PORTLAND, Ore. — Sean Miller sits in a dimly lit ballroom on Thanksgiving night, not a leftover in sight. He's slogging through Duke-Oregon State tape on the eve of his biggest game yet in his second stint as the coach of Xavier.
Hello from the Hyatt Regency, a stone's throw from Portland's Rose Quarter where Xavier will play three games in four days. It's 7 p.m., and Miller's squad is fresh off a win over Florida two hours prior. Thanksgiving dinner is done. Players are back in their rooms. Rarely does a team endure a quick turnaround such as this, but the Nike-run PK85 has bracket play on back-to-back days, meaning tonight's a cram session. Nine Xavier staff members are scattered as Miller mans the clicker through every possession -- 178 clips -- of Duke's loss against Kansas.
Miller allowed CBS Sports to shadow Xavier for nearly 24 hours in its preparation for the daunting opportunity to play Duke. The Blue Devils are younger than X but also in a similar position of adjusting to life with a new man in charge in their program: Jon Scheyer, 35, who is a year younger than Miller was in 2004 when he first became head coach at Xavier. At this hour, Xavier's war room sounds like a library. Assistant Adam Cohen scouted Duke; he's peppering in subdued commentary as they sift through clips. Miller adds a few pithy observations. It's hyper-focused.
Miller asks his staff how satisfactory the bench was today. By that he means: How involved was each player when they weren't on the court? How encouraging were they for their teammates? Was there enough enthusiasm? Was anyone pouting or unengaged? (One player was.) Little things can become big, so the little things are accounted for, tracked.
Next up: 151 plays of Duke vs. Oregon State. A chore. As they watch, it's clear Xavier forward Zach Freemantle's ability to defend Duke freshman Kyle Filipowski is a looming concern. Filipowski has been Duke's best player. Miller is equally impressed with and concerned by Filipowski's penchant for success.
"You know who he's a little bit like, is Lauri," Miller says of Filipowski. He's referring to Lauri Markkanen, who played for Miller at Arizona in 2016-17 and has enjoyed a fine NBA career since. Filipowski is set to follow Markkanen's one-and-done path, and on this night, he's the primary focus of Xavier's probe.
Nobody saw this coming, least of all Miller.
When Miller's name emerged as a candidate in the 2022 coaching carousel, it brought eye rolls and scoffs from some. In mid-March, he went from coaching hopeful to serious candidate in a few days' time. Miller flew to Atlanta, where he interviewed with Xavier and South Carolina's athletic directors on consecutive days. He took almost 24 hours to decide.
"We never really knew if another opportunity was going to come, if and when it was going to happen, so being in that position was exciting and shocking," Amy Miller, Sean's wife, tells CBS Sports. "I think it has to get back to the fact of when we left. Xavier was the first school that gave him his first head coaching job. They believed in him then. Throughout the time we were here, he was completely supported, not only with the school but with the fans and completely felt everyone was on the same page. Us going to Arizona, as great of an opportunity as that was, and we're grateful we had that, it was a very hard decision to make at that time because it really did tear him apart to leave Xavier in 2009."
Miller, whose final seasons at Arizona, NCAA scrutiny, media clatter and more than a little mystery, is not permitted to speak on-record about the still-unresolved matter. Arizona's case is under review by the Independent Resolution Panel (IRP) of the Independent Accountability Resolution Process (IARP). Sources told CBS Sports resolution on Arizona's case is expected by the end of December, and if not then, January at the latest.
"Your whole world is thrown upside down, and I know other people have had their worlds turned inside out as well," Amy Miller says. "His face was the bad character in a story that was never-ending."
A key factor in Miller getting cleared to return to Xavier was school athletic director Greg Christopher having previously worked on the NCAA's Committee on Infractions board. One figures if any AD was qualified to vet the process over a hire as potentially controversial as Miller, Christopher would be that person. Arizona's men's basketball program was charged with five Level I violations, one of those tagged to Miller: head coach control responsibility. Former Arizona assistant Book Richardson pleaded guilty in 2019 and ultimately served three months in prison for taking bribes in an effort to steer prospects to an aspiring agent's management company.
"He totally accepts his role," Amy says of the Arizona ordeal, later adding, "I can't even imagine what other families have gone through. The fact it's lasted so long and that's what crazy. That's one of the reasons why we weren't really sure about him getting another job because this process has not ended."
After Arizona self-imposed a postseason ban for 2021, Miller was fired that April and took a year off from coaching. Arizona hired Tommy Lloyd and went 33-4 in his debut season.
