SALT LAKE CITY--The University of Arizona men's basketball team held a practice on Utah's campus, worked out publicly in an NCAA Championships open-practice day session, and took part in a slate of media activities Wednesday on the day before UA opens play in the NCAA's second round here.
The Cats did the bulk of physical work at Utah's facility, then joined the other seven teams in the region at EnergySolutions Arena downtown for the NCAA's programmed day of introducing the participants to the media, including Turner-CBS and the NCAA Radio Network.
The Wildcats' opening round game against Belmont will be the third game of the regional, tipping at 5:20 local time in Salt Lake City (4:20 p.m. Tucson time). The game will be televised on TNT. UA's radio partner IMG will air the game over its network, with NCAA Radio spreading the game nationally.
Part of the events Wednesday included separate podium sessions with Arizona players and Coach Sean Miller. Here's a complete transcript of those:
Q. Guys, what has Coach Miller told you about enjoying this experience, just about being in the moment and enjoying being here, being part of all this?
Solomon Hill: Just enjoy the process. You know, it's a great show of our work through the regular season that we're here. This is what you work for throughout the season. Guys are not upset about the Pac 12 season or the Tournament Championship, because when it's all said done, you want to do something big in the tournament. So we're grateful to be here.
Nick Johnson: It's my first time in the tournament. I'm really excited, thought we had a great year and looking forward to continuing in the tournament.
Mark Lyons: Just like both of them said, it's an honor to be here. We are cherishing every moment of it, it's me and Solomon's last time here in this tournament. So trying to make the best of it.
Q. Last year at this time you guys were done, you lost in the NIT on your home court which is unusual for the program. Can you take us back and tell us what was going through your mind and how low of a feeling that was for you guys?
Solomon Hill: Well, it was kind of a disappointing season last year. Came down to a couple of games if we made it or not, and we ended up getting a No. 1 seed in the NIT, which you could tell the guys were motivated to play in that game, Mike Muscala led his team to a "W" and showed up that night. It was kind of a burden off our back, fighting with the demons of the season, couple of guys left the program after that year and focusing on the next year and being able to have a great recruit class of big time freshmen, so finishing up the year and school and getting ready for the summer.
Nick Johnson: It was definitely a disappointing season, wasn't the way we wanted to end it. But at that point on, I know myself and Solomon worked our hardest during the summer in the off season to set ourselves up for this season.
Q. Guys, you had a nice representation in Vegas last week, stands to be the same here this week. How much are you able to play off that? How important is that having the fan base here?
Solomon Hill: That's big time. That's a big part of the program that Arizona brings to the table. It's part of the tradition we have. It's one of the reasons I chose the University of Arizona when you can have a turnout like we did in Vegas, and I hope to see the same here.
Nick Johnson: It's huge for us. Whenever we can have a home environment away on the road, it always gives us an advantage.
Mark Lyons: Honestly, I just feel like personally as a team we play better on the road and the only people we got is each other. But our fans do a great job of traveling and every time they come out and support us it does give us an extra boost of energy, things like that.
Q. Mark, you were here for the Xavier, K State game, everybody remembers what a great game it was. What sticks out to you about that experience?
Mark Lyons: I just remember the intensity of the game, seems like every shot was a big shot and every possession meant the game. Terrell Holloway and Jordan Crawford made a couple of big shots and so did the guys from the Kansas State team. It was a great game. It was my first year, and I was fortunate to make the tournament. It was a great experience for me.
Q. Nick, your coach has been singing your praise all year. Were you disappointed not to be included on the Pac 12 all defensive team?
Nick Johnson: Honestly, I was a little bit, maybe for about a minute. Then I had to get ready for the next game. I would have loved to have been on it, but I wasn't so just trying to do something now.
Q. Can you talk about the strides you have made defensively from last year? Where have you made the most? And how challenging is it to get to the opponent's best player?
