When five-star high school guard Doron Lamb decided in spring 2010 to eliminate Arizona from his list of finalists, he cited two reasons: The Wildcats didn’t make it to the NIT that season, and they “didn’t have enough players.”
You might say the times have changed.
Just three years later, the highest-rated player UA coach Sean Miller has ever landed, Aaron Gordon, considered the Wildcats’ current players and their chance for extended NCAA tournament success before deciding to join them. Then, upon announcing his choice, he bubbled about being an X-factor for a team that is expected to go far this season.
“It’s a great fit,” Gordon said.
So what happened? How did Miller and his staff so quickly upgrade the recruiting to the point where it’s fashionable, again, to become a “West Coast Wildcat,” as Gordon announced when he rebuffed Kentucky and just about everybody else on the planet?
Miller has collected a string of Rivals.com top-5 recruiting classes, starting with the 2011 class that was catalyzed by guard Nick Johnson, and could get a fourth top-5 class in 2014 if he can land either of two talented wings, Stanley Johnson or Justise Winslow. The UA already has 2014 commitments from guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright of Los Angeles and forward Craig Victor of New Orleans.
Moreover, the Wildcats can get in the conversation with just about anybody they want, no matter where that player is from.
“This summer when I would interview players, every top player would mention ‘Arizona,’ ” says 247Sports.com recruiting analyst Jerry Meyer, a former college player and coach.
There are a few obvious reasons, of course. There’s the tradition former coach Lute Olson established over a quarter-century through his October 2008 retirement. There’s the fans, who often sell out the 14,545-seat McKale Center, even for that glorified annual scrimmage known as the Red-Blue Game.
There’s the weather, which once even helped lure Miller, a native of Pittsburgh who had spent his entire working life east of the Mississippi, to take over the instability-wracked Arizona program in April 2009.
And there’s the only-game-in-town factor, where players can become rock stars on and around campus. Unlike any other Pac-12 city, and unlike many anywhere for that matter, UA athletes can stand out in a metro area that has more than 1 million people and a full set of media outlets — yet no major pro teams. As the players call it today, that’s a lot of potential “love.”
There’s also this, according to recruiting analysts and players alike: Miller and his staff just try really, really hard.
Let Michelle Mayland tell that story. The mother of Nick Johnson, she began hearing from Miller almost immediately after his April 2009 hiring. Never mind that Nick was still a sophomore at Gilbert’s Highland High School; Miller had already identified Johnson as a potential key to his 2011 recruiting class.
“Sean went to Highland and promised Nick that he would be at every one of his AAU games,” Mayland said. “In a recruit’s mind and the parent’s mind, if the head coach isn’t there, they don’t love you. We sit back as parents and say, ‘Oh, the head coach isn’t here.’ That’s how serious we gauge how they view our kid.”
Miller was there. Johnson played summer ball with the prestigious Oakland Soldiers club, and Mayland said Miller indeed attended every one of the games, chucking his calendar out the window at times if needed.
There’s no question it made an impression.
Johnson said he had been a fan of Arizona basketball since Phoenix guard Jerryd Bayless was a standout in his one year with the Wildcats in 2007-08. But it really wasn’t until Johnson played for the Soldiers, and after transferring to Nevada’s Findlay Prep, seeing Miller constantly pop up in the stands, that he decided to become a Wildcat.
“Coach Miller is such a hands-on guy — I mean that’s probably the main reason I came to Arizona was because of him,” Johnson said. “It was just the relationship that I had with him.”
The funny thing was, Johnson had always told his mom he would take his five official visits during the fall of his senior season. He committed to Arizona in August 2010, not yet a senior.
“He took zero officials, except to Arizona after he committed,” Mayland said. “I tease him about that to this day.”
In a sense, Johnson’s recruitment played out exactly as UA hoped: They identified him early, developed relationships with him and those around him, then pushed hard for a commitment even before he took an official look elsewhere.
But, of course, it doesn’t always work out that way. So this is the recruiting strategy Arizona uses, one that bends and twists as needed to rake in a succession of highly rated recruiting classes:
1. Cast a wide and deep net. Like most college programs, the Wildcats will identify their top targets usually in ninth or 10th grade. But unlike many elite programs, their list is typically very long, involving virtually all the top Western players as well as many from around the country.
