Sunday night as he and his team made their way through the darkness on a charter flight from New York City to Dayton after a less-than-glorious invitation to the NCAA tournament, Archie Miller did what he has done so remarkably all season.
The University of Dayton coach was forced to quickly regroup after an unexpected circumstance.
His efforts to date had led his Flyers to a 25-8 record and their second NCAA tournament in a row and had made him one of the 15 finalists for the Naismith College Coach of the Year.
His first big decisions this season centered around finding ways to keep the mindset and morale of his team intact after its roster was depleted by almost half when two players were ineligible because of academics, one player’s career ended due to concussions and two veteran 6-9 players, one a captain, were kicked out of the program for their transgressions.
After that Miller had to figure out not only how his team would play games, but even practice with just six scholarship players and one formidable walk-on.
The coach and the young, undermanned, undersized team handled the above challenges so remarkably this season that they became one of the more inspiring stories in college basketball.
Inspiration, though, doesn’t always strike a chord with the NCAA selection committee and when the tournament field was announced Sunday night, the Flyers, who most folks thought would be an 8 or 9 seed, ended up an 11, the last team added to the field.
That meant they were relegated to a First Four game at UD Arena tonight against 25-8 Boise State.
The UD players — who had just lost to VCU in the Atlantic 10 title game a couple of hours earlier in Brooklyn — had watched the Selection Show at a Yonkers pub before flying home. The First Four assignment had initially left them stunned, confused and in no mood to celebrate.
On the flight home Miller knew he had to change that entire dynamic — immediately:
“The greatest time in a player’s life is when your name is called in the NCAA tournament. It rewards you for being a heck of a team.
“I thought a lot about it on the way home and I wanted to make sure everyone was clear on that.
“I’ll never apologize or be down for playing in the tournament. It’s so hard to get to it, so why would we waste the opportunity and think about anything other than celebrating. I wanted them to know how proud we were of them. How excited we were and how many good things we had done.
“We wanted the exhilaration of the moment. We felt it was taken away a little bit (in New York) so once we got off the bus at home we sat them down and talked … and then we ended up celebrating a little bit on our own.”
‘Hits and misses’
When Archie Miller was introduced as the UD coach in the spring of 2011, his dad, John Miller — considered one of the best prep coaches in the nation during his career in Western Pennsylvania and the father of another top collegiate coach, Arizona’s Sean Miller — pulled me aside and gave me a heads-up on his then-32-year-old son.
He reminded me of it again Tuesday as the Flyers practiced at UD Arena:
“I told you then, ‘You guys don’t know what you got here. This guy can coach.’ ”
What we did know then was that he came from quite a basketball family, had been an assistant at a handful of places, including Ohio State and Arizona, and that he had been an undersized guard with an oversized attitude at North Carolina State before that.
“Size is overrated at times, the 5-foot-10 coach said Tuesday. He wasn’t talking about himself, but was responding to someone who pointed out that the Flyers had no one over 6-foot-6 and have the third-shortest starting lineup in the NCAA tournament.
“I think when you’re a Kentucky and you’re a Kansas and you’re an Arizona and the big guys are great, that’s one thing. But I think so many times size is overrated. Style of play is huge.”
So, too, is attitude, and this Flyers team gives no quarter and has an unwavering work ethic — both reflections of their coach, who Tuesday credited his Pennsylvania roots for much of that.
“I think in western Pennsylvania and Pittsburgh, it’s about work and work ethic. Most of the people you are around every day, whether they’re mill workers or their families were mill workers doing something 25 or 30 years, the men and the women, it’s a proud place about work and work ethic.”
When he took over the Flyers he tried to instill some of those traits and by last year had molded a team that went on an inspirational run to the NCAA tournament’s Elite Eight, something UD hadn’t done in 30 years.
“Last year’s big run, that sort of settled him,” said John. “He realized ’I can do this.’ He realized he didn’t have to prove anything to anybody.”
“This season you can see he’s sort of figured it out. He doesn’t have to be real emotional. If you watch him on the sidelines he hasn’t lost his mind in some situations which could have gotten crazy.
“And that carries over to the team. They’re just solid. They don’t get too shook up by anything.”
Archie admitted, though, that getting to that success came with challenges, especially when trying to figure out how to practice with so few players:
“We had to protect seven people. Practices had to change. You worry more about their health than anything.”
John said his son ran some ideas past his brother Sean, to whom he speaks every day, and said “he probably talked to a couple other guys along the way. Probably (John ) Calipari a little bit, they’re buddies and Thad (Matta at Ohio State), too.”
Archie said there were “hits and misses” until he figured out what worked best for his team.
“One thing that did not work was “no contact practices,” he said. “You lose an edge.”
Should be electric
Miller said his only previous experience at an NCAA tournament game in UD Arena came when he was an Ohio State assistant and the Buckeyes played Iona here.
“I remember it was a magical feeling in here. I was shocked. I was so impressed with the building. There was such a buzz. I said to myself, ‘I wonder what it would be like to be the coach there?’
“Now I’ll have both feelings. I think it’s going to be an electric atmosphere (tonight).”
While the Flyers have won 21 straight games at home — and went 16-0 at UD Arena this season — Miller said anyone thinking this team is going to have an easy time tonight doesn’t know Boise State.
He praised the Broncos, who are a great 3-point shooting team that has won 14 of its last 15, broke San Diego State’s 29-game home winning streak and beat UNLV in Las Vegas.
And yet, Miller said, “I think our guys are going to be absolutely amped up tonight. First Four, last four, it doesn’t matter to them. They’re in the NCAA tournament again with a chance to advance and they know how good that feels.
“There’s a lot of people that are surprised because we’re here due to the circumstances this year that we endured. But (our guys), I don’t think they ever doubted it.”
Truth is, a lot of other folks weren’t surprised, and that’s another thing Miller realized Sunday night:
“Coming into the tournament last year on Selection Sunday, I probably had 200 congratulatory text messages. I think I had two this year. It was like, ‘You broke through.’ We’re trying to build a program to last and back-to-back tournaments sort of shows that has happened.”
And that, too, was reason to celebrate when the Flyers finally got home late Sunday night.