TUCSON, Ariz. — Some coaches shy away from a No. 1 ranking early in the season, worried about the impact it will have on their players’ psyche.
Count Arizona’s Sean Miller as one who embraces it.
Arizona moved up to No. 1 in The Associated Press’ college basketball poll for the first time since 2003 on Monday, an honor Miller views as not only recognition for what the Wildcats have done this season, but validation for the direction the program has taken in his five years in the desert.
“There’s tremendous satisfaction, no question,” Miller said. “Embracing the fact that we’re No. 1 is something I’m doing, our staff is doing and really our team is doing. It’s an honor a lot of teams would love to have. It’s something where no matter what happens the rest of the season, at some point we were ranked No. 1 in the country.”
Coming off a hard-fought home win over UNLV, Arizona (9-0) received 63 first-place votes from the 65-member national media panel to earn the No. 1 spot in a season for the sixth time. The Wildcats are the Pac-12’s first No. 1 team since UCLA in January 2006.
Syracuse, which received the other first-place votes, and Ohio State moved up two places to second and third, while Wisconsin jumped four spots to fourth. Michigan State, which had been No. 1 for three weeks, dropped to fifth after losing 79-65 at home to North Carolina.
Louisville was No. 6, followed by Oklahoma State, Duke, Connecticut and Villanova.
North Carolina moved back into the poll at No. 18 after a one-week absence. Colorado and Missouri are in the Top 25 for the first time this season. UCLA, Michigan and Dayton fell out of the rankings.
Arizona was sixth in the preseason Top 25 after Miller added another stellar recruiting class to a team that reached the Sweet 16 of last year’s NCAA Tournament.
Long, athletic and versatile, the Wildcats already have an impressive list of victories, including Texas Tech, San Diego State on the road and Duke in the championship game of the NIT Season Tip-off at Madison Square Garden.
“It’s no secret that this year our goal is to be playing in Dallas (at the Final Four). This just starts it off,” Arizona junior guard Nick Johnson said. “We’ve done some good things to start our season and we just need to keep it going.”
Arizona’s rise to No. 1 is a culmination of what Miller has done to return a storied program back to glory.
When Miller became the head coach in 2009, he took over a program that was in disarray after the retirement of coach Lute Olson two years earlier.
A master recruiter when he was the head coach at Xavier, Miller set the foundation for the Wildcats’ turnaround by landing a string of top-notch classes to restock the program.
Arizona took a small step in his first season, winning 16 games, and hit the accelerator in 2010-11, winning 30 games while reaching the NCAA Tournament regional final.
The Wildcats couldn’t follow up the success the next season, playing in the NIT after losing forward Derrick Williams to the NBA draft, but bounced back with last year’s deep run and 27-win season.
Expectations this season were nearly through the McKale Center roof with the additions of point guard T.J. McConnell and stellar freshmen Aaron Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson to a strong core of returning players.
The Wildcats have lived up to the hype so far, earning a spot atop the poll.
“I know it doesn’t win anything, no one has to remind our team or myself of that early in the season, in December, but I do think it’s quite an honor to be No. 1,” said Miller, coach of a No. 1 team for the first time. “It says a lot about the respect this year’s team has earned and I think it’s a great compliment to our program.”
Others receiving votes: UCLA 104, New Mexico 62, Pittsburgh 47, Boise St. 34, Michigan 26, VCU 17, Dayton 11, Cincinnati 5, Harvard 5, Indiana 3, Saint Mary’s (Cal) 3, Creighton 2, George Washington 2, Oklahoma 1, Toledo 1.