“I think it’s a little different because the other consistent top-10 programs, schools with great traditions like Arizona, they tend not to cast such a wide net,” Meyer said. “Arizona has certainly targeted the highest of high-profile players and hasn’t backed down, and sort of goes all-in. It’s kind of an interesting approach. This type of approach requires a lot of work and a lot of juggling.”
It helps that UA has a staff that’s well-connected to nearly every part of the country: Associate head coach Joe Pasternack is strong in California and his native Louisiana; assistant coach Book Richardson is an affable New Yorker who can’t go anywhere in the East without somebody slapping his back; and assistant Damon Stoudamire is a Pacific Northwest native with an NBA pedigree that resonates nationally.
California-based Scout.com recruiting analyst Josh Gershon says Arizona does a particularly good job of identifying players on the West Coast early and continuing to monitor “every source of information possible” to make sure there isn’t anybody missed.
Promotional letters are sent to everybody, but prospects are not flooded with gimmicky boxes of letters or attention. Arizona will carefully keep its heaviest focus on the very top prospects early, to help gain an edge.
“They realized Stanley (Johnson) was a priority for them before he was a priority for any other schools,” Gershon said. “He had a lot of early offers but not a lot of schools prioritizing him.”
2. Be careful. Just because Arizona has a long list of targets doesn’t mean it will spray scholarship offers all over the place. For example, while ASU and several other schools have already offered scholarships to eighth-grade phenom Marvin Bagley III of Phoenix, Arizona has developed a relationship with him but has not offered yet.
The Wildcats typically extend an offer only when they are sure that player can contribute — whether that becomes apparent in ninth, 10th, 11th or even 12th grade. That way, there’s still room to extend offers to those who prove themselves later in the process.
“When you make a decision on one, you always have those diamonds in the rough who tend to develop late, and you can’t recruit them because you’ve already committed to another prospect,” Miller said. “I do think there’s a balance right now of what’s going on. If you go early and recruit somebody at an early age, they have to be multitalented and very much mature.”
Their earliest UA offers under Miller have all been to five-star prospects such as Gordon, Brandon Ashley, Grant Jerrett, Stanley Johnson, 2015 big man Ivan Rabb and 2016 guard Derryck Thornton Jr.
This strategy also allows the Wildcats to focus on building relationships with their very top priorities but also to figure out for sure if those players will really fit in.
Miller has said his early recruiting efforts at UA were rushed because he needed so much help so quickly, and UA wound up making ill-fated decisions to bring in guard Josiah Turner and forward Sidiki Johnson.
“I’d rather get on the early side to develop longstanding relationships,” Miller said, “and the longer you’re involved with a prospect, the less mistakes you make because you get a real feel for who they are — both on and off the court.”
3. Sell it. Once Arizona decides to offer a scholarship, the Wildcats will press hard for a commitment, no matter how long it takes.
Coaches will stay in constant contact, getting the recruits to meet current players, telling them about the NCAA tournaments and NBA draft picks, traditions, facilities, fans and how they fit into it all.
Meanwhile, Miller’s promotional machine is relentless. He has ordered huge Arizona A’s to be stamped on the court at his practice facility and on his promotional materials. He uses his own Twitter account to sell tickets, talk about his beloved Pittsburgh Steelers, crack jokes and honor current and past players. UA also has an in-house Twitter account, @aplayersprogram, that constantly pushes out promotions, accomplishments and behind-the-scenes photos unavailable to the media.
In addition, Miller oversaw a renovation of McKale Center hallways that paid homage to the program’s NCAA and NBA Draft accomplishments, and he has turned the Red-Blue Game into a major showcase for recruits as much as fans.
“They’ve done a good job of promoting their brand on the West Coast,” Gershon said. “They take recruiting very seriously, and part of that is their branding on Twitter, where they’ve been able to reach out to recruits they may not even know about yet.”
