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

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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.

Bubbles brewing with season on horizon

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
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INDIANAPOLIS — With the coronavirus pandemic already forcing changes for college basketball, a bubble may be brewing in Indianapolis.

Indiana Sports Corp. released a 16-page proposal Friday that calls for turning the city convention center’s exhibition halls and meeting rooms into basketball courts and locker rooms. There would be expansive safety measures and daily COVID-19 testing.

The all-inclusive price starts at $90,000 per team and would cover 20 hotel rooms per traveling party, testing, daily food vouchers ranging from $30-$50 and the cost of game officials. Sports Corp. President Ryan Vaughn said the price depends on what offerings teams or leagues choose.

“The interest has been high,” Vaughn said. “I think as conferences figure out what conference and non-conference schedules are going to look like, we’re we’re a very good option for folks. I would tell you we’ve had conversations with the power six conferences, mid-majors, it’s really kind of all over the Division I spectrum.”

Small wonder: The NCAA this week announced teams could start ramping up workouts Monday, with preseason practices set to begin Oct. 14. Season openers, however, were pushed back to Nov. 25 amid wide-ranging uncertainty about campus safety and team travel in the pandemic.

There is already scrambling going on and some of the marquee early-season tournaments have already been impacted.

The Maui Invitational will be moved from Hawaii to Asheville, North Carolina, with dates still to be determined and organizers clear that everyone involved “will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.” The Batttle 4 Atlantis has been canceled. The Cancun Challenge will be held in Melbourne, Florida, not Mexico.

More changes almost certainly will be coming, including what to do with the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.

“I think we’re past the guesswork on whether we play 20 conference games or more than that,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said Friday. “We’re trying to get everybody set like in terms of MTEs (multi-team events), figuring out when to play the ACC-Big Ten challenge.”

Painter, who was part of the NCAA committee that recommended how to start the season, noted part of the uncertainty stems from differing protocols imposed by campus, city and state officials.

In Indianapolis, Vaughn believes the convention center, nearby hotels, restaurants and downtown businesses, many within walking distance of the venue, could safely accommodate up to 24 teams. The 745,000-square foot facility would feature six basketball courts and two competition courts.

Anyone entering the convention center would undergo saliva-based rapid response testing, which would be sent to a third-party lab for results. Others venues could be added, too, potentially with more fans, if the case numbers decline.

If there is a taker, the event also could serve as a dry run for the 2021 Final Four, also slated for Indy.

“It’s not going to hurt,” Vaughn said. “I can tell you all the planning we’re doing right now is the same for a Final Four that’s been scheduled here for any other year. But it would be nice to have this experience under our belt to see if it can be done.”

Maui Invitational moving to North Carolina during pandemic

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
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ASHEVILLE, N.C. — The Maui Invitational is moving to the mainland during the coronavirus pandemic.

One of the premier preseason tournaments on the college basketball schedule, the Maui Invitational will be played at the Harrah’s Cherokee Center in downtown Asheville, North Carolina.

Dates for the tournament announced Friday have yet to be finalized. The NCAA announced Wednesday that the college basketball season will begin Nov. 25.

This year’s Maui Invitational field includes Alabama, Davidson, Indiana, North Carolina, Providence, Stanford, Texas and UNLV.

All teams, staff, officials, and personnel will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.

Burton eligible at Texas Tech after 2 seasons at Wichita State

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LUBBOCK, Texas — Junior guard Jamarius Burton has been granted a waiver from the NCAA that makes him eligible to play this season for Texas Tech after starting 52 games the past two seasons for Wichita State.

Texas Tech coach Chris Beard announced the waiver Thursday, which came five months after Burton signed with the Big 12 team.

Burton has two seasons of eligibility remaining, as well as a redshirt season he could utilize. He averaged 10.3 points and 3.4 assists per game as a sophomore at Wichita State, where he played 67 games overall.

Burton is from Charlotte. He helped lead Independence High School to a 31-1 record and the North Carolina Class 4A state championship as a senior there.

NCAA season set to open day before Thanksgiving

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The NCAA men’s and women’s basketball season will begin on Nov. 25, the day before Thanksgiving.

The Division I Council voted Wednesday to push the start date back from the originally scheduled Nov. 10 as one of several precautions against the spread of coronavirus.

The later start date coincides with the decision most schools made to send students home from Thanksgiving until January out of concern about a potential late-fall and early-winter flareup of COVID-19. Closed campuses could serve as a quasi bubble for players and provide a window for non-conference games.

The maximum number of regular-season games has been reduced from 31 to 27. The minimum number of games for consideration for the NCAA Tournament was cut from 25 to 13.

Teams can start preseason practices Oct. 14 but will be allowed to work out 12 hours per week beginning Monday.

No scrimmages against other teams or exhibitions are allowed.

In other action, the council voted to extend the recruiting dead period for all sports through Dec. 31. In-person recruiting is not allowed during a dead period, though phone calls and other correspondence are allowed.

The men’s and women’s basketball oversight committees had jointly recommended a start date of Nov. 21, which would have allowed for games to be played on the weekend before Thanksgiving. The council opted not to do that to avoid a conflict with regular-season football games.

The council is scheduled to meet again Oct. 13-14 and could delay the start date and change other pieces of the basketball framework if circumstances surrounding the virus warrant.

UConn’s Tyrese Martin granted waiver to play this season

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STORRS, Conn. — UConn swingman Tyrese Martin, who transferred from Rhode Island in April, has been granted a waiver that will allow him to play for the Huskies this season.

The 6-foot-6 junior averaged 12.8 points and 7.1 rebounds and started every game last season for URI, where he was recruited by current UConn coach Dan Hurley.

NCAA rules require undergraduate transfers to sit out a season, but the organization has been more lenient in granting waivers during the pandemic.

Martin, 21, is expected to compete for playing time at UConn on the wing as both a guard and small forward.