Whether it’s due to necessity or desire, Arizona’s recruiting approach appears to have changed.
And maybe not a moment too soon.
In the seasons since Arizona fell to Wisconsin for the second straight year in the Elite 8 there has been a school of thought permeating through the minds of Wildcats fans.
Not all of them, but many.
Essentially, it goes something like Sean Miller cannot win with the five-star, one-and-done players and therefore needs to spend his time recruiting those who will be in Tucson for multiple seasons.
Indeed, Miller has yet to make a Final Four with a one-and-done star; then again, that holds true for him with players who have stuck around, too.
Whatever recipe the coach has used to build his rosters, a few dashes of bad luck have led to the season ending prior to the NCAA Tournament’s final weekend.
It’s obvious to anyone that the momentum Miller and the program carried through the first six seasons of his tenure has largely dissipated, with the Cats collecting just a pair of NCAA Tournament wins — in 2017 — over the last five campaigns. Even if this year’s dance wasn’t canceled due to COVID-19 it would have taken an optimistic approach to expect much of a run from Arizona.
Was inexperience the problem? It certainly wasn’t the solution and history shows teams that feature experience often have the most success.
The challenge has been to construct a roster with that luxury, though from the looks at this current recruiting class the Wildcats are on their way.
The group, which currently consists of five players, does not boast one who arrives with a five-star rating. The class that currently consists of Dalen Terry, Bennedict Mathurin, Kerr Kriisa, Daniel Batch and Tibet Gorener may lack flash, but it has a good chance of bringing substance.
While it is entirely possible one or more could play their way into being one-and-dones (see Markkanen, Lauri or even Nnaji, Zeke) or just decide they’ve spent enough time in college (see Jerrett, Grant or Simmons, Kobi), it seems as though that is not the plan for any of the five.
Instead each of the team’s newest additions are all projected to take their time before skipping town. If that turns out to be the case and many of this year’s recruits last until their junior or senior seasons, the Wildcats will not only have the kind of team fans can genuinely root for, but also get back to being the kind Miller can guide deep into the dance.
That’s not one without bereft of five-star talent, because it would be silly to avoid them altogether. Instead the Wildcats would have the kind of roster that would allow said freshman (or freshmen) to slide right in and instead of lead the team, enjoy the benefit of established talent around them.
It’s the proven recipe for success under Miller at Arizona.
The coach’s first Elite 8 team, 2011, featured just one senior — Jamelle Horne — and saw four of its five leading scorers be sophomores. It was Miller’s second season in Tucson and his program was hardly established, but got the benefit of an other-worldly season by Derrick Williams.
It was not until a few years later where Miller’s vision began to take shape.
The 2014 team that earned a No. 1 seed but fell in OT to Wisconsin was led in scoring by a junior Nick Johnson. The rest of the team’s top-five point scorers included two freshmen and two sophomores, though it was all held together by a redshirt junior T.J. McConnell.
A year later the team had just two seniors — McConnell and Drew Mellon — and was in fact led in scoring by a freshman, Stanley Johnson. But that squad benefited from juniors Brandon Ashley and Kaleb Tarczewski along with a sophomore Rondae Hollis-Jefferson.
It’s not that one-and-dones are the issue, because they are not. Other teams have won with star freshmen who were around for just one season, and Arizona is no different. As Ryan Kelapire wrote, Arizona has had some pretty good one-and-dones over the years.
What’s clear in each of their cases, however, is their success was predicated on the talent — or lack thereof — that surrounded them. In other words it’s good to have one-and-done talent on the team, but it’s less good to have one-and-done talent essentially be the team.
Which takes us back to this recruiting class and its potential.
As is the case with any new players, we can’t really know what kind of impact they will make until they start playing the games. Some may be more ready to contribute than anticipated, while others are likely to need a bit more time to mature.
Are fans willing to give them that time? Is the university prepared to give it to Miller, who has two years left on his contract?
We’ll have to see, but at least the freshmen won’t be viewed as saviors, which was an unfair expectation placed on last year’s class.
Terry, Mathurin, Kriisa, Batcho and Gorener will be joining a roster that has plenty to prove, but also a good amount of experience at the college level. If all goes according to plan, at least for this season the Cats will rely on guys like James Akinjo and Jordan Brown, both of whom were highly-regarded recruits who have now spent a considerable amount of time in the program.
A senior, Ira Lee will also be counted on, as will sophomore Christian Koloko, junior Jemarl Baker Jr. and grad transfer Terrell Brown. In a perfect world Brandon Williams will be healthy enough to contribute, too.
That team should at least be competitive, and with some luck could actually be pretty good. One thing it will not be is expected to make a Final Four, which may actually be fine for the program right now.
Because while that is ultimately the goal, it can take time to build a roster that is ready to make that kind of run. And for the Wildcats, the clock may have just begun to tick.