Nick Johnson: Just my focus. I was a freshman last year, simple as that. I'm one year older and one year wiser and I had an opportunity to watch a lot of the older guys, how they approached their match ups and stuff like that. So just my focus on it.
Q. You guys start 14 0, second in the league, make the semifinals of the conference tournament and you're a 6 seed. Is that motivation? Disrespect? What are your thoughts on that?
Solomon Hill: I think we got a good seeding as far as location when you look at both parts in hand. As far as your seed number, doesn't matter who you play. Everybody in the field are really good teams. You look at what Cal has, a chance to play a game in San Jose and it's kind of like a home game and doesn't matter because every team is going to be good at this point and everybody is something to show out and we have a chance to stay closer to Arizona and have our fans show out so I think we got a good deal with our seed.
Q. Some national perspectives have picked Belmont as a trendy upset pick in this round. Is that something you guys see, look at, absorb, and do you use that as a motivating factor?
Solomon Hill: I don't think it's a motivator. If you need something to motivate you at this point you're here for the wrong reasons. I think everybody on our team wants to win. I think we all dial into what we are going to do on the court and not about the opponent.
I think we want to stick to what we want to do defensively and really key in on the way they score on offense, I think we have a good chance of going out there and executing a defensive plan.
Q. When you guys started the season you had such incredible finishes in so many games to keep your record perfect. Do you feel that this is a special season for you and can be?
Mark Lyons: Yeah, I think it's been a great season for us so far. You can't win every game. We started out real hot, 14 0. Our conferences is one of the best conferences in college basketball, if not the best.
So we had our ups and downs, but we fought hard and I feel like we're playing our best basketball right now. We got a bunch of guys who want to win, so our will to win is at a high level and as long as it stays like that we should be in this tournament for a while.
Q. The last time you were in Utah the coach made a lineup change, put Kevin in. Can you talk about that and how much of a difference that's made, the seniors.
Mark Lyons: Kevin is a senior. Coach felt like if we were going to go out the season with a bang we should have the seniors, the guys who dedicated the time to this program. Ever since Kevin has been starting it's been great for us. He gives us the extra boost in the lineup with his 3 point abilities and his defensive abilities and the way he hustles and his leadership. So with him in the starting lineup, it benefits our team.
THE MODERATOR: Thank you, gentlemen. Questions for Coach Miller?
Q. Sean, you have had success in this tournament. Aside from having good players, what has made you successful in the NCAA Tournament as a coach?
COACH Sean Miller: Well, the teams that I've been a part of that have gone beyond this first weekend, there's three of them. The one thing that stands out is that we were ourselves. The things that we did well during the season that we learned to make as part of our overall identity, those things didn't change once we entered the tournament. We were able to establish those same strengths.
Sometimes in this tournament, game pressure in the moment becomes so big that you can deviate. Players do things that they haven't done. Teams almost take on a different personality; and in those cases, the personality of our team remained the same.
That's what we are going to try to do tomorrow against Belmont. We have to go a very good rebounding team and a good minded defensive team. On offense we have to play unselfish team basketball where we can create good shots.
Q. Sean, Nick was talking about his defensive improvement from last year. Generally, when a guy comes out of high school, where do they need to make the most strides defensively as a perimeter defender?
COACH Sean Miller: Freshmen, it is such an adjustment because especially on the perimeter because screening is usually not a big part of the high school game. They may run into a screen and many times when they do they're as big as anyone who tries to screen them.
In college for the first time they're dealing with sophistication, systems, styles of play, coaches that have 6'10", 7 foot players on a mission to screen.
As you have to learn to navigate these screens, it's a different game for freshmen players, being in the right position, how hard you have to play.
I think most importantly the price that you pay defensively if you run into screens whether on or off the ball. With Nick Johnson, he has become our team's best perimeter defender. He has all the athletic talent. He has the mind set to be great. I believe one day he will be an elite defender.
