Who Has the Better Freshmen: Arizona or UCLA?
The powerful recruiting classes of 2012 were very much needed for the Pac-12 conference. Coming off one of the worst years in the history of the league, a new talent base and energy was required; the two most storied programs delivered. Arizona brought in the best class in the school's history and finished second or third in the nation in the estimations of most recruiting services. UCLA landed two of the top-five players in the country and was nearly the consensus No. 1. Several games into the season, the question is only more relevant now: which school had the better recruiting class, UCLA or Arizona?
The Recruiting Recap
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Arizona started the 2012 recruiting early and strong two years ago with a commit from 6’10” PF Grant Jerrett, a McDonald’s All-American and nationally a top-ten player. The following summer Gabe York, an athletic four-star guard out of California, was added to the class. Only Jordan Adams, another California four-star guard, had committed to the Bruins this early. In August the Wildcats added another five-star PF in 6'8" McDonald’s All-American Brandon Ashley.
At this time nearly every recruiting service had the Wildcats ranked at number one for the 2012 class. UCLA’s class didn’t get any publicity until Howland landed top-five guard Kyle Anderson.The Bruins class surged to second on the list, right behind the Wildcats. That was when Arizona put their group out of reach with the addition of the fourth-rated player in the class, 7’0’’ center Kaleb Tarczewski. At this point the Wildcats had completed the school’s greatest class ever and solidified the No. 1 class in the nation.
Then April 2012 happened. It had long been speculated that the No. 1 player in the country (he ended at No. 2 after Nerlens Noel’s reclassification) would decide on UCLA. Shabazz Muhammad, the 6’6’’ small forward/shooting guard, won every award and was MVP at every all-star game that mattered. In mid-April, he confirmed the speculation with a commitment to UCLA. Twelve days later, McDonald’s All-American Tony Parker jumped on the Bruins’ bandwagon. It finished not only an unbelievable April for the Bruins, but it ushered the school past Arizona for the top spot on the recruiting rankings.
After the dust settled, three of the top-five and six of the top-26 players in the country committed to either Arizona or UCLA.
The Case for UCLA: NBA Talent and Stats
This debate, like so many others, depends on how the argument is framed. One could frame it by asking the question: Which program brought in the most high-end talent? This angle would likely go to UCLA. Muhammad is a top-three pick in the 2013 NBA Draft, and many believe he will be No.1 overall.
Anderson will be a first-rounder as well when he decides to come out. Jordan Adams, if he continues to produce, should end up drafted as well. Arizona doesn’t look to have any NBA-ready players for 2013. However, the top-three recruits from 2012 are projected to be mid-to-late first-round picks in 2014.
If the recruiting classes are analyzed through this lens then UCLA, with the top pick in the NBA Draft and two other solid draft candidates, would win out.
Another vantage point for analyzing the classes is to look at each player's numbers. In this way, you get actual production instead of prognostication on the college level. Here, UCLA is handed an easy victory. Jordan Adams, the least heralded of the Bruins bunch, started the year on fire scoring more than twenty points five times and averaging 17.8 point a game. Shabazz Muhammad missed the first three but has played consistently. He is averaging 16.0 points and 5.6 rebounds a game. Jack-of-all-trades Kyle Anderson fills up the stat sheet with 6.6 points, 8.1 rebounds, 3.5 assists, and 1.6 steals per contest.
Compare this to Arizona’s guys: Ashley is leading the way with 11 points and 7.4 boards, Jerrett is averaging 6.6 points and 4 rebounds and Tarczewski 6.2 points and 6.8 rebounds per contest. UCLA’s top three freshman average 16 points more per contest than Arizona's top three. If you look at the stats, some of Arizona's players actually look like busts while UCLA's players look pretty darn good. Statistically, as well as top-end talent wise, the Bruins’ group out-classes the Wildcats.
The Case for Arizona: The MVP Class
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Another way to frame the question is by asking which class raises their program's play on the court more. Which recruiting class—added to the team, the coach, the style of play—elevates the level of play to the greatest degree? Which collective class is an “MVP” to their respective team?
When viewed this way, and after watching the two teams through the first part of the season, there is no comparison. Last season Arizona’s starting center was 6’7’’. They had no talent or athleticism at power forward or center; so much so that Solomon Hill, a 6’6’’ small forward, was playing power forward. The incoming class absolved all of those issues. Tarczewski is 7’0’’, Jerrett is 6’10’’ and Ashley is a long 6’8’’. Whereas last season the Wildcats had to scratch and claw for any rebounds or inside scoring they got, they are now dominating the glass. Last year they had no one to throw the ball to inside for offense; now a couple of five-star guys post for scores.
Tarczewski is only just starting to develop, but he's still able to change the game when he is playing. His size alone changes many shots on the defensive end (something absolutely lacking last year), and he is now beginning to gobble up rebounds as well (13 boards in the last game). Ashley is high-energy at all times and creates a positive havoc on the floor. He does a bit of everything: scoring, rebounding, and blocking shots. His length and athleticism make Arizona's size seem even bigger. Jerrett adds another dynamic on offense—he can step out beyond the three point line—but at 6’10’’ he makes going inside on Arizona difficult.
The difference this class makes will be on full display when the Wildcats play No. 6 Florida on December 15. Last season, the Gators dominated inside. They pulled in 17 offensive rebounds and pounded the ball inside to Patric Young who had a career-high 25 points. There was nothing Arizona could do.
Because this MVP class fits the Wildcats’ needs, the story will be different when the Gators play in Tucson. Arizona’s size has totally changed the complexion of the team. Instead of being beat up down low, the Wildcats are now the brute. Their size is their strength, and the 2012 recruiting class is why. At 5-0, the players Sean Miller brought in makes Arizona look like a real contender.
UCLA’s class, with all its NBA talent and stats, has lost three of five. One of those losses was to the Mustangs of Cal Poly, and the Bruins needed overtime to beat UC Irvine. The players don’t fit or play well together, and the No. 1 recruiting class in the nation hasn’t made the Bruins a better team. The finger should rightly be pointed at Ben Howland, but it doesn’t change the fact that the Bruins 2012 class isn’t an MVP; Arizona’s is.
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So, which method of analysis should be used? For coaches and fans the only goal is to win. The point is to win a conference, to go to the Final Four, and to have “One Shining Moment” playing with your team and cutting down the nets.
NBA talent is a good way to measure the status of a program in several different areas, but not for measuring a recruiting class on the whole. If great players come and go, so be it, but great players would also be sacrificed in an instant for a championship. As UCLA has shown through the first part of the season, you can have great pieces, but if they don't fit together it means nothing on the college level.
Stats are the same way; they aren't a good measuring stick to analyze a recruiting class. In the end, they are only pieces of information. They can be very helpful, but they're also deceptive and can lead to inaccurate conclusions.
When the goal is to win, the best way to gauge a recruiting class is how much better a team becomes with the new players in the fold. UCLA doesn't look much better than last year. Arizona's recruits landed with a team that lost in the first round of the NIT, yet now looks like a legitimate national championship threat. When using the right paradigm, Arizona's recruiting class of 2012 is far and away better than UCLA's.