T.J. McConnell

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No. 2 Arizona, Sean Miller’s quest to reach Final Four once again falls short


LOS ANGELES — In his last seven seasons as a head coach, Sean Miller has led his teams to four Elite Eight appearances. The last three of those came at Arizona. And in each of those games, Miller has seen his teams fall just short of the Final Four, the fourth of those losses being an 85-78 loss to No. 1 Wisconsin in the West regional final Saturday night.

The loss came as a result of the Badgers shooting incredibly well from the field in the second half, making 15 of their 19 field goal attempts and also shooting 10-for-12 from beyond the arc. One of the nation’s best defensive teams was armed with an elite stopper in Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, but not having a second meant that either Sam Dekker (20 second-half points) or Frank Kaminsky (15 of his 29 were scored in the second half) had an advantage depending upon who wasn’t being defended by Hollis-Jefferson.

But those numbers won’t matter much to the crowd that rushes to affix the label of “best active coach to have yet to reach the Final Four” to whichever high-level coach seems deserving of that distinction. That’s something Miller will have to manage this offseason, as a team that entered Saturday’s game having won 14 straight and had the look of one that could at the very least challenge undefeated Kentucky, if not beat the Wildcats in the Final Four fell short of its goal.

Yet in the aftermath of the loss, none of that concerned Miller, who looked to ensure that what his group has accomplished over the last two seasons was not ignored.

“With the way the world is today, people will jump all over us for losing in the Elite Eight, and I just want to protect our players,” Miller noted. “Because if you’re T.J. McConnell and you’ve won 69 games in two years and you never lost a home game and you’ve gone to back-to-back Elite Eights, no kid should walk out of here with anything other than their head held high.”

In the aftermath of Thursday’s Sweet 16 victory over No. 6 Xavier, the recurring theme for the Arizona players was their desire to take Miller to his first Final Four, with McConnell leading the way. The heart and soul of this group, McConnell’s connection with Miller goes well beyond the moment he decided to transfer to Arizona after spending two seasons at Duquesne. Both hail from western Pennsylvania, the point guard-playing sons of famed high school coaches, and McConnell wanted nothing more than to repay the coach for his faith in him with an opportunity to win a national title.

And when that dream came to an end, with all involved coming to that realization in the moments after Sam Dekker knocked down a dagger of a three-pointer to give the Badgers an eight-point lead with 17 seconds remaining, an emotional McConnell shared an embrace with his head coach before working his way down the bench.

“I just came off the floor and apologized that I couldn’t get him to a Final Four,” McConnell said of the exchange. “That guy right there is like my dad, so I just felt down that I couldn’t get him there.”

Arizona fell short Saturday despite putting forth one of their better offensive showings of the season, shooting 55.8 percent from the field and scoring 38 points in the paint. The Wildcats got off to a slow start, with Brandon Ashley picking up two quick fouls, before hitting their stride and finishing the first half with a three-point lead. With Frank Kaminsky being forced into tough shots and the rest of the Badgers having their own issues, Arizona just needed one more half of solid defense in order to earn their first Final Four trip since 2001.

Arizona was unable to put it all together, but that spoke more to what Wisconsin was able to do as opposed to what the Wildcats neglected to. Kaminsky’s three-pointer to open the second stanza began a barrage that most wouldn’t believe had they not seen it with their own eyes, with the Badgers making both open and challenged shots alike.

“Their offensive execution and their ability to make shots in the second half, it was like a video game,” Miller said. “I’d like to blame our players or we weren’t playing hard. Let me just tell you, Sam Dekker and Frank Kaminsky, they’re really good. And their offense is the No. 1 offense in the nation, and no team has done what they did to us in the second half.”

Regardless of what those of us on the outside say about who should win in the NCAA tournament, the nature of the beast is that the event is one of the ultimate lotteries in sports. There’s no Game 2 as there is in a best-of-7 series; 40 minutes (or more) will determine the way in which a team’s season comes to an end. And whether it’s fair or not, the NCAA tournament serves as the ultimate judge of players, coaches, programs and conferences. In the case of Arizona, a second consecutive season has come to an end in heartbreaking fashion.