Miller will let others tell the story, too: Just last week, when top 2014 targets Winslow and Michael Humphrey took their official visits, it just so happened that former UA and NBA standout Mike Bibby stopped by for a practice. Bibby was the No. 2 pick in the 1998 draft and, like Humphrey, is from Phoenix. Just by showing up, Bibby can tell recruits some things without even speaking.
4. Stay flexible. At the same time that Arizona is chasing hard after its top priorities in a class, the Wildcats are constantly keeping tuned to see who else pops up as major prospects.
If, for example, a three-star prospect starts playing like a four-star, Arizona might decide to zoom in, particularly if that player could help fill a need.
Arizona brought in Bay Area guard Elliott Pitts after recruiting him late in the process before his senior year in August 2012; coaches similarly offered San Diego guard Trey Kell last July, though Kell ultimately chose longtime suitor San Diego State.
Then there’s Humphrey, who didn’t attract any Division I offers until the summer after his junior year, but caught the eye of Arizona and dozens of other Division I programs once July hit. The Phoenix Sunnyslope big man is now on UA’s front burner.
“For every young player you recruit at an earlier stage, there are many who start late and bloom late,” Miller says. “I’ll use Kentucky as an example. Most of their decisions in recruiting happen in the summer before a kid’s senior year because there’s so many things that develop during their ninth- and 10th-grade years.”
Keeping active with second-tier prospects also allows Arizona the flexibility to upgrade its recruitments if conditions dictate, say if another prospect goes elsewhere or stalls.
Meyer, the 247Sports.com analyst, calls it a “tiering” system.
“They’re not just focusing on a select few like Kentucky,” Meyer said. “They’re keeping them warm. They may not be top recruits now, but you’ve got to keep them warm so if somebody goes somewhere else and you want to push one of them for a commitment, you can do that.”
It’s not a perfect science, though. Arizona started going hard after Portland, Ore., forward Kameron Chatman this summer and fall, carefully adding him to a mix that had long included top wing priorities Johnson and Winslow — but Chatman chose Michigan after taking his official visits this fall.
Chatman’s father, Canaan, told umhoops.com that his son chose Michigan “first and foremost” because the Wolverines had been recruiting him the longest.
He was a top priority at Michigan; maybe not quite as much at Arizona.
Arizona “wanted Kameron, but it’s safe to say Winslow and Stanley Johnson were higher priorities, and you don’t want to run off a higher priority with a lower priority,” Meyer said. “That’s where it gets tricky. It’s not that Arizona doesn’t think he’s a great player; it’s just that the other players they have a shot at are a little bit better.”
5. Push hard for a commitment. While Arizona has been successful getting early commitments from players such as Sidiki Johnson, Jerrett and Jackson-Cartwright, it often still comes down to the summer or fall of a recruit’s senior year.
Sometimes, as with Gordon, it even goes to the spring of a senior year.
The 2014 class appears to be no exception: UA is still in the final stretches with Stanley Johnson, Winslow and several others. Johnson has said he won’t decide until January.
If a recruitment gets to the fall of a prospect’s senior year, then coaches can visit recruits in their homes and players can receive a paid two-day official visit to campus. Miller has preferred to bring recruits in for the weekend of the Red-Blue Game, which features not only considerable fanfare but visits from former players, as Arizona’s 1994 Final Four team did this year.
But there can be a boiling point to the stretch run.
In summer 2010, before Nick Johnson’s senior year of high school, his mom was so fed up with recruiting pressure that she turned her phone off. That meant UA associate head coach Archie Miller, the primary recruiting contact for Johnson, couldn’t reach her.
Archie became distraught.
So Sean Miller tried phoning instead, and eventually he managed to get through to Mayland.
“Arch had a vacation scheduled, and Sean said Arch told him, ‘I’m not going on vacation because Michelle won’t call me back,’ ” she said. “Sean was like, ‘Can you tell us something?’ ”
Exasperated, Mayland leveled with Miller.
“I said, ‘What do you want me to tell you? The same thing I told you yesterday? I don’t know.’ At that point I was irritated,” she said.
The Millers backed off slightly, yet, of course, kept in touch. They weren’t going to let go now.
A month later, Nick Johnson committed to Arizona. The recruiting floodgates were officially opened.