SAN DIEGO – The question inspired a both a smile and wince from Sean Miller at the same time.
Asked how he felt about being known as arguably college basketball's best active coach never to make a Final Four, Miller admitted it's a label he'd like to leave behind real soon.
"Of course I would like to get off that list, but the way I look at it is every year you want to give yourself a chance to compete," Miller said. "For us, this is our third time in the Sweet 16 in the five years I've been at Arizona and what we have to do is be ourselves. It's going to happen if we continue to do things the right way."
In throttling Gonzaga 84-61 on Sunday to earn a Sweet 16 matchup with San Diego State on Thursday in Anaheim, Arizona showed why next week may be Miller's best chance yet to reach his first Final Four. The top-seeded Wildcats overwhelmed the mistake-prone Zags with smothering, disruptive defense and high-octane transition offense, building a double-digit lead eight minutes into the game, extending it to 21 late in the first half and to as many 28 in the game's final minutes.
The victory sends Arizona into a regional packed with highly successful coaches in a similar position to Miller. Wisconsin's Bo Ryan and Baylor's Scott Drew are both in search of their first Final Fours despite advancing to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament multiple times, while San Diego State's Steve Fisher made three Final Fours at Michigan but has been building toward taking the Aztecs there for the first time in program history.
Miller first came close back in 2008 when his Xavier team advanced to the Elite Eight as a No. 3 seed before falling by 19 points to a UCLA team featuring Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook and Darren Collison. Derrick Williams helped Miller get back to the Elite Eight with Arizona in 2011, routing Duke in the Sweet 16 before falling to eventual national champion UConn by two when Jamelle Horne's game-winning 3-pointer clanged off the back iron as time expired.
With a 31-4 record, a lineup loaded with length and athleticism and no national powers looming in its portion of the bracket, Arizona certainly has a great chance to celebrate in Anaheim next Saturday night. Freshman wing Rondae Hollis-Jefferson said it provides extra motivation for the Wildcats to try to be the team that takes Miller to his first Final Four.
"We all know what he really wants and we know it means a lot to him," Hollis-Jefferson said. "We love Coach Miller. He's a great coach. He cares about all the players. There's nothing better than seeing him happy. We're just going to keep working and doing our best. As long as we do that, I'm sure we'll get him there."
If Arizona's Final Four hopes appeared tenuous last month when starting forward Brandon Ashley went down with a season-ending injury, the Wildcats have responded well in recent weeks. Their only losses in their last 11 games are by seven against an Oregon team desperate to secure an NCAA bid and by four in a classic Pac-12 title game against a UCLA team playing as well as anyone in the nation recently.
Arizona was at its best Sunday against a Gonzaga team brimming with confidence after waylaying Oklahoma State two days earlier. Hollis-Jefferson and Aaron Gordon scored 18 points apiece and Nick Johnson had 17 as the Wildcats put on a show in front of a pro-Arizona crowd in San Diego.
There was a Gordon reverse alley-oop in the first half as a warm-up. Early in the second half, Johnson raced back on defense to swat away David Stockton's layup attempt. Not long after that, Gordon had the presence of mind to feed Hollis-Jefferson for a layup as he lost his footing and was slipping to the ground.
The highlight that best told the story of Arizona's dominance came with 3:43 remaining when T.J. McConnell buried a corner 3-pointer. By the time McConnell's shot reached the rim, Johnson was already running back on defense with his back to the play, a smile on his face and three fingers in the air on both hands.
"That's me having confidence in him to hit that shot," Johnson said afterward. "We've taken that shot so many times in practice and in workouts. I knew it was going in."
Miller hopes those shots continue to fall next week in Anaheim, but Arizona's history tells him there are no sure things.
Under Lute Olson, Arizona contended for Final Fours almost annually, but the lone Wildcats team to win a national championship actually finished fifth in the Pac-12, lost its final two games of the regular season and made its run as a No. 4 seed.
"You need some good fortune," Miller said. "Coach Olson talks about that all the time. Some of the greatest teams in our program's history didn't reach the Final Four and perhaps the one that won the national championship, you could put in the category that it wasn't maybe expected."
A Final Four wouldn't surprise anyone if Arizona pulled it off next week. But it would bring a smile to his face and remove his name from the top of a list that is equal parts compliment and motivation.
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