lists were popping up, being dissected and evaluated every day.
Under the covers, the powers that be at Arizona and Memphis Coach at the time John Calipari were quietly voicing mutual interest in each other. Calipari fit the mold of the big-time hire that Arizona was looking for, and Arizona was just the type of power that Calipari believed could dominate the west coast for years to come. It seemed like a perfect match.
A few months went by and after several off the record meetings and discussions between mutual advisors; it was believed that Calipari would become the next Head Coach at Arizona after both Memphis and Arizona's seasons came to an end.
March 15th, 2009, the floor fell out from Arizona as the University of Kentucky failed to make the NCAA Tournament and rumors began to surface that Billy Gillispie was to be fired. Speculation grew that UK wanted Calipari and wanted him bad. This sent a ripple effect that seemed to have Arizona's future plans right in its fault line.
Begrudgingly, UK accepted an invitation to the NIT and played its final game of the year on March 25th, 2009 after losing to Notre Dame. March 26th, 2011, Memphis gets blown out by Missouri amid the speculation that their head coach is interested in the head coaching job at Kentucky.
On March 28th, 2009 Billy Gillispie is fired from Kentucky and John Calipari tells the University of Arizona that he must explore the Kentucky option first, before he engages Arizona because it's his "dream job." April 1st, 2009, John Calipari accepts the head coaching position at the University of Kentucky.
Jim Livengood, and the Arizona boosters who worked so hard to position Calipari to Arizona were left to hold the cards they had been dealt, and deal with the harsh reality that no contingency plan was in place. The scramble began and the panic was obvious. Livengood needed help, as the list of respectable potentials shrunk and the negative sentiment toward the Arizona Basketball Program grew. Skeptics were taking shots at Arizona and the once proud program was getting hit on the chin.
Then, a suggestion that was thought to have little to no legs surfaces. It will change the course of Arizona Basketball forever.
What about Xavier's Coach Sean Miller? I know we have reached out to him earlier in the process and it was seen as a long shot; but let's try it again, let's make the call.
Sean Miller is contacted and originally shows only minor interest, but after further thought agrees to listen to what Arizona has to say. After a few conversations, Coach Miller agrees to board a plane and meet Arizona Representatives in Santa Fe, NM for a secret face to face meeting to see if there is any chemistry and/or serious interest by both parties. That meeting ended with Coach Miller back on a plane to Cincinnati reportedly not interested in the job. He was staying at Xavier. Where was Arizona to turn? Jim Boylen? Seth Greenberg? Dear God….
Then, according to sources, Coach Miller had an all-night conversation with one of his mentors and close friends, John Calipari, who told him he would regret not taking the Arizona job. Calipari raved about the recruiting potential, in-place tradition, and the ability to win multiple National Championships among many other things. The needle had been moved. Coach Miller consulted his wife and made a follow-up phone call to Jim Livengood the next morning with some adjustments to the deal. Arizona had their man.
Since that time, Arizona Basketball has had a meteoric rise back to relevance. Facing an enormous challenge when he took control, having only 3 scholarship players committed to returning, Coach Miller had to re-recruit Jamelle Horne and Nic Wise -- which he did so successfully -- and scramble to find fresh faces to fill out his roster.
He subsequently gained spring commitments from Derrick Williams, Solomon Hill, Kevin Parrom, Kyryl Natyazhko, and Lamont Jones just weeks after taking the job, helping make up for three years of lost recruiting classes. In a very short amount of time, the program received a vital shot of adrenalin. The first year was spent creating structure and organization and establishing the Miller Way. There were bumps in the road but the team banded together and the program generated an identity. That identity was Sean Miller.
Year two implemented those core principals and the organization showed results in an overall 30-8 record -- 18-0 at home -- and an outright Pac-10 Championship and an Elite 8 run that included a monumental thrashing of Duke in Southern California in the Sweet 16.
The ripple effects of that game paid immediate dividends to the program, all but cementing Derrick Williams' status as a top three prospect for the 2011 NBA Draft. In addition, the beat down of Duke in Anaheim also served as a loud cannon shot to other top programs that Arizona Basketball, present and future, is a force to be reckoned with on the court and on the recruiting trail.
Entering 2011-2012, Arizona is poised for another strong year. The Wildcats welcome back eight scholarship players and add a top 10 recruiting class to the mix -- including the best recruit of Miller's career, PG-Josiah Turner. Turner is a gifted PG with a pass first mentality who makes everyone around him better. Arizona's players and fans will fall in love with Turner's strong play and team first approach. He will be a favorite from the moment he dons the Arizona uniform.
The class of 2012 may be even better, with commitments from power forward Grant Jerrett (#27), shooting guard Gabe York (#43), and Arizona lean Brandon Ashley (#4), all ranked in the top 50 by Scout.com.
Kaleb Tarczewski, the 9th overall ranked player in the 2012 class by Scout.com, is set to make his decision between Arizona and Kansas any day. Should Miller & Co secure a commitment from the 7ft center heads up against Kansas, it will further solidify Miller's impact nationally.
Make no mistake, Arizona is once again feared on the recruiting trail, and is the scalding hot program on the west coast. It seems that every recruit Sean Miller wants, Sean Miller gets.
With the program framework firmly in place, clear methodology and organization established, and the best prep players wanting to play at Arizona, Sean Miller is poised to take the next generation of Arizona Basketball and its fans to the highest level.
As a good friend of mine close to the situation says, "I trust Sean in any situation; recruiting, game, or life, he's rock solid."
Arizona Basketball is back in its familiar spot as a relevant and powerful national program, and that's due to one thing, the best young coach in America, Sean Miller.
97cats is a longtime Arizona Basketball junkie who is a member of Wildcat Authority. You can read more of his insight and opinion on the Wildcat Authority Premium Forum and/or on his personal blog, www.97cats.com, and follow him on twitter via www.twitter.com/97cats