TUCSON — Good grief. Look what mad March has done to a perfectly crackerjack coach like Sean Miller. It has highlighted the skill and toil he has shown at Xavier and Arizona, left him room to forge a brilliant NCAA tournament record of 17-9, then used its bracketed chaos to deposit him at the hardest exit ramp — the Elite Eight, the brink of the Final Four — four times, twice distilling to the final play before the doom.
At least it has driven him to the airport.
As our lovable, ludicrous sporting event has turned Miller into a 48-year-old sentimental favorite — how many 48-year-old sentimental favorites do you know? — and as he amps for another try with his Arizona (30-4) as the No. 2 seed in the West Region in Salt Lake City, it has taught him some of its brutish little protocols.
One: The Elite Eight is the hardest place to lose, not only because of how it feels, but more how it sounds.
“When you’re in that locker room, the only thing that you hear is the other team on the court, because they’re getting to cut the nets down,” Miller said. “They’ve made it to the Final Four. There is a big difference between being in the losing locker room and listening to that crowd, and then, inevitably, it always comes to the NCAA. At some point, they have to come in and say, ‘Hey, this is when your plane is leaving.’ You almost feel like you’ve been kicked out of the tournament, because they have to — they have to logistically work it out to get you home.”
Two: The event blithely might leave you with a fleeting, puzzling, excruciating charge-block call — offensive foul, your side — to nag you for the rest of your life. “I could pull up my phone right now,” Miller said, “and I could show you the picture of the block-charge. Yeah.”
It came at the end of the overtime of the 64-63 loss to Wisconsin in the 2014 West Region final, and it did look debatable at best, and, mercy, why not delete it from the phone? It reminds Miller of “how small the difference is between winning and losing,” and how “sometimes it’s not that you’re a loser if you didn’t get there.”
Three: What nutty things coaches tell each other in consolation.
“I’ve had a lot of coaches reach out to me,” Miller said. “That, you know, when you least expect it, you’re going to break through. A lot of times, it’s not going to be when everybody knows or thinks you’re going to get there. It’s going to be that year when you’re, like, not expected to do it, and you’re going to say, ‘Wow, can you believe it happened this way?’ ”
There you have it: Even the experts talk and text like this is some eccentric uncle of American sports. What kind of cockamamie event is this, anyway?
And, four: As March Madness continues to leave the Earth’s surface and float like some bloated balloon above the regular season, overstuffed with emphasis, and such bloody fun, it’s possible for a coach to wind up miserable at 34-4, Miller’s closing record in 2014-15, his fourth Elite Eight venture.
“And if you’re unhappy when you’re [34-4], I mean” — he starts laughing here — “it’s a miserable — it’s the worst in the world! There’s nothing worse!” Miller said. “How can anything be worse than that? So again, back to the point, you can’t only judge yourself by the date and the game that it ends.”
So here’s March, rich in madness, less-rich in merit.
“It’s nuts,” said Gonzaga Coach Mark Few, tournament participant 18 straight years, Elite Eight participant once. He spoke of the annual “six-month journey” and said: “If somebody is to take that frame of mind or that process that everybody wants you to — ‘It’s all about the tournament’ — I mean, for Sean and I, it would be like telling our kids, our real kids, ‘Look, we don’t care about anything you do, and we’re not going to enjoy any moment or anything, until you get out of college and get a really, really good job. And then, when you get that, you made it, and that’s all we really care about.’
“Are you kidding me?”
Wouldn’t you know, Miller comes equipped with a glowing memory. He can recollect the endings (and the middles) almost like a golfer going shot-by-shot through a long-gone Masters. And wouldn’t you know, his March portfolio includes an even worse turn of rudeness from 29 years ago, with a name savants might recognize: Barry Goheen.
“I don’t raise it in casual conversation, as you can imagine,” Goheen began by phone.
Yet this Atlanta lawyer focusing on consumer class actions is the same 6-foot-3 man who in 1988 had himself one of the shocking (and underrated) March Madness turns. It was a second-round finish so bewildering that when Vanderbilt center Will Perdue, later of the Michael Jordan Chicago Bulls, fouled out with four seconds left, the crowd in Lincoln, Neb., gave him a standing, career-ending ovation. Then his career didn’t end.
“And in a bizarre five seconds later,” Miller said, “this guy Barry Goheen, I’ll never forget his name, he banked in, or I don’t even think he banked in …” The haunted mind does play tricks. In fact, as a Vanderbilt guard, Goheen made — really, now — two three-point shots in the last five seconds of regulation, the second after a furious, unheeded trek upcourt to a shot that plopped down through the net at: 00, forcing overtime, ransacking the opponent.
The opponent, No. 2 seed Pittsburgh, had won the regular season title in the colossal Big East with future NBA veteran Charles Smith and Big East rookie of the year Sean Miller. “They all felt at Pitt that that was a team that could win it all,” Goheen said, “and I have to agree, in all candor.” With a Sweet 16 berth assumed and then ripped away, Miller said, “You had this sense that the whole city of Pittsburgh was just in disarray.” Players openly questioned coaches. “No one knew what to do at the end of regulation,” Smith said that day.
Two decades later, Miller referred to Goheen publicly while at Xavier, and Goheen, a Miller admirer, wrote Miller a supportive letter. Three decades later, in 2017, Miller said, “I look at almost every NCAA tournament through that lens, of never wanting the team that I’m a part of, as a coach now, to have that feeling.”
After his first Elite Eight, in 2008 as coach at Xavier, he felt grateful. The opponent, UCLA, had Russell Westbrook and Kevin Love. The score, 76-57, was not close, which helps. The plane ride home included “a great sense of fulfillment,” he said.
After his second, with Arizona in 2011, he felt hopeful even with the tightness of the 65-63 loss to eventual champion Connecticut. Arizona had missed the 2010 tournament in Miller’s first year, breaking a 25-year appearance streak, but this time had blasted all the way through Duke, by 93-77 in the Sweet 16, with a 55-33 second half as exhilarating as Miller had coached. Upon return to Tucson, Miller said, “There might have been 10,000 people” in the arena to welcome the team home.
After the third, even with its charge-block nightmare and its overtime and its key Arizona injury (to Brandon Ashley), Miller did feel happy — for Wisconsin Coach Bo Ryan, who reached his first Final Four at age 66. “He didn’t start at the D-I level, and he’s a coach’s coach,” Miller said, “and to just kind of watch him get a chance to break through …”
After the fourth, though …
“I would just say that of all the games that I’ve lost in the tournament, that one right there was the one that probably had a different meaning for me,” Miller said of the 85-78 loss in 2015 to Wisconsin and its 10 second-half three-point shots in 2015, five by Sam Dekker, embodying another Madness ghoul: the smack into the hot shooter.
“Now you’re at your fourth one, and it doesn’t matter what anyone says, you just don’t want to hear it. You don’t want to hear, ‘That’s a great season.’ You don’t want to hear, ‘Hey, your time’s gonna come.’ You don’t want to hear, ‘When you least expect it, you’re gonna be there.’ You just say to yourself, ‘This is the fourth time. I wish I would have lost in the first round.’”
He laughed then because, of course, they’re all mad, flinging themselves into this semi-lottery so emphasized that Few feels the need to remind: “I think Sean’s had a great run in the tournament. To get to that many Elite Eights is unbelievable.”
And yet so riddled with hope that someone trained in the law might say of the coach he once helped haunt 29 long years ago, “Maybe the statute of limitations is about to run out on the pain.”