BOISE, Idaho – The Boise subregional can make a strong case as the most compelling of the eight in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
For starters, there are no apparent mismatches here. The NCAA’s pod system has placed two 5-12 matchups and a couple of 4-13s at Taco Bell Arena on Thursday. The 5-12 is historically a great line for upsets. The 4-13 isn’t bad, either.
There’s also more raw talent in Boise than at any of the seven other first-round locales. There are four projected first-round NBA picks here: Arizona’s DeAndre Ayton, Kentucky’s Kevin Knox and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and Keita Bates-Diop of Ohio State. Overall, nine of ESPN’s top 75 NBA prospects are here.
The most embattled figure in college basketball is here, too. No, not Kentucky coach John Calipari. It’s Sean Miller, whose Arizona program is one of at least 20 in Division I under investigation in an FBI probe into corruption and bribery in the sport.
Last month, ESPN reported that Miller had been wiretapped discussing a $100,000 payment for Ayton’s services. Former Arizona assistant Emanuel “Book” Richardson was one of four Division I assistant coaches charged by the FBI for funneling illegal benefits to recruits.
Miller sat out a game after the report came out, but he released a statement denying any wrongdoing and said he would be vindicated. Later, there were found to be discrepancies in ESPN’s timeline of events on Miller, which didn’t match the dates during which the feds were wiretapping the middle man’s line.
Last week at the Pac-12 Tournament in Las Vegas, Miller wouldn’t comment on the investigation, referring to his statement from earlier in the month. Not surprisingly, he took the same position in Wednesday’s interview session in advance of Thursday night’s first-round game against UB.
Miller was asked if he had any thoughts on how to change the culture in a sport that so incentivizes bending rules that the FBI would have to get involved.
“I made my statement,” he said.
Later, he was asked if he any opinion on the NBA’s “one and done” rule, which has served him well this season but is regarded by many in basketball as a foolish rule that contributes to the scandal at the top levels of the game.
“You know, I really don’t,” said Miller, who is in his ninth season as the Wildcats head man. “I really don’t have an opinion one way or the other.”
That’s odd, coming from a man who has the most talented freshman in the country in Ayton, who would probably be in the NBA already if the rules didn’t require him to spend a year as a student-athlete.
Miller deflected any questions about the FBI investigation in his 15-minute interview session, choosing instead to emphasize his team’s competitive character, improving defense, and ability to rise above a crisis.
“I think you have to really attempt to control the things you can control,” Miller said. “And to block out the other things that you can’t.”
Miller, whose first job as an assistant was at Miami of Ohio, said he has a lot of respect for UB, which has won three MAC titles in four years.
“Any team you play in this tournament is capable of beating the other team because of the great parity in college basketball,” he said. “If you’re from the MAC and you win the regular-season championship and follow that up with a tournament championship, you’re a really, really good team.
“They have a real confidence about them,” Miller said. “They’re a tough matchup. They score the ball as easily as any team we’ve played.”
The Bulls are seventh in the nation in scoring and could pose problems for Arizona, which was a weak defensive team earlier in the season. But Miller said his team has made great strides on defense.
“Our defense has really improved over the last two or three weeks, almost astronomically,” Miller said. “I think that’s a function of the closeness of our group and the unselfishness of our team.”