It is noon on an offseason Monday and Wes Miller has a flight to catch, on the way to meetings for a league he’s not even coaching in yet. This qualifies as a slow day.
“Just taking a breath, man,” Cincinnati’s men’s basketball coach says over the phone. “I don’t even know if it’s like a real breath. But it’s the closest thing.”
Everything is relative, after all, when for a while it felt like every day started and ended in front of an open fire hydrant. Miller started a brand-new job in April of 2021 in a strange new land without enough bodies on the roster to hold a full practice. He subsequently directed the patched-together Bearcats to a promising start … and then watched the whole deal come apart in February. An 18-15 season isn’t bad, all things considered. But isn’t bad isn’t good enough, not for anyone at Cincinnati, least of all the 39-year-old running the operation.
But Wes Miller can breathe because, as he notes, he has a team. He has multiple experienced starters back, including his top two scorers. He has multiple intriguing newcomers, most notably former Memphis wing Landers Nolley, all of whom should be able to do the things Wes Miller wants his version of Cincinnati hoops to do. He has the Big 12 on the horizon, both on his personal travel itinerary — the conference’s spring meetings is Miller’s destination on this particular day — and on the schedule for 2023-24. “It’s a really cool time to be coaching at UC,” Miller says.
What better time, then, for Miller to talk to The Athletic about everything that happened in his first season and everything that must happen now, and in the future, to shape Year 2 and beyond.
What about the Cincinnati job, operationally and day-to-day, did you not know until you were in it?
I would imagine it would be like this with any transition, but when you don’t have any type of background with that particular institution or that athletic department, day to day there’s going to be countless things you don’t understand until you get on the ground. I know you’re probably looking for a specific example, but from the littlest things of who do you ask for basic facility questions to big things in terms of how we operate with budgets and major decisions and who you go through — everything is transition when you take over a job.
I’ve been fortunate, though, because John Cunningham and Anthony DiFino, our athletic director and our associate athletic director who oversees our program, really just dove in and helped me and our staff hit the ground running. Yes, transition creates chaos, and trying to figure out things you don’t know. And that was there. We were starting from zero. But we’ve been fortunate that it’s a really open athletic department. That the leadership has helped us figure things out. And certainly a year later, it just feels completely different. Especially going into the season. That offseason, that May-June-July through September last year, just kind of felt like trying to figure it out every day.
I don’t know if ‘comfort’ is the right word, but how would you assess your comfort level now in the job and at the place?
I would cringe hearing the word ‘comfortable.’ There’s no comfort, and I mean that really positively. I just don’t think you get any better when you’re comfortable. We try to make sure we’re uncomfortable every day.
But in terms of just having an understanding of how we need to operate at Cincinnati, and what the challenges are, and how we need to attack them, that is night and day different than the day I got here. That’s the biggest difference a year later. We’re just so clear on what the challenges are and what we need to do to attack them.
What are the challenges you know you need to attack?
Sustainability on the roster. I got the job here, there were three players on the roster. I’m talking to you on May 2 — on May 2 last year, I don’t think we had enough to put a starting five out there. Now, we have to get to a place where we have sustainability and continuity in our program and a long-term roster. The second thing I’ll say about a challenge is this idea of going into the Big 12. That happened four or five months after we got here. And that changes the job. That’s a huge challenge. An exciting one, a fun one. But also, we have to make sure we’re operating at the same level as the best teams in the Big 12, whether that’s internally in our staff, whether that’s some of the facility upgrades we have to do, whether that’s we make sure we’re ready to compete in a recruiting sense, that NIL is comparable.
There’s a ton of things we have to do to be prepared to walk into the Big 12 in a year. And you don’t wait til you get there. The things we’re doing right now — our recruiting, our preparation — is going to impact our success when we take the floor in a year and a half in that league.
What are the ways Cincinnati needs to operate, to build, in order to be ready for that transition in a year or so?
It might sound a little repetitive, but having a firm identity and foundation of who we are and how we do things — I don’t think you ever arrive in that sense. You’re always becoming. But we really spent the last year trying to create an identity of how we operate every day, and what we’re about every day, and making sure that’s even firmer and that foundation is even stronger. That’s really important as we transition again. We just transitioned — new coaching staff, right? Now we gotta transition again into a new league. Having those things in a foundational place is really important.
