Over the last few seasons, the Southern Conference has become one of the best mid-major conferences in Division I men’s basketball. The league is competitive from top to bottom, with a few programs standing out as consistent winners. One of those programs is UNC-Greensboro, led by Wes Miller.
Miller is considered one of the best young coaches in the game and was recently ranked in CBB Review’s top ten list for mid-major coaches. He is often mentioned when high-major coaching vacancies occur. However, fresh off his fourth-straight 20+ win season with the Spartans, Miller is comfortable right where he’s at. After taking over on an interim basis late in 2011, he led UNC-Greensboro to an 11-11 record and earned SoCon Coach of the Year honors.
Miller guided the Spartans to improvements each season after, culminating in back-to-back regular-season titles in 2016-17 and 2017-18 and an NCAA Tournament appearance in 2018. Furthermore, many believe Greensboro should have received an at-large bid in 2019, which would’ve been a first for the Southern Conference. There’s no doubt that Wes Miller has turned UNCG into a premier mid-major program.
I had the chance to talk to Coach Miller about his time at UNCG, the strength of the Southern Conference, and how they are preparing for the upcoming season amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
1) How have you and your team been getting ready for the upcoming season amidst the COVID-19 pandemic?
Wes Miller: “It’s been a process like I think it’s probably been for everybody. In different parts of the last four months, we’ve approached it in different ways. Initially, everybody went home, so during that time, our number one focus was staying in contact with our guys daily, especially concerning their academics and trying to finish out the spring semester. I’m really proud of the job our staff and players did to make the most out of that situation where everything ended so quickly.”
“As we got into summer school, a majority of our players were back in Greensboro. Everybody that’s not a freshman in our program usually lives off-campus, and most of them, by their choice, were back in the city. Even though they were back in town, they weren’t allowed to be in on-campus facilities. Finally, at the end of July, we were able to get our incoming players back into our facilities. It’s been like three different segments of time: the time that everybody went home, the time that guys were kind of around campus but not allowed to use our facilities, and the time now where we have our incoming players and current players back together in Greensboro and using our facilities. Obviously, we’re back in a different capacity with COVID protocols.”
2) Have you heard anything from the Southern Conference regarding any changes to the upcoming basketball season?
Wes Miller: “I haven’t. They’ve done a nice job of communicating with us directly as basketball coaches or through our athletic directors, but there’s no information about the decision that’s going to be made. What I do know is that they’ve been communicating regularly and that the school presidents and athletic directors have meetings. I know that they’re dealing with fall sports and winter sports but I don’t have any information on what it may look like when it’s all said and done.”
3) What are your thoughts on preliminary discussions about using bubbles in college basketball this season?
Wes Miller: “I’ve learned in this whole process that I’m no expert certainly on public health. All I can tell you is that I want to play. Selfishly I want us to play basketball. I want it to be done safely. If there’s a way that we can play safely that’s possible, I hope we’ll explore that option. But, to speak on the logistics of whether we can do certain things or not, I’m probably not the right person to talk about it.”
“Every coach cares about the health and safety of their players and their staff first. Given that, we all want to play. However, I don’t think any of us are willing to sacrifice that to play. Hopefully, we can find a way to have both.”
4) What have you been able to take from your playing days at North Carolina and apply to your coaching career?
Wes Miller: “The foundation of my values as a coach and what I believe about the game of basketball began to be built primarily in my time playing for Coach (Roy) Williams at North Carolina. I think there are so many things that I believe and that are foundational aspects of how to run a program or how we operate or what we value that can be derived from things that I experienced at North Carolina. That said, trying to say what are the things that you take from your playing career is difficult because I take everything.”
“One of the biggest parts of our job is trying to relate to people. When I’m trying to relate to our players that I’m interacting with every day, I would like to think that I use my experience as a player to relate to what they’re going through as players in every possible way. People ask that question often and I don’t think there’s a great answer other than that I use things every day that I learned while I was playing at North Carolina, whether it’s experiences I had that I can relate to my own players or whether it’s things that I learned from Coach Williams or the way that things were done there that created the foundational value system for how I want to operate as a coach.”
5) What do games against power conference opponents do for your team from a confidence standpoint and in regards to preparation for conference play?
Wes Miller: “I think our program is full of a bunch of guys now that believe they can compete with everyone in college basketball, and not in an arrogant way. They just feel like they belong on the court with anybody else, any of the other 353 teams that lace them up like we do. When we play those games on the national stage against those nationally recognized programs, for us at this stage, we feel like we belong, so we don’t feel like we’re surprised if we’re competitive or we have success. We just hope that everybody else sees what we already know, that we belong on the court with anybody. Again, I don’t mean that arrogantly. I just think we have kids that feel like they can play with anybody in college basketball.”
“One of the biggest frustrations in the last three or four years is the lack of national recognition for our conference. We’ve competed at as high a level as any non-power five league in America, yet I don’t know if that’s nationally recognized. When you do go play those non-conference games at Kansas or at Georgetown, on the national stage, that’s an opportunity to put not only your program on the national stage but to put your league on the national stage. A number of programs in our league have had success in those type of games and I hope it follows for recognition for our league as a whole.”
6) How special has it been to be able to coach and watch Isaiah Miller develop?
Wes Miller: “He’s been a thrill. First off, he’s just an elite young man. In coaching, one of the greatest thrills is seeing where young people are when they come in the door and seeing where they are when they leave. If they’ve had a tremendous amount of growth I think that’s just so rewarding in what we do. When you look at Isaiah Miller, he came in the door as a pretty impressive basketball player. He was on the all-freshman team. He was probably our sixth-man on our 2018 NCAA Tournament team.”
