On the surface, Sean Miller and Chris Walker appear to have very different jobs, with very different pressures and expectations.
And for good reason.
Miller is in his fourth season as the coach at Arizona, a national powerhouse that won a national championship in 1997 and has a fan base that has come to view deep NCAA tournament runs as a rite of passage.
“There are few people who love college basketball more than those in Tucson,” said Miller, who became Arizona’s fourth coach in four years when he was hired in 2009.
Before Arizona underwent a few years of turmoil, it sustained nearly a quarter century of heightened success under the legendary Lute Olson, who guided the Wildcats to four Final Four appearances — and their lone title — before retiring in 2008.
“He had it at an unprecedented level,” said Miller, who coached at Xavier before taking the Arizona job. “The fans here have seen the best of the best. They’ve been patient with us and watched us grow. But the goal here is to bring Arizona basketball to where it once was.”
Tech coach Chris Walker, meanwhile, goes about his day-to-day routine without those same kinds of heady expectations — at least from the outside. He’s working with an interim label that guarantees nothing past this season, guiding a group of largely unknown, unheralded players. Few outside the locker room expect much this season out of a Tech program that won a single conference game last season and hasn’t been to the NCAA tournament since 2007.
But despite their differences, when Tech (4-0) hosts No. 9 Arizona (4-0) at 7 p.m. Saturday inside United Spirit Arena, both coaches will be aiming to further cultivate an atmosphere within their programs built on similar principles.
Walker has had to work fast in an attempt to put his own stamp on a Tech program that has also seen rapid coaching turnover in the last five years. It’s built on the central theme of “attitude,” instilling in his players the idea that they have control over how they approach every situation. It’s also predicated on the belief that his team can play its style regardless of its opponent.
That theory will be tested for the first time Saturday.
“We’re going to go out and play exactly the way we want to play,” Walker said. “That’s the attitude that we’re bringing. We’re not going to go out and say, ‘Guys, we can’t play with the same attitude we played with the last five games.’ I tell my kids there’s only two things they have to worry about ... and that’s playing harder and more together than any other team.”
Miller knows the challenges of building an identity within a program. Given its storied history and perennial success, Arizona often attracts some of the nation’s best recruits. This year’s class of five freshman was ranked No. 3 overall by Rivals.com. The current roster contains several players who will make a living at the next level.
But programs don’t thrive on recruiting rankings or past successes alone. Sustained growth, regardless of talent, requires a coach to get players to buy into his way, and Miller’s way is beginning to resonate with the Wildcats and their supporters throughout the Grand Canyon State.
“I think first of all it’s about being around people you trust,” he said. “Every coach is the product of the staff he has. You have to have that support. We’re very fortunate to have an athletic director in Greg Byrne who understands what we’re trying to do and we have a great relationship with him. That’s the foundation we’re trying to build. That can’t happen in a month or two.”
Arizona senior forward Solomon Hill arrived on campus during Miller’s first year. During his sophomore season, he helped the Wildcats make a surprise run to the Elite Eight. But last season, despite winning 23 games, Arizona missed the tournament for just the second time since 1985. It’s not a taste the team wants to have again, and Hill said that has been reflected in the way the squad has gone about its business, young players and veterans alike.
“They play hard,” Hill said of his teammates. “You can’t teach effort, and the effort is there. What makes it exciting is they are out there battling for each other’s minutes.”
Miller and Walker — who played against each other during their respective college careers at Pittsburgh and Villanova — are at far different points of their foundation-building processes. Miller now has a team full of guys he recruited, talented players who have come to understand his demands and expectations. The vast support of a passionate fan base appears to be at his back.
Walker is a first-time head coach still less than two months into an uncertain tenure, and the players he guides, though talented, are mostly inexperienced and unproven.
But that won’t make the message to his team any different Saturday.
“At the end of the day,” he said, “we have a chance to show the country what we can do. How great would it be for these guys to come and play their hearts out? Not play to get respect and lose, but to play to win the game. That is our goal, to win the game.”
To comment on this story:
email@example.com • 766-2166