Roster continuity is important. Having not just continuity with our roster now, but having a roster that’s going to play through the Big 12 together. You can separate yourself in college basketball now with that sustainability. That’s getting to be more rare. So we’re really trying to create that over the next couple years.
Operationally, as a department and a program, across the board, we have to operate at the Big 12 level. That’s everything we’re doing. That’s our financial resources, our recruiting resources, our facilities — you can go all the way down the line. This is a place that operates at a really high level. Cincinnati basketball and the Cincinnati athletic department, obviously it speaks for itself. But we have to take steps forward. The neat thing is, John really understands that. Our president really understands that. Nonetheless we have some work to do here, over the next couple of months.
Is there an upgrade on the table you’re particularly excited about, in that vein?
Yes, and I just don’t know if I’m allowed to comment on it publicly. But, yeah, there are some things we’re doing that I’m excited about. Again, I’m saying these are exciting challenges. There’s so much momentum and excitement and these new challenges everybody wants. There’s a sense of urgency to attack them from the top down.
From a basketball standpoint, what did you like about what you got done and installed over the last few months?
This might sound cliche or like coach talk — but I really liked that our group built an everyday mentality. Like how we practice and how we prepare, our program started to get some pride within that. That’s so important to what we’re trying to do here. That we excel in that one day at a time approach. And I thought we set a really good foundation for that. This team was a team that was really willing to practice, was really willing to work and really started to develop some pride in wearing Cincinnati across their chest and trying to play basketball at the standard that’s been set before us. Did we always perform at that level? No. But the intention took some serious steps over the course of the year.
Then you return, what, six of our top eight and four of five starters? We can build upon that with this returning group.
For a group going through it for the first time and learning a new system, and maybe not having the best height or length all the time, I feel like you guys defended well. Maybe the overall efficiency isn’t elite, but points per possession, defending the 3-point line — it was really good.
We’re going to have some fun if you want to start talking hoops. Wanting to coach at Cincinnati, it wasn’t just because I thought it was a great program. I thought there was real alignment in what I value and what the program has always been about. I’ve always been a guy that’s wanted to coach teams where that end of the floor comes first. The winning stuff — how you defend, how you rebound, how you do the little stuff you can control — is always at the identity of who you are as a program. That was really important to establish. We looked up in the middle of January, maybe the end of January, and we’re 25th in the country in defensive efficiency. We were really proud of how that was developing. And then it really slid down the stretch in February.
We were aware of it. Our kids were aware of it. It wasn’t one of those things where there was some moment people stopped caring or we stopped coaching. We got into a stretch of 10 games in 24 days and we just didn’t sustain it. I thought we set a tone for what we’re going to be about at that end of the floor. It cost us down the stretch last year. Looking back on it, our program has really learned from that.
But from a basketball standpoint, that was priority No. 1, to set a tone in how we defend and rebound. I was disappointed in how we rebounded this year. I thought up until February, I was proud of the steps we were taking to defend.
What has to get better, and why is the answer shooting?
Scoring the ball and rebounding the ball were the two Achilles heels of our season. Again, you look up at the end of January, and we realistically had a chance to be an NCAA Tournament team. The way we finished that month of February was unacceptable. We have to be more dynamic offensively, and to do that we have to have better shooting. It sounds obvious, but it’s so true — it just makes offense so much easier. And it creates opportunities for everybody to do more. We need more playmaking and more shooting. We need the guys that are returning to improve in that area, and we need the guys we added to add something in that area. We feel like we’ve addressed some of that in recruiting, and we feel like the guys who are returning have been pretty motivated this spring.
How do old guys who’ve been around — super seniors, seniors — get better as shooters? How are they not just who they are at this point?