And for Miller, the defeat means that he’ll enter another season with a label previously owned by the likes of Jim Calhoun and Bill Self.

“I come back to the point that it’s a process. It’s a long journey. It’s not a single moment,” Miller noted. “It’s both a long process in terms of what you do in a year. We started in early October when school began, and we’ve worked, and a lot of great things happened this year for our team.

“And over the last couple of years, a lot of great things have happened for our program. And over the last seven years for me, a lot of great things have happened with the teams I’ve coached.”

Barring an early retirement, Sean Miller is going to get to a Final Four, likely more than one. He’s too good and too young not to.

And given the disappointments he’s dealt with over the course of the last seven years, when he finally does break through, it will be that much sweeter. Hey, maybe he’ll even follow in the footsteps of Calhoun and Self and win a title the first time he gets to the season’s final weekend.

But that’s not going to lessen the disappointment of another Elite 8 loss.

Back at the point where last season ended, No. 2 Arizona looks to end its Final Four drought

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LOS ANGELES — The NCAA tournament, while entertaining, can also be a painful experience. While some teams are eliminated in short order, others find themselves tantalizingly close to their goal of reaching the Final Four only to have that dream shattered with the defeat serving as motivation for the following season.

For the members of this year’s Arizona squad that played last season, the date March 29, 2014 is one that brings back vivid memories of what could have been. The top seed in the West region, the Wildcats played an absolute thriller with No. 2 Wisconsin in the regional final in Anaheim. Sean Miller’s team fell short of its goal of reaching the Final Four, losing by a point in overtime.

With that result came a number of questions, focusing on the impact that the absence of Brandon Ashley had on the team offensively as well as the question of when Miller would be able to get his program over the hump. That “hump” is getting to the sport’s final weekend, with the Final Four being an event that can change the narrative that hovers over a coach and his program.

With Arizona’s last Final Four appearance coming in 2001 and Miller yet to lead a team that far in his ten-plus seasons as a head coach, it’s seen as one of the final frontiers for both coach and program. While there’s definitely motivation to exceed last season’s run, there’s also the need to acknowledge the fact that this program has reached the Sweet 16 in each of the last three seasons and Saturday’s rematch will be Arizona’s second consecutive Elite Eight appearance.

“Of course it’s motivation to see if you can get back to this level,” Miller said after the Wildcats beat No. 6 Xavier Thursday night. “Very seldom are you right there in an Elite Eight game that you lose in overtime and then the next year you’re back, let alone playing the same team. So there is some uniqueness to that.

“But I think a lot of our players were motivated this off-season to come back and make a run at this. And here we are, and that’s really to our credit. As you know, especially in this tournament, that is not an easy thing to accomplish.”

Yet in this era, simply getting to the doorstep of the Final Four isn’t enough regardless of how difficult (or unpredictable) the NCAA tournament can be. Arizona hasn’t reached the Final Four since 2001, and this current stretch represents the longest since Lute Olson led the Wildcats to their first Final Four in 1988.

The hopes and expectations heaped upon elite programs can be tough for some players and coaches to bear. But in the case of Arizona they’re looking to do their best to simply focus on the task at hand, as opposed to what it could mean to the history books and the way in which their program is presently viewed.

“Obviously, it’s a big game to return to the Elite Eight and play the exact same opponent as we did last year and come up short,” senior point guard T.J. McConnell said Thursday night. “But we’re going to take it as any game like we would be playing anyone else. It doesn’t matter if we’re playing Wisconsin or if we were playing North Carolina, we’d game plan the same, and it happened to be Wisconsin.

“So we’re not making this game any bigger than it needs to be.”

That approach is one reason why the Wildcats have lost just three games on the season, with talent and depth being others. Last year’s group, especially once Ashley went down in early February, didn’t have as many options offensively and they didn’t have an answer when it came to defending Frank Kaminsky either. Arizona shot just 38.3 percent from two in the one-point loss, with their top three players in regards to shot attempts in that game all struggling to score inside of the arc.

