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March 12, 2013
The Wildcats head into Las Vegas - host city of the Pac-12 Conference tournament for the first time - sporting a 24-6 record following last Saturday's defeat of Arizona State.
After several weeks of fretting, doubting and naysaying, the ASU win might have produced the hand Miller needs to cash out the competition - in Vegas and beyond.
Center Kaleb Tarczewski is an obvious starting place. The freshman 7-footer has spent much of this season developing, adjusting to the speed and aggression of the college game.
On Saturday, he showed what he's learned.
"Kaleb, with each passing day and game, I believe progressed. You could make the argument his game against Arizona State was his best," Miller said.
Miller pointed out the importance of reliable post presences to tournament runs. It's certainly been the case at UA. Anthony Cook, Joseph Blair, A.J. Bramlett, Loren Woods: every Wildcat Final Four team had an outstanding center manning the middle.
And, according to Miller, Tarczewski's best work may very well be ahead of him.
"Freshmen who have the role he has aren't necessarily freshmen in March," Miller said.
Sophomore guard Nick Johnson came alive against the Sun Devils, demonstrating some of the explosiveness on each end of the court that helped fuel UA's 14-0 start.
"It wasn't one player [driving UA's out-of-conference success]," Miller said. "It was a team of guys playing well."
When the team is on the same page, such as in those aforementioned marquee wins, the ceiling is much higher.
East Coast media types like Seth Davis have long since dismissed UA's December wins, but Miller said homegrown criticism resonates more.
"People [in the West] will spend more time talking negative about coaches and players and teams, and comparing now to 10 years ago," Miller said. "It's so irrelevant."
To rewind just two years, it bears mentioning that UA went on a run deep into the NCAA tournament with then-freshman Jordin Mayes playing a vital role. Mayes brought stability to the offense and defensive intensity, but never quite matched that level as a sophomore or much of his junior season.
Mayes' recent contribution may be the most surprising, making him the wildest card in Miller's deck. The junior is coming off what are arguably his two best games since March 2011, adding needed depth at the point guard position.
While going back to reflect on a time before any of the current Wildcats wore red-and-blue may be irrelevant, there is one piece of 10-year old history that bears significance. It's been that long since UA won a Pac-12 tournament. UA claimed the title in 2002, its first after returning from 12 years of dormancy.
Beginning 10 years ago, though, the conference tournament is one hurdle that has consistently cashed out the Wildcats.
A change of scenery might do the team some good. Continued reemergence from wild cards like Tarczewski, Johnson and Mayes will do even more.