There was, of course, disappointment. But Miller was done swinging at air. The inevitable came, and he felt it coming for years. He holds no animosity toward Arizona.
"Maybe it's because I was there for 12 years," Miller tells CBS Sports. "We had our fair share of great moments and success. I have zero bitterness toward Arizona. I have three sons that are graduating from there. Three. Every one of them had not a good experience -- a great experience. The people, the community, the fans, just our friends, you miss them because they treated you right. And I think the last part of it is, it was just time, man. I think Arizona is in a better place. I think in some ways I'm in a better place, you know? Would I have loved to be able to finish the direction that we were moving? Of course, but the fact that it happened, in some ways, is a gift to me. And I'm thrilled that Arizona a year ago did what they did, and obviously they're in great hands with Tommy moving forward."
Miller had one "significant" conversation with Lloyd after he got to U of A. He offered no advice other than the only thing he thought most important: that Lloyd should actively encourage players from Miller's time there to be involved with the program.
"I think a lot of coaches when they leave a place, they're split," Miller says. "If they do too well, it'll reflect on me. If they don't do well, they'll blame me. I look at it as: the program's been able to move on and potentially move on to great, great heights, and it happened right away. And I feel really good about that. But my heart's in a good place toward Arizona, and I coached so many players. I mean, if you think about the players that I've coached -- all-conference players, NBA players, great kids -- like, that's never gonna go away from me. I mean, those guys are forever and ever with me."
As Thanksgiving evening drifts on, Miller asks what the tape shows with X's middle-ball-screen success rate against Florida. He believes that will be a key factor vs. Duke. Cohen pulls up 12 clips of Duke's debut against Jacksonville.
"No screen, no scheme," Miller says while going over some of Duke's pin-down middle-ball-screen actions, or deceptions, with point guard Jeremy Roach.
Miller's X-and-O bonafides are undeniable. Now in his 18th season, he's 426-159. He replaced Travis Steele, the first Xavier coach to not make the NCAA Tournament since Tay Baker in the 1970s. Steele did keep alive Xavier's streak of 26 consecutive winning seasons, which is only bested by Kansas (39), Gonzaga (31) and Duke (27). Miller's faced with a challenge he hasn't had in 13 years. He's guiding a roster that he did not choose. After his hiring, Miller brought on one guy (UTEP transfer Souley Boum). Everyone else previously agreed to be here because Steele was the coach. That transition is not easy, which is evidenced by Xavier's irregular defense.
At 9:30, the players return for film review. It's a condensed version of what Duke does best. You can info-overload players on one-day turnarounds, so Cohen keeps it simple. Don't be intimidated by the talent or the jersey, he tells them, and reveals that only three Blue Devils have played legitimate minutes at a power-conference level prior to this season: Roach, Illinois transfer Jacob Grandison and Northwestern transfer Ryan Young.
"It's a very young team," Miller adds. "Unlike some of the other Duke teams, they don't really have the Zion [Williamson], but they do have three or four guys from a reputation perspective that checks out. … To play Duke in Portland at this time of the year is a golden opportunity that not one person in this room can have any regrets in how hard we prepare to play the game."
"Roach is a roadrunner layup guy," Cohen says. "He's extremely aggressive to score. To the paint, to the paint, to the paint."
Boum gets that assignment. Adam Kunkel will guard Duke freshman combo guard Tyrese Proctor. Cohen explains Duke has nine talented guys but is a work-in-progress. Xavier's staff is expecting more tinkering and experimentation from Duke, but the Blue Devils are elite at offensive rebounding.
"It's them crashing the glass at the 3, 4 and 5 EVERY. SINGLE. TIME," Cohen says.
"Tomorrow it is THE game," Miller says. "While they're trying to figure shit out, they're killing you on the glass. To beat Duke, you've got to take them off the glass. It's their deal. No. 2 in America."
The starters take turns reading aloud giant-sized scouting reports taped to the wall. Phones are off, the focus is good. Players adjourn at 9:59. Less than 15 minutes later, Miller's going to call it a night, too.
It's his wife's birthday, after all.
Miller famously was on "The Tonight Show" in the early 1980s as a dribbling wunderkind. Basketball is not only his identity, it's been part of his personality since he was losing baby teeth.
"It's been my life," he says.
It was ... until April 2021.
"It's hard to take at the time, but at the end of the day, it's probably the best for Arizona, and I think it was a good thing for Sean to take this past year and heal from the five years before," Amy says. "He would do things he'd never be able to do in the 37 years we've been together."
