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.