Last year when UConn men’s basketball met the Arizona Wildcats in Tucson, the Huskies fell 73-58. On Sunday, Arizona will visit the XL Center with the two programs in completely different spots than they were just one year ago.
We talk with Scott Moran from Arizona Desert Swarm, SB Nation’s Arizona blog, to get an inside look at this season’s Wildcats.
It’s been a pretty crazy last 12 months for Arizona men’s basketball. There was the FBI investigation, Sean Miller possibly going to Pitt, etc. How much has all that affected the program? Have things settled down for the most part? Are you still confident in Miller as the head coach?
It’s been quite a ride for Arizona since the FBI investigation was revealed. One of our assistants, Book Richardson, was one of the assistants originally investigated. Then, just as the team was starting to come into their own, the now infamous (in Tucson at least) ESPN report about wiretaps concerning DeAndre Ayton came out, and nothing more has been heard about it. After the Buffalo loss, I was fairly sure Miller would get out of town and head to Pitt, and was truly worried about the program’s future. Now though, things have settled down enough that i do feel confident in Miller as a head coach.
After that report came out in February, our once-stellar recruiting class fell apart, which was even worse than usual because going into this season Arizona lost all our starters from 2018. So we knew it would be a rebuilding season. Nevertheless, thanks to emergency transfer and a couple of crucial recommits, UA has salvaged a team strong enough to make it to March. The fact that Miller did that, and then set up a 2019 recruiting class that will put us right back to the top of the Pac-12, makes me feel very confident in him in Tucson. It’s pretty foolish to think Arizona is completely innocent, but it’s also foolish to think Arizona isn’t one of dozens of programs paying. For the short-term, the Wildcats will be fine with Miller.
What are Arizona fans’ perceptions of UConn as a program?
I think a lot of people in Tucson see UConn as almost a shadow of Arizona. Both had incredible runs in the early 2010s, and both are rebuilding this season. Connecticut has obviously fallen off a bit more and a bit sooner than UA has, but the similarities are there. There’s also perhaps a bit of added heat to our matchup since Dan Hurley took over. Arizona fans are all too familiar with the Hurleys, since Dan’s brother Bobby has taken over Arizona State and made them into what looks like a consistent tournament contender. It’s added fuel to an already blazing rivalry series, and I’m sure Arizona fans don’t want to give any member of the Hurley family the satisfaction of a victory over the Wildcats.
UConn is a completely different team from when they met Arizona last season. How are the Wildcats different?
2017-18 Arizona and 2018-19 Arizona might as well come from completely different programs, as this team is incredibly different. I mentioned above that we lost all five starters from last season’s incredible team. I also mentioned that we lost most of our original recruiting class, which included the likes of Shareef O’Neal and Jahvon Quinerly. Those two things combined mean this Arizona team is actually closer to a group of misfits than a blue blood group of five-stars. Miller is having to rely on his coaching to get this team to the heights Arizona fans are accustomed to, and while the record of 5-2 is a bit disappointing, this team hung with No. 1 Gonzaga for thirty minutes, and never gave up against a strong Auburn squad. While the differences are huge, the team is still doing well.
Who’s a player to watch out for in this one?
The answer for me is easily Brandon Williams. He was originally committed to Arizona before the ESPN report, but then decommitted with the rest of the recruiting class. With time running out on who he could select, Miller pulled off a miracle and got Williams to return to Tucson. He’s been the heart of the team despite his age being much lower than that of his teammates. Williams leads the team in minutes played, along with 12.8 points per game and 3.5 assists per game. Williams will play a key role in deciding this game.
How sweaty is Sean Miller going to get on Sunday?
Oh, if this game is even remotely close at any point after the first five minutes, the UConn faithful are in for a show. Since I see this game as a pretty close matchup, I’m sure Miller’s shirt will be borderline transparent with sweat by the time the buzzer sounds. Bobby Hurley and Sean Miller might be the most animated, borderline insane coaches when the game is on, and I’m sure we’ll see a bit of that between Miller and Dan Hurley on Sunday.
What’s your final score prediction?
Hartford scares me, as it should for any college basketball fan. UConn’s had issues, but they’re still a great program with the talent to win this game. If Arizona hadn’t played in Maui, so far from home, I’d be a lot more worried about this game. It’s still a true road test this squad hasn’t faced yet, but I’m gonna pick Arizona to win 71-67. It should be a nail-biter, and let’s just say I’m glad we’re playing before Hurley has this program to the juggernaut status they’re probably headed towards.