by Eli Boettger – September 25, 2017
By many estimations, the 2017-18 season is the most important yet for Arizona head coach Sean Miller.
The Wildcats return the majority of the nucleus from last year’s 32-win squad, including junior guard Allonzo Trier (17.2 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 2.7 APG), sophomore wing Rawle Alkins (10.9 PPG, 4.9 RPG) and seven-footer Dusan Ristic (10.9 PPG, 5.5 RPG), to combine with newcomers DeAndre Ayton (five-star center), Emmanuel Akot (five-star small forward), and three four-star recruits. With the blend of returning production and an elite freshman class, Arizona expects to place no lower than third in October’s preseason AP poll.
Miller is no stranger to autumn hype. Since arriving in Tucson in 2011, Arizona has had two clubs ranked in the top six of the preseason poll (6th in 2014, 2nd in 2015). The Wildcats have averaged 27.5 wins in the seven-year span, but Miller has yet to capture an elusive Final Four bid, falling three times in the Elite Eight round.
In 2011, Miller’s second season in Tucson, Arizona powered by the top-seeded Duke Blue Devils by 16 before a heart-wrenching 65-63 loss to Connecticut in which the Wildcats had two open looks from the perimeter in the final possession.
Three seasons later, Miller and the Wildcats captured the West region’s #1 seed but ran into Bo Ryan’s Wisconsin Badgers in the Elite Eight, falling 64-63 in overtime with three scoring opportunities in the final moments.
Exactly one year had passed before Arizona and Wisconsin had yet another #1 vs. #2 Elite Eight matchup, this time with the Badgers as the top-seeded team. Arizona held a slim 33-30 halftime advantage, but Sam Dekker hit a number of clutch three-pointers down the stretch en route to the 85-78 win, Arizona’s fifth consecutive Elite Eight defeat.
The Wildcats were a trendy Final Four pick last season as the #2 seed in Gonzaga’s region, until the 11th-seeded Xavier Musketeers pulled off a thrilling 73-71 upset. Again, Arizona had a great look at the end of the game, as Allonzo Trier saw a straightaway three-pointer rim out with under eight seconds remaining. It was another brutal tournament conclusion for Sean Miller and his Wildcats.
Even despite recent tournament lapses, Arizona again has legitimate Final Four aspirations heading into the 2017-18 season.
Many, in fact, are calling 2018 a “make-or-break” season for 14th-year head coach Sean Miller. Under Miller’s guidance, Arizona has yet to make the much-needed tournament push into the Final Four, but it’s not often you see a coach consistently reach March Madness’ second weekend, either.
Using BracketOdds’ seed advancement tool, I differentiated each active head coach’s career tournament performance to other coaches with at least 10 career tournament appearances.
The seed advancement tool shows the average number of wins recorded by each seed dating back to the inaugural 64-team bracket in 1985. The average number of wins creates an “expected win total” for each tournament appearance.
As an example, in 2011, Arizona was a 5th-seeded team. According to BracketOdds’ tool, five seeds, on average, record 1.1 victories in the NCAA Tournament. Miller, however, picked up three wins that year, netting a +1.9 difference in actual vs. expected tournament win total – a highly successful tournament appearance.
Based on the seeds of Miller-lead teams, Miller is projected to have had 15.52 tournament wins up until this point in his career. This total is found by summing all the expected tournament win totals throughout his 10 career tournament appearances.
Instead, however, Miller has captured 19 tournament wins, which is 3.48 wins higher than his expected total.
I then divided the 3.48 by the number of tournament appearances (10) to find an average tournament win expectation of +0.35 after rounding. This number signifies that, on average, Sean Miller-led teams perform +0.35 wins better than expected in the NCAA Tournament. So, going back to the BracketOdds tool, because #3 seeds average 1.81 wins in the tournament, we would project Sean Miller’s team to win 2.16 games if the Wildcats were a #3 seed next March.
The complete list of major active head coaches with at least 10 tournament appearances is below.
Miller, relative to other longtime major conference head coaches, actually is an above-average tournament performer. Miller’s +0.35 average is even higher than Duke’s legendary coach Mike Krzyzewski (+0.07), who has had his fair share of early tournament exits over the years.
This data should be a comforting sign to Arizona fans. Sean Miller, on average, performs better in the tournament than Mike Krzyzewski, Jay Wright, Bill Self, Mark Few, and other noteworthy head coaches that have notched one, if not multiple, Final Four berths. The difference between Miller and the aforementioned coaches is that Miller has not coached for nearly as long. If Miller continues to perform at a similar rate in the coming years, by pure randomness he should reach a Final Four sooner than later.
The impression that Sean Miller is a poor tournament head coach likely stems from some or all of these viewpoints:
- Miller’s predecessor, Lute Olson, notched an incredible five Final Fours in 23 chances – an unreasonable benchmark for any other coach to follow
- Miller has excelled so much in the regular season (five 30+ win seasons in 13 years as head coach) that fans expect him to dominate just the same in the NCAA Tournament
- Miller’s late-game hiccups (his average tournament loss is by 4.2 points as Arizona head coach) could reflect deeper in-game coaching concerns
So, no, 2018 is not a make-or-break for Sean Miller. He might never have a stronger and deeper roster than he does right now, but he is about as far from a below-average tournament head coach as you can find today. An early tournament loss in 2018 would damage his reputation, but even then, statistically, he would still be an above-average tournament performer.
If you’re reading this piece in 2027 and Miller is still without a Final Four appearance, though, then maybe it’s time to revisit this all over again.