Five-star former Arizona commit Jahvon Quinerly is long gone and a number of other five-star talents stopped considering the Wildcats this fall in the wake of the federal investigation into college basketball.
But Arizona coach Sean Miller expressed optimism in his 2018 recruiting class Thursday, after announcing that he received non-binding scholarship papers from guard Brandon Williams and forward Shareef O’Neal.
Miller said he hopes to add another three players in the spring, when Arizona will lose four seniors plus at least two or three others early to pro basketball.
“Both are excellent kids,” Miller said of Williams and O’Neal. “They know each other as well, which is awesome. It’s exciting to have both guys and for us it’s really important to build off of that. As we get into the spring, our goal would be to have a class of five, to have three people join them and feel really good about that group.”
Miller has had success filling holes in the fall and spring signing periods, annually putting together in Top 10 recruiting classes since 2011.
But things are different this time: An federal investigation already resulted in the arrest of UA assistant coach Book Richardson, who was alleged to have funneled up to $20,000 to Quinerly in exchange for a commitment. The UA has commissioned an outside investigation into Richardson’s actions, and suspended him without pay.
UA also suspended assistant coach Mark Phelps and forward Keanu Pinder last week for NCAA rules violations, though the school said those weren’t related to the federal investigation.
There’s no telling if the investigations will be settled enough to know UA’s future even by the time the spring signing period rolls around in April. It’s hard to tell how many players will leave in the spring, what the status of the investigations will be and if Miller will be able to get five or more quality players in total.
“I’m guessing that it’s just him speculating based on a lot of unknowns right now,” Scout analyst Josh Gershon said of Miller. “We don’t know how many players are going to be available in the spring.”
Gershon said other schools implicated in the federal probe have suffered similar hits to their recruiting, though UA’s case may be more delicate in that the Wildcats could lose half their team next spring.
Four UA seniors will leave, and freshman Deandre Ayton has already said he’s a one-and-done — and he’s clearly been playing like one so far, having posted double-doubles in all three games so far.
Allonzo Trier and Rawle Alkins are expected to leave in the spring, and freshmen Brandon Randolph and Emmanuel Akot have first-round potential whenever they decide to go.
Even with a five-man recruiting class, Arizona could only have 10-12 players on scholarship next season. That could work out just as well if UA is handed or self-imposes scholarship reductions as a result of the investigations. Regardless, the Wildcats may only find a few players in the spring that would fit on their level — and decide to keep scholarships open for 2019, when their ability to recruit could be better.
“I think (Miller) still has to be patient,” Gershon said. “And if his name is cleared, Arizona is cleared and there’s nothing serious that comes of all this, he can probably jump back in in 2019 and go after elite prospects again. So why would you want to take up spots that could be used in 2019?”
However it all turns out, Miller indicated both Williams and O’Neal fit into his plans. Since both players turned in non-binding scholarship papers — which allows them an easy out if UA is handed sanctions — Miller was able to address both of them publicly after Thursday’s game.
He started by welcoming them both and making note of Williams’ health. Miller said that the medical issue that kept Williams out for over 12 months starting in July 2016 was not a knee injury. The absence kept him out of the recruiting circuit last spring and summer.
Miller said Williams suffered something “more genetic” and that his family picked a good time to get it fixed. Williams was sidelined in July 2016 had surgery on the knee in January 2017 for what his father said was a congenital condition around the knee.
“It’s something he was born with, the bone started moving in the wrong direction or something,” said Chris Wright, Williams’ father. “His growth wasn’t an issue; it was just the timing of it.”
Miller said he believes Williams would have been a McDonalds All-American had he been healthy.
“What we love the most about him is he can score and be a playmaker,” Miller said. “He’s great off the dribble, physically strong. He can shoot the 3-point shot. The game is changing where you can put three different guards out there at the same time and you don’t worry about what position they are. Brandon can be on the court with anybody.”
Williams has been completely healthy for three months, his father said. The guard began practicing fully at Crespi High School in the San Fernando Valley a month ago.
“We look for him to come in and make an immediate impact,” Miller said of Williams. “We’re thrilled to have him.”
O’Neal has begun his senior season in Santa Monica, where O’Neal played with UA freshman Ira Lee last season
He held a signing ceremony there on Thursday, when he and his mother both wore Arizona gear.
“It’s a big moment for me,” O’Neal said, according to video posted by Zona Zealots. “I want to thank my teammates, friends, coaches, trainers and I want to thank Arizona, too. They were with me before I was considered one of the top players. They trusted my process.”
O’Neal has the potential to play a standout combo forward role at Arizona, as opposed to how his famous father dominated in the low post.
“Because he’s Shaquille’s son, sometimes you almost want to compare the two. They’re very different,” Miller said. “Shareef is today’s version of a versatile forward, a wing player, very skilled, can shoot the 3-point shot. I believe as he continues to develop, he’ll be able to go both inside and outside.
“It’s that hybrid forward, that versatile big wing that has thrived in our program and I believe in time Shareef will do the same thing.”
Williams initially planned to wait until spring to sign, and O’Neal was quiet at the beginning of the fall signing period. The two players’ decisions to sign the non-binding scholarship papers means UA can publicize and promote them. Williams and O’Neal, meanwhile, have an out if sanctions hit Miller and the Wildcats.
It was a fitting solution for both sides.
“Very much so,” Miller said. “We’re in constant communication with both of their families and will do so all year.”
• Alkins is no longer wearing a boot on his broken foot and took warmup shots before Thursday’s game, Miller said he didn’t think Alkins would play in the Battle 4 Atlantis next week. Alkins has been projected to miss 8-12 weeks after his Sept. 26 injury. “Next week is (the eighth week), so hopefully sometime after that he has the opportunity to play.”