But you're right, when we have played well defensively he has had a big part in it, and tomorrow he may be meeting the biggest challenge of his season in Ian Clark. If you look at his efficiency, his ability to score I can't believe the field goal percentage he shoots for make and go taking as many 3 point shots that he takes. It won't just be Nick, but it's part of his responsibility and it's a big one.
Q. You're talking about being the same, but some of the guys seem to think since the LA trip confidence and mentality has changed. Is there a different underlying thought in this team than two weeks ago?
COACH Sean Miller: I think all of us are going to hope that we're playing our best and a very high level of basketball. What our players are talking about is in the second leg of our trip to LA, near the end of our conference season, although we did not win, we played with a lot of energy.
We played a solid second half against UCLA. Had a week off of practice from no games, just practice, played a very good Arizona State team and may have played one of our better games we played all season leading into the Pac 12 tournament, playing a difficult Colorado team on a neutral court. Ditto. I thought we played very well, very hard on defense, and we lost a heart breaker to an excellent UCLA team. So I think part of what our players are saying is we have played well and played hard against quality opponents and hopefully that will lead into tomorrow against a great team in Belmont, well coached and certainly a coach and a team we respect greatly.
Q. Aside from preparation, what message would you have for your players especially your seniors, about stepping back, soaking it in and enjoying the moment.
COACH Sean Miller: We talk a lot about that. This tournament is so hard to get to and it's even harder to advance in. To me, part of the success of a team is to be able to, on one hand, focus and play terrific basketball. But on the other hand, it's really enjoying being part of this great tournament.
Whether you're a player, a coach, a fan, we can talk about the balance that we want to have from start to finish. But March is what defines so much of this and here we are as part of the tournament.
I think everything from enjoying this day, the day before a game to the trip here, enjoying each other. You could see in last night's games, when you lose in this NCAA Tournament it's a deafening blow. It's the one time where there is no more basketball. Keeping the guys in the mindset of enjoying this is part of what we are trying to do, and I think we're in a good plays there.
Q. Sean, is Ian Clark similar to any guard you have faced in the Pac 12 this year?
COACH Sean Miller: Well, as you know, there are so many good guards in our conference. You can pick any team, and you can pick one or two. He's almost like a combination of Jordan Adams and Spencer Dinwiddie, and I say that because Spencer Dinwiddie, he reminds me so much of him because he shoots a great percentage from the 2, from the 3 and from the foul line. In terms of Jordan Adams, how well he can use the screens without the ball and how confident he is, how he can shoot the ball in transition. Those are two examples that I would give, but I know he's the Player of the Year in the conference.
Part of what makes Clark so good is they have an excellent point guard in Johnson and when you look at his free throw attempts, how he runs the show, the big plays he makes, including the game winning shot here in the conference tournament, they have a dynamic backcourt. I believe that's one of several keys to what makes them such a great team.
Q. Sean, have you had any follow up conversation with the Pac 12, the fine, a response on your part, a protest, an apology, anything like that?
COACH Sean Miller: That was last week. We're in the NCAA Tournament right now. Our focus is on our players and Belmont.
Q. Were you paying that personally yourself, or does the school pay that? How does that work?
COACH Sean Miller: Like I said, I'm focusing on Belmont.
Q. In a short prep week like this, do you ever fear you don't have enough time to find out about Belmont?
COACH Sean Miller: No, not really. The first game you're hard at it on Sunday. The way the world is today, there is so much information that you have on these teams and almost immediate footage. Maybe 10 years ago you worried about how many games right away you have the opportunity to watch, but today, really, at the fingertips, the minute we know we're playing Belmont, we have roughly half of their season right in front of us.
So because of Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, I would almost say that and we already practiced today. It's not about practice right now as much as it is focus on the opponent, making sure we're healthy and we have the ability to play hard.
Right now, I don't think the game can get here quick enough for our players. The last thing they want to do is watch another film or go through another practice. With a coach, you always want that extra day. But I think, especially in the first round, you have plenty of time.
