PHOENIX — Traditionally, keeping Arizona basketball at an elite level meant recruiting nationally — preferably with the kind of private jet coach Sean Miller has access to.
There just wasn’t all that much talent in the Wildcats’ backyard. Guys such as Sean Elliott, Mike Bibby, Richard Jefferson, Jerryd Bayless and Nick Johnson came around too infrequently to rely on for sustainable dominance.
But the commitment of Phoenix Hillcrest Prep’s Dalen Terry to Arizona on Tuesday continued a fortunate new trend for the Wildcats: Thanks in part to the proliferation of prep basketball programs in the Phoenix area, UA has pulled in seven commitments from players with in-state ties over its last four recruiting classes.
Another factor is the Mannion family’s decision to relocate to Arizona from Italy and Utah, which resulted in Nico Mannion evolving into an elite point guard prospect at Phoenix’s Pinnacle High School.
After committing to UA, Mannion helped attract a top-five 2019 recruiting class that includes good friend and fellow five-star guard Josh Green.
Green, a transplanted Australian, played for Hillcrest Prep before moving to Florida’s IMG Academy. A third UA commit in the 2019 class, Terry Armstrong, played last season for Scottsdale Bella Vista before ultimately deciding to play professionally in Australia instead of in college.
The UA had no 2018 recruits from Arizona, but three of four Wildcats recruits in 2017 had ties to the state: star center Deandre Ayton, a Bahamas native who played two seasons at Hillcrest after moving from San Diego; Chandler’s Alex Barcello; and Ira Lee, who grew up in Phoenix but moved to Los Angeles at age 12.
Another possible factor in the recruiting shift could be in the UA staff makeup: The Wildcats no longer have New York-bred assistant Book Richardson plugged in to East Coast recruits such as Rawle Alkins, Kobi Simmons and MoMo Jones. New associate head coach Jack Murphy is a Las Vegas native and former NAU head coach with considerable Western ties.
Hillcrest co-founder and recruiting coordinator Nick Weaver said Wednesday that he has a “great relationship” with Murphy.
“I think it’s safe to say they’re more focused regionally,” 247Sports.com recruiting analyst Josh Gershon said Wednesday at the NCAA’s West Region basketball camp. “The prep school situation has gotten significantly better in Arizona, which has resulted in a lot of talent moving to this state.
“Nico Mannion and Dalen Terry are more or less from the state, but with Terry Armstrong and of course, Deandre Ayton, those are guys who really came to Arizona because of the level of basketball and the opportunity to get better.”
Recruits who move to Arizona prep schools get a year (or more) to take unofficial visits to the UA and other area schools. Top in-state prospects take multiple unofficial visits to Tucson, where they become intimately familiar with the UA program and its environment.
It also doesn’t hurt if those transplanted Arizonans start to enjoy life here.
“When a lot of the kids come to the prep schools from places further east, and then get offered scholarships from schools in the West, they realize there’s good weather and legitimate basketball,” Gershon said. “Some of them don’t feel inclined to go back home. That plays into the favor of not only Arizona and ASU but some other West Coast schools as well.”
Terry plays for Hillcrest, as did transplants Ayton and Green, but is a homegrown talent who spent two years playing for Tempe Corona del Sol High School.
Terry spent his freshman season playing with Barcello on a team that finished as Arizona’s Class 6A runner-up, quickly proving himself a long and versatile wing.
Weaver said Terry is also the best defender Hillcrest has had and is a “long, rangy and athletic” player who can create for others or himself.
Terry brings the ball up the court at Hillcrest; longtime California-based scout Frank Burlison said the 6-foot-6-inch Terry might even be capable of playing point guard in college.
“I think so, because he’s got such great court vision and he’s an energetic, enthusiastic player,” Burlison said. “He’s always playing hard and he’s always got good energy.”
Terry funneled some of that intensity into his commitment video Tuesday, when he walked toward the camera with a navy Wildcats shirt on his chest and a serious expression on his face.
“This is where I’m from,” Terry said, “and this is where I’m gonna stay.”
They were the kind of words the Wildcats might keep hearing more and more often.