With Miller status unknown, Arizona plays on

EUGENE, Oregon — Arizona coach Sean Miller addressed his team late Saturday morning, passed the reins to top assistant Lorenzo Romar and was gone. Maybe, after eight-plus seasons leading the program, never to return to the Arizona sidelines again.

The decision for Miller to step away for at least Saturday night’s game at Oregon came less than 24 hours after ESPN reported FBI wiretaps intercepted phone conversations between the coach and Christian Dawkins — an employee for ASM Sports agent Andy Miller – during which they discussed paying $100,000 to ensure star freshman center Deandre Ayton would sign with the Wildcats.

“I believe it is in the best interest of our team that I not coach the game tonight,” Miller said in a statement Saturday afternoon. “I continue to fully support the University’s efforts to fully investigate this matter and am confident that I will be vindicated. For now, my thoughts are with our team. They are a great group of young men that will support each other and continue their pursuit of winning a Pac-12 championship.”

That pursuit continued Saturday night with Ayton in the lineup.

Miller’s players had just a few hours to regroup before taking on Oregon at a sold-out Matthew Knight Arena. And at first it appeared they were using the turmoil as a rallying point — Oregon led 43-37 at halftime as Ayton turned in one of his most dominant halves of his young career. They were energetic. They were physical. But two days after playing an overtime game at Oregon State, they eventually ran out of gas in a 98-93 overtime loss.

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Ayton, who was not made available to the media after the game, finished with 28 points and 19 rebounds, but his final made field goal came with more than 10 minutes remaining in the second half.

“I can only imagine what he’s going through,” Arizona senior guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright said. “There’s a big spotlight on him. But like I said, he comes each day ready to work; he handles himself like a professional; he gets better — and without him, we’re not here, we’re not playing like we are.

“He’s a big reason for our success, and we need him to keep playing.”

For now, it looks like the Wildcats will continue to have Ayton in the lineup, but Miller’s future is less clear.

Romar, the former Washington coach, had little insight into what to expect in the days ahead. He said he didn’t know if he’ll be in charge of practice when it resumes in Tucson, Arizona, this week, let alone if he would remain in charge for the rest of the season. As for when there might be some clarity on those issues, he said he didn’t know that, either.

“It’s just a situation that was tough,” Romar said. “If our leader isn’t out there with us — I don’t think we’ve gone out and done anything without him being there, his presence — but again, I thought our guys were phenomenal in how we came about and began that game.”

Romar said he did not take part in any discussions about potentially keeping Ayton out of the lineup, but was informed Saturday he would be available.

“I think [Ayton has] handled it like a professional,” Jackson-Cartwright said. “He is a high character guy. He really cares about his teammates and he gives his all. He gives his all, regardless. I think the last 24 hours have been really probably difficult for him, but he’s handled it like a professional.”

Prior to Saturday’s game, a lawyer representing Ayton’s family released a statement saying they were “outraged and disgusted by recent news stories which have falsely implied” them.

“[Ayton] directly stated to the FBI, more than six months ago, that he never discussed or solicited payments from the University of Arizona, or any other university, or any shoe company or anyone on behalf of either — Period. This includes basketball and anything else,” the statement said.

Ayton, a 7-foot-1 center who was born in the Bahamas, is considered one of the top freshmen in the country and a leading candidate for national player of the year honors. He is averaging 19.6 points and 10.9 rebounds in what is expected to be his only college season.

The Arizona Board of Regents met in an emergency executive session Saturday “to receive legal advice regarding the issue and plans to reconvene for updates and legal advice in the coming days.”

“This is an emotionally charged issue but it is essential that we move forward decisively and based on facts. We must do everything we can to ensure that our programs are of the highest caliber as we must also protect the rights of all involved and respect due process for employees,” Regents Chair Bill Ridenour said in a statement.

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