Q. Is it coincidental that your three freshman bigs seem to be playing their best ball the last three games or so?
COACH Sean Miller: That coincides with our team. I know they have said this to you guys that we feel like we're playing well. One of the reasons is Grant, Brandon, Kaleb, if you think about the experience they have gotten from start to finish, they are no longer freshman, and you can see that out there.
They're more sure of themselves on offense and defense. Like any team our team is so much better and sophomore difficult to beat when those three guys are playing well. Hopefully, tomorrow that will be the case.
Q. Sean, is it too simplistic to think this comes down to the 3 point situation? Is that what it's going to come down to?
COACH Sean Miller: Well, Belmont I think one thing you've got to worry about, or caution against is, when you put so much emphasis on just one area, you almost put them in a category that that's all they can do.
If you take that 3 point shooting away you're going to be successful. That's the furthest thing from the truth in watching them. Their free throw attempts from the point guard position alone and their ability to score inside 3 as a matter of fact, the percentage of shots they make inside the arc is one of the nation's best.
That's what scary about them. I would say they're a great offensive team, period. They score 80 points. They score quite a few of those points from the foul line and inside.
Now, with our own team we have had times where we have surrendered too many threes. It's important that our 3 point defense is in plays, but we're going to need a great defensive performance, period. They have a lot of diversity in their offense, they use ball screens a lot like UCLA does and that gives all teams problems, especially when you have a backcourt like they have.
I think looking at Johnson and Clark, not that their other players aren't good, but they have a really, really good backcourt and it's going to be a greatest of our defense.
Q. In light of what you're saying about the keeping the routine, does it help at all to have your same hotel? You played here a couple of years ago in this arena, you've been to this city, the elevation, et cetera. How much difference does that make?
COACH Sean Miller: I think it makes a big difference. We're grateful to be in Salt Lake City, period. I know this is a city that loves college basketball. This NCAA Tournament itself has great history here.
But the fact that Utah is in our conference's footprint, we have played, like you said, here not too long ago. There is familiarity, and most importantly I'm glad our fans don't have to travel across the country.
Our fans are among the best in the country and to put them into a position to get here, we can't ask for anything more.
Q. Coach, you started 14 0, you said you were happy to be here, does the 6 seed bother you or your players?
COACH Sean Miller: No, I'm happy to have a 6 seed, 6 times 4, you're among the top 24 teams, somewhere between 20 and 24, I would say that's accurate in describing our team.
I don't ever want the 14 0 start to be a negative, because what you then say is you lost all your games after that. We also played some incredible games of basketball through the months of November, December, and January.
We were in a difficult conference this year. Just by the number of teams they have in the NCAA Tournament, this wasn't a year where you're going to go 16 2 in the Pac 12.
So for us, we played in an excellent conference, playing well now, feel honored to be in the tournament, a 6 seed is exactly what we deserved and I'm going to tell you the difference between 6 and 11 isn't very much.
We played Bucknell last year in the first round of the NIT, and I'm telling you I know they're an 11 seed. That defines reality for our team, because they have a great team themselves.
So you look at the four 11 seeds, none of them are a match up that we want or any team would want. We're going to have to play one heck of a game tomorrow for us to have a chance to advance, we know that.
Q. Your impressions on how today isn't the most beautiful day along the Wasatch Front, you have been here before. But what does Salt Lake City mean to you to come and play here, your thoughts on playing here in Salt Lake City?
COACH Sean Miller: First of all, we respect the University of Utah and Salt Lake City as much as any school in the country. They're part of our conference. This city in and of itself has a unique history with the NCAA Tournament. Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, I can remember watching that game.
A few years ago, I coached against Gonzaga here in Salt Lake City, lost a heart breaker. We're grateful to be back. This arena is one of the great basketball arenas in the country. We played here a couple of years ago and we're excited.
It's not as far for our fans. It's not as far for our team. To be here in the west is something we were hoping for, and we got what we hoped for. Now we have to perform so we can stay longer than tomorrow.