Arizona head coach Sean Miller, a former Pitt great, says current Panthers coach Jamie Dixon is the right man for the job.
By Ron Cook Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
SALT LAKE CITY
If you are holding your breath that former Pitt point guard Sean Miller will come riding back into town on a white horse and take over as the school's coach, you might want to stop. Oxygen deprivation is a terrible thing.
Miller acknowledged this week that he has heard he would be very much welcomed again in Pittsburgh. He also said he has paid no attention to the talk. He's very happy as coach at Arizona, which beat Belmont Thursday night at EnergySolutions Arena in its first NCAA tournament game and will play Harvard tonight in the Round of 32. He also has no interest in following Jamie Dixon, who is under some fire after Pitt's abrupt exit from the tournament in a 73-55 loss Thursday to Wichita State.
"Coaches know coaches, and we all put coaches into different categories," Miller said. "I have no problem saying this: Jamie is one of the elite coaches in our game. Period. People are going to look back 20 years from now at the job Jamie and Ben Howland did at Pitt and not believe it. They resurrected the program at a time it really needed resurrected."
Miller said he's too busy with his problems to pay much attention to what's going on at Pitt. But he expressed surprise that Dixon is taking so much heat. Pitt has gone to nine NCAA tournaments in 10 years under Dixon but hasn't made it to a Final Four and has been to just one Round of Eight.
"It's very difficult to make the NCAA tournament. It's even more difficult to advance," Miller said. "Parity is at another level in college basketball. When I played, there was a huge disparity between the haves and have-nots. Now, there's no gap. Every team you play in the tournament is a good team."
As a player, Miller started as a freshman in 1987-88 on a strong Pitt team with the great Charles Smith and Jerome Lane. Asked this week what Miller is best known for during his time at Pitt, Tray Woodall, a guard on the Pitt team this season, said, "He was the guy that made the pass for the famous dunk in the Field House." Miller did, indeed. His assist led to a glass-shattering dunk in 1988 by Lane in a game against Providence at Fitzgerald Field House.
Unfortunately for that Pitt team, the dunk also was its highlight. It was beaten in overtime as a No. 2 seed by Vanderbilt in its NCAA tournament second-round game. Miller made it to the second round just one other time in his Pitt career, losing to Kansas in 1991.
Miller has had better luck as a coach in the NCAAs. In five seasons at Xavier, he led the team to four NCAA tournaments, reaching the West regional final in 2008 when it lost to UCLA and the Round of 16 in 2009 when it lost to Dixon's Pitt team. This is Arizona's second trip to the tournament in Miller's fourth season. It went to the West regional final in 2011 before losing to eventual national champion Connecticut.
Arizona should beat tournament darling Harvard, a No. 14 seed, which upset No. 3 New Mexico Thursday night. Arizona started the season 14-0 with wins against Florida and Miami and climbed to No. 3 in the Associated Press poll. But it lost five of its final 10 games to drop to a No. 6 seed.
"The last four games we played coming in, we played very well," Miller said. "I believe we came into this tournament feeling good about our level of play."
Clearly, the Arizona team plays hard for Miller. It outrebounded Belmont, 44-18, in its 81-64 win and has been a strong rebounding team all season. "I think that shows the effort level that we played with," Miller said. "The one thing about our team that's deceptive is we're bigger and more physical than we get credit for."
Don't be surprised if Arizona makes a deep run in the tournament.
"We should be really good next year, too," Miller said. "We have a lot of our guys back and we have a couple of pretty good kids coming in."
It's no wonder Miller has learned to love Arizona.
Sure, Miller has deep Pittsburgh ties. He and his brother, Archie, played at Blackhawk High School where their father, John, was a legendary coach. Archie is the coach at Dayton.
But Miller made it clear he isn't interested in returning home.
"At Arizona, we have everything we need to compete and win at the highest level," Miller said. "The support we have is second to none. The brand is out there. It's such a respected place. Players respect us. That helps us in recruiting ...
"There aren't as many schools in the West. It's not like in the East where there are so many. They're all over the place. It's to the point you can't keep track of what conference they're in anymore. That's why I think this is a great time to be at Arizona and in the Pac-12 Conference."
It'll be an even better time for Miller if Arizona beats Harvard and advances to the West regional at Staples Center in Los Angeles next weekend. Not that Miller is taking a win against Harvard for granted. The loss at Pitt to Vanderbilt in 1988 taught him never to take any tournament opponent for granted.
"I can remember that game like it was two weeks ago," Miller said. "This guy, Barry Goheen made two 30-footers in a row. All of a sudden, it was almost like you couldn't believe it, you were gone. It was over.
"For us, we had the chance to reach the Final Four. We never envisioned leaving that tournament until the end. I will never forget that because it's such a fragile state to be in this tournament. Doesn't matter the name of your team, what you're ranked, the seed, it's about playing your very best and being the most ready you can."