“He came in as a good player, but what’s been so neat is how he’s continually improved and grown on and off the floor. Academically he’s had tremendous success. He’s matured as a young man. His game keeps maturing literally month by month. It seems like every week he can do something that he couldn’t do before. He’s been a thrill to coach but it’s been really neat to see his growth in the three years that he’s been there.”
7) How does playing in a tough league like the Southern Conference prepare you for postseason play?
Wes Miller: “When you’re in a league where you play a round-robin and the league is completely competitive from top to bottom, you can’t afford to take a night off. That’s what’s so great about our league here in recent years. It doesn’t matter where somebody is in the standings, every single night is going to be a challenge. The coaching in our league is so elite. The level of play in our league has really grown in the time that I’ve been at UNCG. Every single night is a challenge in its own right and you have to prepare, and that’s what postseason play is like because if you don’t have success in postseason play you’re going home.”
“I think our league really prepares us for postseason play and I think that’s why we’ve had teams that have not just gotten into postseason play but have had success, whether it’s Wofford winning a game in the NCAA Tournament or us winning a game in the NIT or teams advancing in other postseason tournaments. I think our league does prepare us for that kind of format.”
8) How do you and your team handle the high preseason expectations that have been put on your program over the last few years?
Wes Miller: “We don’t talk a lot about where people are picking us or what the expectations are outside of our locker room. We spend the majority of our time talking about the expectations within our team. Within our team, the expectations are the same every year, and that is to maximize what we’re capable of doing every single day to grow and get better. That can be individually on the floor with the team dynamic or off the court. We really do try to operate in a one day at a time growth mindset. We try to control what we can control in the moment. I always think it’s flattering when people pick you high or have expectations, but we try to do as much as we can to avoid even thinking or worrying about things like that.”
9a) In this day and age of basketball becoming an offensive-minded game, why is defense so important to you as a coach and as a program?
Wes Miller: “It probably goes back to my roots and how I was taught. Playing for Coach Williams, we had a lot of success when I was playing there, and he always made it really clear to our teams that we were going to put the team first above ourselves. We were going to play on the defensive end of the floor and we were going to rebound the basketball. He certainly set that in his own way with his own style, but that was very clear that those were the things that were valued.”
“I’ve tried to create those same values within our program here at UNCG. We’re going to hold our guys accountable for what we do defensively and really try to pride ourselves on who we are on that end of the floor. We’re going to do everything we can to be a great team on the offensive and defensive glass. I think if you look at our teams that have had success, they’ve been able to kind of execute some of those values. Some of the teams that haven’t been as successful maybe haven’t, but we’re trying to be that type of a team every year.”
9b) James Dickey is someone that comes to mind when you mention that mentality for your program.
Wes Miller: “He was a Spartan in every sense of the word. He really embodied what our program has been about. He was one of the best defensive players in the league, he’s an elite rebounder, and he could’ve cared less about anything other than whether his team wins the next possession or not. He really improved every single year in terms of his skill set and some of the stuff he could do on the floor. He’s the example for what we want our guys to be like over the course of a career.”
10a) As someone who was in the league during realignment, what do you make of how the SoCon has evolved during your time at UNCG?
Wes Miller: “It’s honestly a totally different league. I think it’s a better league now, and that’s not saying anything about the programs that aren’t here anymore, because when I first got to this league, Davidson was one of the best basketball programs in the country for the last couple of years they were in the league. They were an absolute juggernaut. It’s not to take anything away from those programs. However, as the league has gotten smaller, it has become more intimate and gotten better from top to bottom.”
“It felt like early in those years you’d have the Charlestons and Davidsons, and Wofford had a couple years, you’d have a couple teams who were at the very top of the league that were kind of head and shoulders above everybody else, and then there was the rest of the league. Now, it seems like there’s so much more parity from top to bottom. Not that we haven’t had some generational type teams here in the last couple years, but the parity from one to ten has been different than it was when I first came into the league, and I think it’s made the league better as a whole.”
10b) When the league went through realignment, it felt like they brought in programs that not only made the league better but also added depth.
Wes Miller: “That’s right, and the really interesting thing is that you step back now, and nobody could have predicted this years ago, but there was so much concern about losing Davidson and Charleston and what that would do to the league as a whole from a basketball standpoint. Looking now, the Southern Conference is better than the majority of leagues that those teams have gone to, which is really ironic. Give (then Southern Conference Commissioner) John Iamarino credit. Give the presidents and the chancellors of the universities in the league credit. Not only did we lose some significant programs and universities, but we didn’t overreact and the teams that we added have really brought something to the league and improved the league.”
11) Your name circulates more and more when coaching vacancies occur, but you’ve remained at UNCG. What makes the university special to you and what do you love about being there?
Wes Miller: “First off, it’s home. I was born in Greensboro. I’ve spent the majority of my life now in Greensboro, so Greensboro is home. UNCG has become a part of that home to me over the last decade. So, there’s a different type of connection that I feel to this community and to this university than I would bet that most coaches feel to the places that they’re working and to their communities and universities. I just mean that in the sense that I’ve been here for a long time and there’s deep-rooted relationships here in Greensboro and here at UNCG, so that’s made this really special.
I’m also super proud of what we’ve built here. We haven’t arrived by any sense. Obviously we’re still working every day on improving our culture and improving our program. But, I’m super proud of where we are today from where we started eight years ago. Finally, I love the leadership here and the people that I’m working with. I love that we have a group of former players that spend the summers here. I love the young players in our program and the future of our program. I think people are sometimes surprised that I’m pretty content to be here, but I don’t think they really realize some of the dynamics that are going on here on the ground. It would take something deeply impactful for me to leave here.”