NEW YORK -- Arizona coach Sean Miller walked out for an interview during the first game Thursday night and heard a few fans yell down to him.
He said that on the West Coast he can step outside his locker room, in clear view of everyone in the stands, and not be pestered or heckled. Well, nothing about Madison Square Garden screams West Coast.
He knew then he had returned to the East Coast, and he loved it.
“I remember that feeling,’’ Miller said. “I love coming back here.’’
The Pittsburgh native and former Pitt player made a name for himself grinding his way through the Northeast. He took over at Xavier and continued to make the Musketeers a national program. And then he did something out of character -- he got out of his comfort zone and went West.
He could have come back East last spring when the Maryland job opened. He talked to Terrapins athletic director Kevin Anderson and knew shortly thereafter that his heart was now in Tucson.
It’s a good thing because his run of success in the desert is just beginning.
Arizona went to the Elite Eight last March and then lost the No. 2 pick in the draft in Derrick Williams and saw Lamont Jones transfer to Iona to be closer to home.
It didn’t matter. Four games into this season, the 4-0 Wildcats have the look of a team that will be a good watch throughout the season, a legit contender for a Pac-12 title and a threat to go deep into March.
No need to even bring up the nation's top recruiting class for 2012, an almost absurd collection of talent on its way to Tucson. Who needs to spin forward? This squad has plenty to show off this season.
On Thursday night at MSG, the Wildcats overcame an 8-point second-half deficit and pulled away late on host St. John’s, ending the game on a 23-6 run en route to a 81-72 victory. On Friday night (7 ET, ESPN), the Wildcats will face off with Mississippi State in the final of the 2K Sports Classic benefiting Coaches vs. Cancer.
Zona had an inspiring evening from New York native Kevin Parrom, back in his hometown after going through a horrific few months. He lost his grandmother and then his mother tragically to cancer and when he returned home in late September to visit his ailing mother, he was shot in the leg and hand by a gunman who broke into his father's home.
Against the Red Storm, Parrom connected on a pair of 3s and was no doubt an inspiration to the Wildcats and to the sizable number of fans in the Garden crowd cheering for him and the Cats.
“He’s finding his way back,’’ Miller said. “He’s a veteran player and he knows how to play and how we have to play this season. He’s so versatile. We don’t have a 6-10 guy, but Kevin (6-foot-6) can rebound, steal the ball and push it in transition. He gives us the dynamics to help us be more versatile.’’
The Wildcats are young in a number of spots and had a hard time keeping St. John’s Nurideen Lindsey away from the basket, especially off the dribble. But Arizona had plenty of options on the offensive end, making 14 3s, including three from Nick Johnson and three from Kyle Fogg. The Cats got production from nine players, with five in double figures.
“We’re like a hockey team right now, subbing in and out,’’ Miller said. “In three or four weeks, we’ll have more solid roles. This was only our second game with Kevin back. So we have to figure out how to bring him in.’’
Miller wasn’t ready to anoint this team as something other than what it is. The Wildcats are clearly a work in progress. But there is such a good vibe with this group. They have terrific bounce from players like Angelo Chol, and have oodles of potential if Josiah Turner settles into his role as a change-of-speed point guard with Jordin Mayes able to knock down key shots, too. Solomon Hill and Jesse Perry had their moments against the Johnnies.
The Wildcats won a game that will prove to be a significant one come March. They came East and showed that Miller has moved on and established his identity in Tucson.
Arizona was in turmoil four years ago with Lute Olson’s illness, two consecutive seasons of interim coaches and the potential for the roster to be gutted. But the implosion of USC’s recruiting class was a benefit for Arizona. Miller has recruited at an astronomical level since, beating out national power after national power across the country.
While rival UCLA plunges into turmoil, the Wildcats are rising up and proving that Arizona is nothing less than an elite program. There was reason to doubt the team's standing in the wake of Lute Olson's departure, but then the school went out and hired the right person at the right time.
Sean Miller is happy to be back on the East Coast this week. But he calls the West home now.
And there are thousands of Wildcat faithful who sure are thankful for that.