Sean Miller talks gold jerseys, Arizona’s recruiting strategy, A Player’s Program, and more on Adia Barnes’ podcast

The first episode of Arizona women’s basketball coach Adia Barnes’ new podcast, Made for It: The Adia Barnes Podcast, debuted Monday and the first guest was men’s basketball coach Sean Miller.

The two chatted for roughly 15 minutes about various topics. You can listen to the full episode here. Below is the transcript of some of the noteworthy things that were said.

Miller explains Arizona basketball’s gold practice jersey system: “The Gold Standard is probably very similar to what you guys do and I think what a lot of programs try to do. And that is, what’s fair is fair. When you put out the starting five in college basketball, it’s a big deal. Everybody wants to be introduced and be the first five to walk out there for the jump ball. It’s probably the same as when we played the game. You want to start. So not only the starters, but just roles in general, how do you give feedback to players that they’re doing well or that this is why you started, this is why you didn’t start?

“We have a managerial staff of about 10 to 12, they do a great job. We keep statistics in every competitive segment of practice. So if a week goes by, at the end of that week we tally it up. Usually we’ll double check everything and then we’ll give the players feedback. And it’s the single player who has the highest score, statistically, from every live segment from the previous week’s practice. They then get, for the next week, a gold jersey. They stand out. And what are they exempt from or what’s their prize? They don’t have to run for any anything, any competitive segment that their team would lose the following week or whatever. They’re exempt from it.

“But I think the bigger prize is in our locker room. We keep it and anyone who watches us practice knows why that individual player is in a gold jersey, because he was the best practice player from the week before. And it’s amazing how it develops a sense of pride and it’s something that I think legitimizes why we play who we play as coaches.”

Miller explains the A Player’s Program moniker: “So, more than 10 years ago, I came here as the new coach at Arizona and for every person that said, ‘awesome opportunity, you should do it,’ there’s probably 10 lined up saying ‘you know, when you replace a Hall of Famer like Coach (Lute) Olson, it’s not going to work out for you. Are you sure you want to do that? Not to mention you’ve never lived out there, you’ve never recruited out there in the West.’ And understandably so. It’s not always an easy decision to take any job especially because we were at Xavier and it’s a fantastic place. But I really looked at our only chance, and not only our only chance, but the way to do it, is to really embrace anybody—former assistant coaches, obviously Coach Olson and his family, the great players and teams of the past, to make sure that they knew although I was coming from the outside and would be new, that this will always be their program, and that they never looked at it as ‘that was then, this is now.’ And it’s so easy to do in today’s world because you don’t know them, they don’t know you.

“The second level is, while they’re here to just make sure that we really offer them the best of everything. At the University of Arizona, they deserve the best so that there are no excuses. If they come in with a great attitude that they can reach their goals and dreams, that we have all the things in place for them to develop. And then the final part is just A Player’s Program is the future. The lifeblood of all of what we do is who’s not here right now and who’s an 11th grader that will one day come here and make a difference? So, recruiting not only talented players, but kids that want to win, that want to be a part of what we have here at the University of Arizona because it’s such a special place. Very few programs have the entire attention of a city like Tucson of a million people when you’re, in some ways, the only show in town when it comes to sports. … That doesn’t happen everywhere. Not when you have an NBA franchise, NHL team, concerts, traffic, another university and we don’t share Tucson with anybody. And I think that when we’re recruiting these young people, really to sell them on what a special place this is.”

Miller on what he looks for in recruits: “I think it’s changed over time. The one thing on our side, the men’s side of college basketball, is our best players leave the quickest. You think about if you are running a company and you had maybe your best every year as a company, and the most talented people that you employ, they leave (laughs). It’s like fundamentally flawed and wrong. So, because of that, there’s a lot of variables we look for. One of which is realistic expectations. If somebody has an opportunity to come to our program and become a part of the NBA in a year, we hope we can help them do that. And while they’re here, I think they can help our university and our program.

“But there’s others that could be here longer, and that’s OK. Solomon Hill is an example of somebody that was here for four years, graduated, and was a first-round pick. He, right now, is entering year seven as an NBA player. T.J. McConnell transferred from Duquesne University, sat out, played two years, was 23 years old when the draft happened and he’s going into his fifth year. So there’s a lot of different ways to do it. And I think for us, it’s just having a balanced prospect with a support system that knows that, ‘I want to go to the University of Arizona, not just because it can help me become an NBA player, but because it’s a great place and I want to play in a Final Four, or I want to win a Pac-12 championship and I believe in the Pac-12 conference and Tucson.’ So we’re looking more and more for those families and kids that really believe in who we are, not just what we can do for them.”

Miller on dealing with so much roster turnover each year because of guys leaving early for the NBA: “Back in the day, Coach Olson, he would get a great class, maybe a balanced class of four or five. Well, the following year, there’s nobody in their right mind that would want to come to Arizona because they know who’s in front of them and they’re not leaving. Well, these days it’s like the better class that you have, the more opportunity the next year. So it’s like a vicious cycle.

“It’s difficult (to build a culture). John Calipari at Kentucky, he does not get enough credit for doing that. Imagine him because nobody experiences more turnover per year. And I think sometimes the outside world focuses on the great talent that he has, which he does, but they’re all very, very young and they clearly are there to win but also to become NBA players in one year most of the time. And just to kind of think about him replacing that crew of talent every year and recreating his culture, it’s something you have to work a lot on and some that we’re hard at right now, especially coming off of the last couple of years, but especially last year for us.

“The one thing that I think we’ve all learned here is we don’t determine the NBA Draft and neither does the player that we’re coaching. The NBA does. And you have to do the best job you can, at least on our end, to guide them and their family to listen to the NBA because the NBA doesn’t want players entering their draft or entering their world who aren’t ready. They really want players that are mature and ready to go. That helps their programs, their teams and organizations. But no doubt that’s a big part of college basketball.”

Miller on the difference between players now and players back in the day: “When we were growing up or when we played, skill development was just something that was on the side. I think some players worked on their game individually more than others and that was always looked at as a good thing. I can almost flip it today and say that almost every player, every kid who aspires to play in college basketball or beyond, has a personal trainer or somebody that they consider their workout coach and they invest a ton of time in that part of things—but at the expense of playing. And the competition… I would say that’s a big deal. On the men’s side, it was shirts vs. skins. And if you won, you stayed on the (court)…and you wanted to win because if you didn’t, you stood on the side if you didn’t get picked, right? And that developed competitiveness. And if you’re playing 5-on-5 in that dynamic, you’re not going to take a bad shot or you’re not going to do something that quite frankly you’re not good at because you’re going to have four teammates looking at you crazy. I think in a sense it taught guys how to play the game and how to be competitive. Today’s world is so much more about the shooting, skill development and sometimes that same talented player doesn’t get enough of that competitiveness, 5-on-5.

“And most of the time when they play it’s very organized. It’s travel team ball. And there’s some definite advantages. I mean, if we had the ability to fly all over the country and play in the best tournaments against the best competition, we may make the argument like, ‘wow, that would have been great. Maybe we could have developed a better.’ But… it’s almost become more like an individualized sport. Golf, tennis, you know how they work on their game. But if you think about their competition, they don’t have a teammate. And in our game, it’s almost saturated on that side and I think all of us would like to see it a little bit more balanced.”

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