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Sean Miller filling Lute Olson's shoes at Arizona

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This is Tucson's Mt. Rushmore, where two heads are better than four.

An enlarged head shot of former Arizona coach Lute Olson was waved by a fan during Pac-12 Conference tournament games in Las Vegas last week. The guy next to him held aloft a similar-sized mug of current Wildcats Coach Sean Miller.

A picture says 1,000 words? These two said job security.

Miller came to Tucson in 2009 to find a program that had been in disrepair since Olson retired.

The Wildcats were 40-29 in the two previous season and made the NCAA tournament both years, but that was not good enough for Arizona basketball.

This week, Arizona was placed at the top of the NCAA tournament's West Regional. The Wildcats, who open against Weber State in San Diego on Friday, are the first No. 1-seeded team from the Pac-12 since UCLA in 2008.

Now that, folks in Tucson will tell you, is Arizona basketball.

All of it rests on the shoulders of one man, just as it did for 24 seasons with Olson.

"There was a lot of temporariness in our program after Coach Olson left," said George Kalil, a fan who has missed only 10 Arizona games in 42 seasons. "Coach Miller came in and everything he has done has been perfect."

Well, maybe not perfect. Arizona won the Pac-12 regular-season championship — Miller's second — this season but lost to UCLA in the conference tournament final.

Miller took the Wildcats to a regional final in 2011, but they have not been to a Final Four since 2001.

There is work to be done. But Arizona believes it has found a new face of Wildcats basketball.

"Coach Miller certainly understands what history is, what Coach Olson brought to Arizona basketball," Arizona Athletic Director Greg Byrne said.

There are differences between Olson and Miller, and one of them was captured in the faces held up by the fans in Las Vegas.

Olson is smiling in his photo. Miller is grimacing.

"Lute likes good meals and good wine," Kalil said. "Sean has a bottle of water and goes back to work. I think he'll be the first person in history to need a voice box transplant.

"We'll pay for it," he added. "We need him."

The greater Tucson area has a population of about 1 million. Yet, some of its citizens act like it's a dinky college town. Arizona basketball is the starting point of many conversations.

Fans descended like locust on the MGM Grand Hotel for the conference tournament last week, remaking it into Tucson — only with night life.

"We are the Los Angeles Lakers or Giants baseball — whatever analogy you use — of Tucson," Miller said. "The University of Arizona is the stick."

Which is really good when you're winning.

"Right," Miller said.

And if you're not?

"Let's not go there," Miller said.

Tucson was a gas stop on the road to San Diego when Olson hit town, but he turned the basketball program into something only UCLA could compete with in the West. He won 589 games and took the Wildcats to four Final Fours, winning the national title in 1997.

Olson stepped down for health reasons in 2007. Kevin O'Neill took over as interim coach and went 19-15. Olson returned in 2008, but had to walk away again a month before the season. Russ Pennell stepped in as interim coach and went 21-14, taking the team to the Midwest Regional semifinals.

Not good enough.

So Arizona officials went looking for another coach. They approached Pittsburgh's Jamie Dixon, Gonzaga's Mark Few and Memphis' John Calipari.

None were interested.

USC's Tim Floyd was brought in for an interview, but also turned them down.

Miller was a late candidate. His resume was good, with 120 victories and four NCAA appearances in five seasons at Xavier, his first head coaching job. But he came at a price. Arizona forked over $1.6 million per season.

Turned out, he was worth it. Just ask Olson.

"Sean is the right guy," Olson said. "He's a good family guy. He really treats the players well. He brings in great character kids."

And … "The fans really love him," Olson said.

So does at least one relatively famous former Wildcat.

"They play phenomenal defense," said Luke Walton, who played for Olson from 1999-2003. "We just wanted to run up and shoot every time."

But one thing is the same.

"He's brought back the passion," Walton said.

Miller didn't run from the Olson legacy. Nor did he show up to replace it.

"His first press conference, he talked about the destiny of Arizona basketball," Kalil said. "He said he was here to build on that. Here's his first press conference, in front of 1,000 people, and all he did was talk about Coach Olson."

Miller was ready for Tucson. As a player at Pittsburgh, he had experienced the McKale Center.

"There are places you remember," Miller said. "I remembered how it felt to play there. How important college basketball was there."

Miller wanted fans to remember the Olson Era — like they needed any help — not forget him.

"Both of them have embraced each other," Byrne said.

Olson stops by before games and comes to practices. Miller hired Damon Stoudamire, an Olson point guard, as an assistant.

"We never fought anything that was there before we showed up," Miller said. "We're not creating a new program, we're just continuing the great tradition."

Miller is comfortable with that, as he is with himself.

"We had a blueprint at Xavier that I felt really worked," Miller said. "I wanted to bring that to a place like Arizona, where you had so many things that very few places have."

Miller has tapped into those things. He has a strong recruiting foothold in the Los Angeles area and has connected with Findlay Prep, a basketball power in Henderson, Nev. That guarantees a steady flow of talent.

But the main thing Miller brought to Tucson was a touch of the past.

"When Lute was here, he was the right man for the job," Kalil said. "Sean's here now, and he's the right man for the job."

chris.foster@latimes.com

Twitter: @cfosterlatimes

an for the job."

chris.foster@latimes.com

Twitter: @cfosterlatimes

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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