What a difference a few hours can make. On Thursday morning, Arizona fans were unsure of what the future held for the 19th-ranked Wildcats and the program moving forward.
Head coach Sean Miller had not been with the team since a report broke late last week alleging the ninth-year Arizona coach was recorded by FBI wiretaps discussing a $100,000 payment to star freshman Deandre Ayton with an employee of a sports agency, Christian Dawkins.
On Thursday afternoon, Miller read a statement in front of the local media refuting the claims made in the report and announced he would be returning to coach his team against Stanford that evening as it looked to secure a share of the Pac-12 Conference regular-season title.
By the end of the night, Arizona earned the top seed in next week’s Pac-12 Tournament and at least a share of the league’s regular-season crown with a 75-67 win over the Cardinal.
The Wildcats (23-7, 13-4 Pac-12) will get a chance to win the outright regular-season title Saturday afternoon in a game against California (8-22, 2-15) in their home finale at Tucson, Ariz.
It was an emotionally draining week for Arizona’s longtime head coach, but he was happy to be able to focus back on the task on hand and his return to the sideline after missing one game and several practices as the saga played out.
“Right now, for me it’s about focusing on the now,” Miller said. “Focusing on coaching our team, running this basketball program. … Our team has certainly dealt with a lot of adversity. With young people, college sports, sometimes you don’t give it enough credit for preparing you for what’s to come when you leave school for the rest of life.
“We have a lot of players that have seen a lot, been through a lot, and understand what criticism feels like and understands when things just maybe aren’t going well. You learn how to fight through those times. I think everybody who’s on this year’s team will benefit a lot from that, and my hope is we benefit on the court as we come down the home stretch here in March.”
The other good news Arizona received Thursday was that star junior guard Allonzo Trier would be cleared to return to the floor after being ruled ineligible last week when the results of an NCAA drug test came back positive for a banned substance. A subsequent test came back clean and he returned to action against Stanford and finished with 18 points and four assists in the win.
Barring a miracle run in next week’s conference tournament, there will be no NCAA Tournament bid for California. The Bears will head into Arizona’s McKale Center coming off a 31-point loss to Arizona State on Thursday night as they finish out what has been a struggle in the 2017-18 season.
“We’re just trying to continue to fight,” Cal head coach Wyking Jones said after Thursday night’s loss to the Sun Devils in Tempe. “More than anything, just continue to compete. That’s all I ask of these guys is compete. Right now, the experience is not there. We’re OK with that, but when you don’t compete that’s when it’s hard to deal with.”
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