There have been many changes in the philosophy of not only who to recruit but also when to begin the whole process. The change has been progressive, too.
No longer is it acceptable to be fashionably late on a recruit. The Internet has made it possible for these kids to know which schools are interested in them almost before the Kentuckys and Dukes of the world have contacted them.
The way that the recruiting dynamic has transformed into a “win now” situation as opposed to the old school “build for the future” approach necessitates the adaptability.
Coaches are forced to start sending out letters and making phone calls much earlier than in previous years. In fact, it has made a player’s “upside” a far more important quality than his results when trying to project how a certain 9th grader might turn out.
There are schools around the nation that are actively pursuing freshmen in high school; some have even offered scholarships to 14-year-olds (cough! cough! Arkansas! cough!). Sadly, the “9th grade offer” is likely going to be the norm instead of an aberration or an exception to the rule in future years.
Imagine the day Quin Snider makes a trip cross country to watch elite prospects play in a prestigious YMCA tournament on the West Coast – sponsored by Adidas, of course.
Arizona is going that way too, folks. It has to. Programs have to adapt to the talent and not the other way around. Time waits for no man, especially if “Time” is 6-9 and plays all three positions along the perimeter at age fifteen.
Since the incoming class of 1987, Arizona has brought in 39 recruits from the high school ranks. Of those 39 players, thirteen transferred or left the team during some point of their career. The remaining 26 departed as Wildcats. Amazingly, 22 stayed all four years (five, including current Cats Luke Walton and Rick Anderson, were five-year guys) before graduating or moving on to the NBA.
Don’t expect the next 15 years of Arizona basketball to produce 22 four-year guys. Or "Lifers", as they're now called.
Maybe Arizona will have 22 early departures for the NBA draft during that time but no way that many wire-to-wire acts.
Lute Olson and his staff have no fewer than six players on their present roster that have realistic chances to leave early for the League. And out of the current targets from the class of 2003 that the Wildcats are pursuing, every one is a two-and-out possibility.
“The biggest thing with recruiting,” said Olson. “Is that kids no longer talk about what schools they’re thinking about going to because that’s sort of a put down to them if they’re talking about schools. Now they talk about whether or not they’ll come out right away or if they’ll stay a year or at the most two years.”
Even though Olson recognizes the problem associated with that line of thinking, he is reluctantly forced to play the game anyway.
“You have to recruit year by year,” said Olson’s first-year assistant Josh Pastner, himself a former Olson recruit. “It’s all done on an individual basis and you have to get the talented guys. You can’t win without talent.”
Asked if the staff ever considered recruiting backup players in hopes of achieving better team chemistry and harmony, Pastner had only this to say.
“We don’t recruit backups at Arizona.”
Fifteen years ago, Olson brought in a two-man class of Matt Muehlebach and Sean Rooks. Both stayed at least four years at Arizona and experienced the first-ever Final Four in school history in 1988.
Ten years ago, the class of 1992 saw the Wildcats land five players from around the country. It was Olson’s first crop of freshmen to really get attention nationally.
Led by point guard Reggie Geary and center Joseph Blair, that ’92 class helped lead Arizona to another Final Four in 1994. One of the five signees, forward Etdrick Bohannon, transferred after one year, and Blair was dismissed from the team midway through his senior season. The others – forward Corey Williams and guard Joe McLean – each stayed all four years.
Six years ago, freshman point guard Mike Bibby led Arizona to the 1997 National Championship. Two years later, Bibby was gone. After being named a consensus All-American, he was drafted second overall in the 1998 NBA draft.
Later that fall, however, Arizona inked six freshmen that would become its best recruiting class to date. The Class of '98.
Two of the ‘Deep Six’ – forwards Richard Jefferson and Michael Wright – left early for the NBA after their junior seasons and another appearance in the (2001) National Championship game. Another two – guards Ruben Douglas and Traves Wilson – transferred after a year in the program. The final two, Walton and Anderson, are in their fifth year of eligibility and will help lead a team that is once again favored to battle for the National Title.
Each year since 1996 (Bibby’s class) has gotten progressively less four-year minded. After Bibby, Jefferson and Wright, Arizona had another player, guard Gilbert Arenas, skip his final two years of eligibility and head for the pros. In fact, Jefferson, Wright and Arenas all left together.
Another player from that National Runner-up team, point guard Jason Gardner, left school to test the NBA waters but thought better of it and returned.
The latest crop of recruits that Olson brought in is almost without argument the most talented freshmen quartet in school history. Getting two of them to stay all four years would be a monumental upset from an oddsmaker’s standpoint.
But where it gets even more contemporary in terms of the state of recruiting around the nation, is in this next year’s class (2003).
Arizona has received commitments from the nation's top point guard and top forward so far. Both are almost definitely not going to spend more than two years on campus. One, 6'9" WF Ndudi Ebi, has even considered skipping college altogether. Yet Arizona remains in the hunt for these types of recruits and would gladly accept the fact that one or two years might be enough to win another ring or two.
Arizona, as well as other elite-level schools, must now recruit for the moment, so-to-speak. No longer is it practical to recruit a point guard every fourth year. Now it’s likely that the previous year’s point guard will be recruited over and then have to battle it out for the starting job each year with the new blood. There really isn’t a choice anymore.
The game of recruiting in college basketball is rapidly evolving and only those programs that can adapt to the changing landscape will challenge for National prominence in the coming years.
Five years from now, four-year guys like Jason Terry, Michael Dickerson and Gardner will be the relics of college basketball. The Bibbys, Arenases and Jeffersons have made sure that college coaches recruit for now instead of for the future.
This story appears in the October issue of Cat Tracks Magazine. To become a subscriber to the monthly magazine, call (520) 327-0705 and ask for TOOL frontman Doug Carr.