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Miller settling in at Arizona
Courtesy: Arizona Athletics
Release: 05/04/2009
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Courtesy: Arizona Athletics
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May 2, 2009

TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) -Sean Miller has moved into Lute Olson's McKale Center office - sort of.

The walls and shelves are bare, and the only signs that the room is occupied are the paper-covered desk, a laptop computer and a cup of takeout coffee.

"It may be like this for a while," Miller said during an interview with The Associated Press this week. "When you do something, you also want to do it right. Sometimes you have to be a little patient."

The same can be said for the job Miller undertook last month when he left Xavier to become the permanent successor to Olson, the legendary former coach who suddenly retired in October.

Arizona is no longer among the national elite, but it's hardly a rebuilding job. The Wildcats in March reached the NCAA tournament for the 25th straight time, the nation's longest active streak and two shy of North Carolina's record run of 27 straight appearances 1975-2001.

Arizona may have been the last team into the tourney field, but the 12th-seeded Wildcats made a surprising run to the regional semifinals.

The bad news is that two of the Wildcats' best players - forwards Jordan Hill and Chase Budinger - are headed to the NBA, and a third - point guard Nic Wise - may join them.

That's where patience comes in. It's also why Miller has spent little time in his cozy office on a concourse above the arena floor. He's been out trying to round up recruits.

The Wildcats have signed two players since Miller was hired - touted forward Solomon Hill from Los Angeles' Fairfax High School and 7-foot center Kyryl Natyazhko of Florida's IMG Academy. Miller beat out Arizona State and Herb Sendek, his former boss at Miami of Ohio, for Natyazhko.

Miller has lost guard Zane Johnson of Phoenix, who has announced that he will transfer out of the program.

The new coach hasn't spent much time in Tucson, but he likes what he's seen of the relentlessly sunny weather.

"It's a change of life," said Miller, decked out in polo shirt, khaki shorts and sneakers. "It is the most amazing transition. I can't explain it to you. At first, I felt strange in the morning because of the brightness of the sun."

The desert might seem a strange landing spot for a Pennsylvania gym rat whose father, John, was one of the state's winningest high school coaches. But Miller wanted to be a top-level college coach for as long as he can remember, and he didn't have a specific destination in mind.

"I always hoped that I would have an opportunity to be at a place that can win the national championship, and to try to do the best I can at that program," Miller said. "Where that program would be, or which one it was, that really wasn't important to me."

It happened to be Arizona, which spent the last year looking for a permanent successor to Olson, who went 589-187 here, leading the Wildcats to the 1997 national championship and four Final Fours, most recently in 2001. Before landing Miller, the Wildcats had an ill-fated courtship with Tim Floyd, who decided to stay at Southern California.

Miller put together an impressive resume in five seasons at Xavier. He compiled a 120-47 record and took four teams to the NCAA tournament, and in 2008 the Musketeers advanced to the Elite Eight.

Arizona lured the 40-year-old Miller to Tucson from Xavier with a five-year contract that pays him a base salary of $2 million per year plus a $1 million signing bonus.

In some ways, the Western Pennsylvania-bred Miller is the opposite of the silver-haired Olson, who was as familiar as the craggy mountains that ring the city.

But like Olson, Miller is a devout believer in up-tempo basketball, man-to-man defense and point guards - especially point guards. As a former star point guard at Pittsburgh, Miller seems to be the perfect fit at a program known for producing stars at the position.

Miller is hoping to hold onto his best point guard - Wise, who has declared himself eligible for the NBA draft but has yet to hire an agent, allowing him the possibility to return for his senior season.

"I hope, for Nic, that he makes the decision based on what's best for him," Miller said. "As opposed to, I've gone through a lot, it's time to move on."

On the court, Miller's transition figures to be much smoother if Wise returns. But Miller knows that much of his work in the next year will come off the court, as he tries to restore stability to a program rocked by change in the last two seasons.

"That's the highest-level priority," Miller said.

Arizona has had three coaches in the last three years - Olson and interims Kevin O'Neill and Russ Pennell. O'Neill took over when Olson went on a personal leave of absence in the 2007-2008 season and Pennell coached Arizona last season after Olson retired.

Miller said he senses the Wildcats' rabid supporters want him to succeed - and stick around.

"I underestimated the passion of Tucson for our program," he said. "I cannot believe how much it means to people here - which I know can be both good and bad.

"Where I'm at right now is a great challenge," Miller said. "But it's also a dream come true. And hopefully I can be here for a long time."

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