Getting fired enabled him to recede from basketball and unleash a hidden inner slacker. He got in some travel, but otherwise it was video games, lounging outside, otherwise not really doing much of anything. At first he needed that decompression. It was a release on a valve that hadn't been eased in decades. Eventually, it got laughable.
"At the beginning, when I say he did nothing, he was doing nothing," Amy says. "I had my own little routine and probably a month and a half goes by and he goes, 'Yeah, you kind of do have a schedule. I need to get one of those.'"
Miller had a mental reset. He wondered if he might get into the NBA. At the time, for all he knew and with Arizona's IARP case still undecided, he'd be out of college basketball permanently. With no coaching onuses, Miller let go of all the things outside of his control. For the first time in his adult life, he lived without reliance on basketball.
"That's healthy," he says. "You reconnect with people that you should have never needed to reconnect with. Your own family. Close friends. But without you realizing it, because you're in it, there's become a separation almost that you're unaware of."
A year ago, he had a typical American Thanksgiving. His wife and their sons, plus his brother, Archie, and his family. Sean became the "marshmallow police" as his wife prepared his grandmother's sweet potato casserole recipe. Just the right crispiness and browning. They didn't watch any basketball, only football. Same thing at Christmas. The families played board games and stayed away from hoops. He hadn't experienced that since he was 8.
"I think the grind sometimes can get in the way of progress," Miller says. "To step away from it, I see things differently."
A year ago, the idea he could be at Xavier was fictional. He slowly allowed himself to think about how he'd change his wiring to become more amicable. If an opportunity ever came, he'd put those changes into action -- as a person, as a father, as a husband, as a coach. Being fired not only allowed him to reconsider who he was, it also pushed him to reconstruct himself. Miller watched a lot of how Mark Few ran Gonzaga's offense and how Lloyd was taking the players Miller brought to Arizona and turning them into one of the best teams in college basketball.
"It was keeping himself occupied and busy," she says. "He enjoyed watching Arizona, which at the beginning I think was harder, but he enjoyed watching it because he respects what Tommy did with the players. I think that was another thing where, never did I ever think he would change his philosophy in coaching. But the time off and watching the coaches has allowed him to do things differently."
He studied the schemes of Randy Bennett, Mick Cronin and wound up watching a lot of FIBA and EuroLeague basketball. What Xavier's doing this season is a combination of all of that, in addition to some reliable stuff Miller has used dating back to his first tenure at X. He's gotten away from rigid structures, and is playing through concepts that are more free-flowing and faster.
Every game used to be a melodrama.
"You lose, you die, you win, you don't celebrate. You just survive," Miller says. "It starts to become a miserable existence. And even if you're not trying to let everybody in on that, the fact you feel that, I think people around you sense it."
A recent Xavier home loss against Indiana serves as an example to Miller's shift. The Musketeers had a half-dozen chances in the final minutes to steal the lead back and beat a top-10 Hoosiers team. Instead, Xavier lost by two.
"If that happened five years ago, I would be in a three-day dark place," Miller says. "Here, I was probably able to get over it in 12 hours."
This kind of internal mania corrals a lot of people in sports. For Miller, it was about personal accountability at all times. But he couldn't keep going in coaching if that was going to remain his personality. It would deteriorate his psyche and physical health. Part of taking the Xavier job was having faith in a fresher, competitive mindset. Miller says he's not that person now if he doesn't get taken out of coaching for a year to escape from the life he had.
"I'm way more aware of some things that I could have done differently, done better," he says.
"He's understanding there is more to life than doing your job," Amy says.
Back at the hotel on Friday morning, an omelet station, quiche, pancakes, scrambled eggs, bacon -- all the breakfast fixins -- are attacked by Xavier's players. Eat up. Duke awaits. After breakfast, walk-through starts at 10:15. A few important defensive designs. Every Xavier player participates. Miller and Cohen issue prompts about Duke's starters and their tendencies.
"He is not Superman, but he can score," Miller reminds his players about Filipowski, his voice is getting louder. The competitive juices are percolating. "He is their most aggressive player. You can't have fear and play off of him and make him a better player."
There's also a team defensive concept Miller's worried about.
"If we f--- that up, we might as well save our legs for tomorrow," Miller says. The walk-through seems satisfactory, but the energy could probably be better.