I love that question. I always laugh when people say, ‘Can guys get better?’ Well, they’re not 40. We’re talking about people in their early 20s, that we’re saying are ‘old’ and ‘veterans.’ I’m a lot different than I was in every way than I was at 22. Guys have so much improvement in them. Guys can take huge leaps at any point during their college career with their skill set, if the right approach is taken over a long period of time. I really believe in our development program and how motivated our returning players are. I think we will see an improvement there.
The other aspect is, the quality of shot you get on a possession-by-possession basis is going to improve shooting percentage and improve confidence. If you’re taking difficult shots all the time against a set defense, or you have a player in front of you that’s contesting it, not only are your percentages going to drop, but your confidence is going to drop. We really have to improve our offensive execution. We have to improve our shot quality. And I think we’re poised to do that. And we’ll have more guys who can create offense, to improve shot quality, and get fouled more, and score around the basket more. And then I think we’ve added some shooting to our roster as well with Landers Nolley and with some of our freshmen.
Of the returners, if you had to pick a couple whose development is real crucial, who are they and what do they need to do between now and October?
Jeremiah Davenport, No. 1. He can take a humungous leap. He was at the top of the scouting report for the first time in his college career, where the other team was designed to take him away. That’s always an interesting transition for a player, to deal with that. I thought he handled it well. But now he understands what he has to do to take another step as a player. This is a crucial offseason for him, and there’s so much room for him to improve. He’s such a gifted offensive player as it stands.
And then I look at our frontcourt guys — they all are important. I don’t want to minimize anybody else. But I look at Viktor Lakhin, who’s as gifted as anybody on our whole roster. But he was a first-year player in college basketball, coming from Europe. In my experience, kids coming directly from Europe who haven’t been in prep school or something, that first year is a big adjustment, no matter how high a level they’ve played. And he played at a really high level with CSKA Moscow’s junior team and with the Russian national team. Regardless of the level he played, that transition to a different style of basketball is hard. I thought he had some moments where he looked like one of the better bigs in our league, and I thought he had some moments where he looked like a first-year player going through a transition. If he has the kind of offseason he’s had to date — and he’s having a great one — I think he could have one of the biggest jumps in the American.
It’s pretty obvious what a guy like Landers is going to bring. But in terms of the transfers, the freshmen — what guys need to do what for you, right away?
I don’t think we’ve labeled it. But Landers provides such a great scoring punch. We coached against him, so we scouted him, so we’re aware of what you have to do to prepare for him. Our team needs that. We need somebody else on the floor that the other team is really worried about. He’s a guy we can run action to, and who can score it and shoot it at a really high clip. It’s a good situation for him, but it’ll also make life easier on our other players as well. That’ll free up David DeJulius and Jeremiah, for example, to not have so much attention directed at them.
Then when you look at (freshmen) Josh (Reed) and Daniel (Skillings) — length, athleticism, versatility, and really talented offensive players. They just fit the mold of the direction we’re trying to go and how we’re trying to play. There’s opportunity for them right away. It’s one of those things of how quickly they come along. That’s what we talked to them both about in recruiting: We do think there’s opportunity, we do think they can really add to this team, so we’ll see how they are when they get here in the summer.
I know you can’t name names, but there’s been some good recruiting news for you lately. Broadly, how do you assess the momentum for you guys, and being able to sell the Big 12 and how that changes things?
It’s really interesting how it’s impacted high school recruiting. You look at the ’22 class and the ’23 class, we’re seeing that it’s a big deal. That kids want to play in the best basketball league right now in America. The last two national champions, analytically it’s been the best league. We’re seeing that’s been impactful in recruiting, especially in those high school classes, and I think that’ll continue to trend that way. If you asked Daniel and Josh, because they committed after the Big 12 news, they would tell you that was an important factor in their decision. It wasn’t the factor. But it helped them give the nod here.
What does a successful Year 2 look like?
There’s a standard at Cincinnati of playing in the NCAA Tournament and competing for a conference championship. When I accepted the job to coach here, I knew that. I love that about this job. Those are going to be the goals for this team — to be a team that competes to win the American and a team that is playing in the NCAA Tournament. Without us even being together as a team yet, I would imagine everybody on our roster, whether they’re coming in or have been here, would be thinking along those lines.
(Top photo: William Purnell / USA Today)