Arizona’s improved its shooting from both inside of the arc and from the foul line this season, and they’ll need to produce a high-level game on that end of the floor against Wisconsin. Of greater importance for the Wildcats will be the way in which they defend Kaminsky, who singed them for 28 points and 11 rebounds (seven offensive) in Anaheim. Kaminsky was able to take advantage of matchups with both Aaron Gordon (in the post) and Kaleb Tarczewski (on the perimeter) that night, and he represents the biggest matchup issue for Arizona in the rematch as well.

But this is a group that is better equipped for that particular challenge, with Ashley healthy and the versatile Rondae Hollis-Jefferson developing into one of the nation’s best and most versatile defenders. Both Arizona and Wisconsin have undergone changes to their respective rotations, with Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes becoming more integral figures for the Badgers and Stanley Johnson giving the Wildcats some more offense on the wing.

Clearly both teams have been motivated by the way in which their respective seasons came to an end. However in the case of Arizona, there’s also the added burden of ending a streak that’s been active since 2001. And while those of us on the outside remain fascinated by the “best coach to have not reached the Final Four” label, for Miller it’s simply a matter of continuing to knock on the door in hopes of it eventually opening.

“Usually you have to knock at the door a few times before you break it down,” Miller said earlier this week. “We’ll see if this is our year. But we have that opportunity. What we’re trying to do is play our best right now. If we do that, based on our season and the team we have, I think we have a chance to advance.”

T.J. McConnell, Gabe York lead No. 2 Arizona past No. 10 Ohio State

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Entering Saturday’s Round of 32 matchup between No. 2 Arizona and No. 10 Ohio State, most of the attention was focused on the two elite freshmen (Arizona’s Stanley Johnson and Ohio State’s D’Angelo Russell) and the fact that Russell was expected to see a lot of one of the nation’s top defenders in Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. But as the game played out one thing became clear: Arizona senior point guard T.J. McConnell was the best player on the floor in Portland.

While his name may not be tossed around as frequently by NBA scouts as the three players above, McConnell is an incredibly important piece for Sean Miller’s Wildcats. And in their 73-58 win over the Buckeyes, thus earning a third straight Sweet 16 appearance, the Pittsburgh native’s fingerprints were all over the game.

McConnell finished with 19 points, six rebounds, six assists and five steals, becoming the first Pac-12 player since Jason Kidd in 1993 to post a line of at least 15 points, five rebounds, five assists and five steals in an NCAA tournament game. He’s been the leader all season for Arizona, and when they struggled to crack Ohio State’s matchup zone in the first half McConnell accounted for eight points to help the Wildcats take a one-point lead into the half.

In the second half another Arizona guard, junior Gabe York, stepped forward and the Wildcats were able to pull away as a result. York scored 16 of his 19 points in the second half, shooting 4-for-7 from three (he made five for the game), and Ohio State’s inability to find him proved to be their downfall.

York was responsible for five of Arizona’s seven three-pointers, and that was a critical contribution considering the fact that the Wildcats shot a slightly higher percentage from three (36.8 percent) than from two (36.4 percent). The combination of York, McConnell, 20 points off of 12 Ohio State turnovers and a commanding performance on the boards proved to be too much for Thad Matta’s team to overcome.

And that doesn’t even take into consideration the rough evening Russell had shooting the basketball.

Arizona threw multiple players (mainly Hollis-Jefferson and McConnell) at Russell and he was unable to get anything going, finishing with nine points, seven rebounds and six assists while shooting 3-for-19 from the field. Seniors Sam Thompson (18 points) and Shannon Scott (ten) reached double figures, but with their best scorer kept in check Ohio State couldn’t keep up once Arizona managed to crack the zone.

Next up for Arizona is either No. 6 Xavier, Miller’s last employer before he took the Arizona job in 2009, or No. 14 Georgia State Thursday night in Los Angeles.