Coaches share some encouraging words as the players get on the bus for the two-minute ride down the street to the Moda Center. Truth is, nobody's sure how this is going to go, but at least Xavier's offense has been reliable. Early returns on Xavier's offense are auspicious. Miller's never had a team shoot better than 40% from 3, but this one seems destined for it; the Muskies rank second nationally in 3-point accuracy (46.0%). Miller also never had a team average more than 70 possessions; through seven games, Xavier's at 70.6 per game. Doing this with a roster he didn't bring on makes it all the more impressive.
"The difference is playing faster, playing with more concepts and less structure and teaching guys how to attack certain defenses versus robotic set plays," he says. "I think it's the future."
Miller will tell you this isn't all because of him. He hired young, intentionally. Miller, 54, is still in his coaching prime but with recruiting, social media and the transfer portal, assistant coaching in D-I at the power-conference level is better suited to a young man's gusto. All of Miller's assistants are 36 and under, including Dante Jackson who played for Miller at Xavier.
"With all that we went through the last four or five years, to be able to get with people that knew me, that I trust, that I think trust me, was really important," Miller says. "I felt that would allow truly a new beginning, to get back to doing things the best that I could. I know Xavier, I know what Xavier stands for. That connection was really important for me."
The players head out for warmups at 11:50 a.m. Miller and longtime basketball administrator Mario Mercurio are the only ones in the locker room. Muted moments for Miller to internalize and visualize what might happen in the game's opening minutes. What doesn't he see coming? How might he have to sub? Will the officials be good enough? Will his players be good enough? He paces slowly, writes calmly on the whiteboard. The mind spins.
"A quiet time," Miller says. "You're walking through everything that's important. Because once the game starts -- it's crazy out there."
At 12:14, the players are back for one final pre-game locker room rally. They bow their heads and say the Lord's Prayer. Then Miller goes over three first-half keys. This locker room is at a low volume, and through the cement walls you can faintly hear a raucous Duke team hyping themselves up.
"It's Duke, in Portland," Miller says. "Let's go."
Xavier proceeds to play a skittish first half, its worst on offense from a shooting perspective so far this season. It's evident in the first four minutes that Freemantle can't handle Filipowski. Xavier comes back into the locker room down six.
"This is the better team!" one of the staffers yells. "This is the f---ing better team! Stay together!"
After Miller convenes in the coaches' room with his staff, he emerges with a monologue to rally.
"We're down six points and I'm just telling you, there's a segment of that first half where I don't think we can play much worse," Miller says. "Whether we're up six or down six right now, it remains the same. Who's gonna come out after halftime in the sixth war and set the tone? Who's gonna win more wars in the next five?"
He breaks the half down by each four-minute segment: the under-16, under-12, under-8, under-4 and end of half. Five "wars," and by score, Duke won two, Xavier won two, one was a tie. The most optimism stems from how good Xavier's been on the defensive glass against one of the best offensive-rebounding teams in America.
"They're the second best offensive-rebounding team in America," says Miller. "One guy on their team in yesterday's game had eight. They have three as a team."
The other objective: minimizing turnovers. Xavier has seven.
"There's some of the craziest seven I've seen," says Miller, "but we have seven turnovers. If we could play in the second half and take care of three, four turnovers, be stronger with the ball."
"That's way more important than this game," he says.
He has the room's full attention: "I'm gonna tell you this. You can't crack when things don't go well for either you personally or our team. There's gonna be a lot of games where adversity hits; we only have each other. I mean whether you're having a good game or a bad game, the shit's about us. We win as a team and we lose as a team."
Unfortunately for Xavier, its second half start is a squall. The Musketeers commit three fouls in 96 seconds, three turnovers in the first two minutes and drop from a 40-34 deficit to down 49-36. Doesn't matter how well you game-plan, if your best offensive threat has one of his worst days, it's hard to overcome that against a ranked opponent. Center Jack Nunge's 1-of-13 night in part dooms Xavier, though issues run way deeper than that.
Miller's been working on that baseline out of bounds defensive scheme called "Madman." The alignment requires quick-minded switching and forceful communication. It takes a team that knows each other, trusts each other and has the defensive instincts to make it work. In Friday's walk-through, it's one of the last things Xavier works on. Against Duke, it disintegrates. The staff estimates the Blue Devils scored 12 points against this setup.
Xavier makes a few pushes in the second half, but Kunkel suffers a concussion midway through, worsening matters and stymies a comeback. Duke wins 71-64. Postgame is obviously subdued. Few people say a word before Miller again stands before the team. The Lord's Prayer is repeated once more. After some quick evaluation, Miller puts it bluntly to the guys.
"Xavier's gotten off the rails," he says. "I'm only here for one reason and that is to put things firmly back on the f---ing tracks."
He speaks fervently, desperately of playing with consistent spirit, energy. Playing with each other, having common goals.
"These aren't little things," Miller says to his team. "They are THE thing."
He doesn't see a group -- yet -- fully committed to playing for the win and for the team at all costs. Guys who can look any player in the face and say that's what their objective is all about. But, he says, that's why he's here. And Xavier will get there. Miller apologizes for installing the out-of-bounds defensive concept he ran through before the game. It's a holdover from his good teams at Arizona. He later tells me he's never using it the rest of the season.
"I do think that we can be a tournament team, or it's going to be a one hell of a fight from start to finish," he tells me. "The schedule isn't a smart schedule based on who we are. To be here in this tournament. Great, we beat Florida, but to beat Duke on a neutral court? Then you play Purdue or Gonzaga? We just played Indiana. You know, it's like you can be a damn good team and lose your confidence."
Miller's philosophy is to have a roster of guards and forwards who are exchangeable offensively. His ideal: two point guards, one big, two other wing types with length. This team won't be that. Xavier ranked 82nd in defensive efficiency last season and gave up more than 1.0 points per possession. There's only so much resistance this group will be able to provide. Doesn't mean Xavier can't be good, but it's bound to find itself in catch-up mode a lot because of how loose it is defensively.
"When we get this deal going, I think you'll see," Miller says. "We'll have quickness, toughness, interchangeable parts of a versatile lineup. … It's hard when you're the new coach. What I did was, I walked in and said I'm not kicking everybody out and trying to bring [new players] in. Let's see this for what it is."
Miller has no regrets. He wanted to keep the roster intact and stabilize from within. He knew there would be trials because of this, and there have been. Miller's fighting against what he calls the "loser's limp." Something goes wrong, point a finger.
"There's no culture yet of 'we're in this together for the long haul,' and we have to develop it," he says.
The swing starts with the head coach and his actions away from the locker room and court. Seemingly little things, like going with the team to the Nike Store on this trip -- he wouldn't have done that in a previous coaching life. Even in the offseason, he surprised Amy by taking time off to hang with old friends in Cincinnati, take a day on a boat (his first in decades), even go to a Kane Brown charity concert in late October with John Calipari and Bill Self.
"Things like that he never would have done before prior to the season starting," Amy says. "And on Monday, there was supposed to be a staff meeting at our house. A couple of assistants had plans. Before, Sean would have said, 'Forget it, come over.' Instead, it was, 'OK, we'll just do it tomorrow.
He's more engaging. Even allowing an all-access piece such as this one is something he wouldn't have permitted previously. That said, he's still got a fire under his ass as soon as the ball tips.
"You learn very early on as a coach that you have to be who you are, and we all are wired a certain way," Miller says. "You have to stay true to yourself, because the second you kind of veer off, I think the players in particular can really see through [that]. ...
"The last several years in Arizona, there's no way that I could have been the best coach that I'm capable of being. There's too many factors that wouldn't allow that to happen. And when you're fighting like that, it's so hard. It's hard enough to win. It's hard enough to be successful when you have everything moving in the right direction. But when you're fighting that fight, and things aren't aligned, I think to some degree, the peace of mind is that I'm looking for a new beginning."
Had he gone to South Carolina, he might have had success, but it probably would not have come as comfortably as at Xavier. It's that smaller community, that desire to go back and finish in his 50s what he started in his 30s.
Two days after Duke, Xavier delivers an improved 40-minute effort against mighty Gonzaga but falls 88-84. The Musketeers are 4-3, the losses all respectable and to potential Final Four candidates (Indiana, Duke and Gonzaga). In the back of the arena after the Gonzaga loss, Miller and Few unexpectedly exchange pleasantries, with Miller jokingly saying he hopes to never have to play Gonzaga again. As Miller starts to walk away, Few grabs his arm.
"Hey," Few says, and then a beat. "It's great to have you back."
Miller can't hide his appreciation. In the reborn autumn of his career, one of the more polarizing coaches in college basketball knows he probably can't ever fully repair his reputation. He's let go of that reality. With all that's transpired for and against Miller in the past five years, he's determined to prove Xavier has someone who's never been more self-aware and, hopefully, at the top his game.
"How all that ends, I don't have another picture," Miller says. "With all that we've done as a family, I hope I can stay at Xavier for a long time and finish my final run here."