Arizona Wildcats Basketball: Top-5 Recruiting Classes of All Time
Just when it has appeared the Arizona Wildcats basketball operations flat-lined through the years, its coaching hires recruited a class that served as a defibrillator for the heart of the program to beat strong again.
When Fred Snowden was hired in 1972 as the first African American to coach a major college program, the Arizona Wildcats were coming off five losing seasons in the previous six years.
The first recruiting class of Snowden, a former Michigan assistant, included Detroit standouts Eric Money and Coniel Norman, who were drafted by NBA teams only two years later. The Arizona Wildcats went 35-17 in those two seasons bolstered by frontcourt players Al Fleming and Bob Elliott, who were also recruited from Big Ten country.
By 1976, Snowden had the Arizona Wildcats in contention for a Final Four berth, losing to UCLA in the NCAA West Regional final at Pauley Pavilion (via ESPN.com).
When Lute Olson was hired in 1983 after a successful nine-year run at Iowa, the Arizona Wildcats were at the depths of college basketball. The season before Olson's arrival, Arizona finished 4-24 overall and 1-17 in the Pac-12 under Ben Lindsey, forcing Lindsey's immediate ouster after only one season in Tucson.
Olson's first recruiting class included two of the nation's best junior college players (Pete Williams and Eddie Smith) and an obscure Pacific Palisades (Calif.) High School guard named Steve Kerr. Those three players, all drafted by NBA teams, were responsible for the Arizona Wildcats to advance to the NCAA tournament in Olson's second season.
Before Sean Miller was brought on board in 2009, the Arizona Wildcats basketball program again fell on hard times. Olson abruptly retired before the 2008-09 season because of health concerns after he was on a personal leave of absence in 2007-08.
Two interim staffs, led by Kevin O'Neill and Russ Pennell, coached the Arizona Wildcats in consecutive years before Miller was lured away from Xavier after only five years of head coaching experience.
Miller's first recruiting class with the Arizona Wildcats in 2009 included two future first-round selections in the NBA (Derrick Williams and Solomon Hill). After missing the NCAA tournament in Miller's first year, the Wildcats responded with a deep run in the NCAA tournament in 2010-11 because of Williams' exploits.
Arizona dominated Duke in the Sweet 16 and barely lost to eventual champion Connecticut in the Elite Eight. Miller and the Wildcats served notice that the program will continue to compete at a high level, thanks to his initial recruiting class.
The first recruiting classes of Snowden, Olson and Miller achieved enough in their career with the Arizona Wildcats that each deserves a ranking among the program's top-five classes in the history of the program.
Research, thanks to information provided by the Arizona media relations department and fellow reporters who have covered the Wildcats over the last two decades, enabled me to compile a list of all Arizona recruiting classes since Snowden's hire in 1972 (via TucsonCitizen.com).
Using the criteria of how the recruits performed by the completion of their Arizona careers and how the Wildcats fared with them, the following is a top-five ranking of those recruiting classes.
No. 5: Class of 2009
One other recurring theme of the first Arizona Wildcats' basketball recruiting classes under Fred Snowden, Lute Olson and Sean Miller: unsung recruits who later emerged as valuable players.
Derrick Williams was rated a three-star recruit by Rivals.com coming out of a lower-division high school in La Mirada, Calif., in 2009.
In two years with the Arizona Wildcats' basketball program, Williams became the driving force behind Arizona reaching the Elite Eight in 2011. He was selected the Pac-12 Player of the Year that season and was drafted as the second pick overall.
Williams and Lamont Jones signed with Miller after originally signing with USC. Solomon Hill, another accomplished recruit from that, originally committed to Lute Olson to attend Arizona but shifted his allegiance to USC after Olson retired.
After Miller's hire in April 2009, Hill switched back to Arizona and signed with Miller.
After consecutive All-Pac-12 seasons, Hill was selected in the first round of the NBA draft by Indiana in June. Larry Bird, the Pacers' president, has lauded Hill since, saying the rookie "makes almost all the right plays." (via NBA.com).
The only other Arizona Wildcats duo from the same recruiting class to be selected in the first round: Sean Elliott and Anthony Cook, from the Class of 1985.
No. 4: Class of 1983
Lute Olson managed to recruit three hidden gems within months of his hire by the Arizona Wildcats in 1983.
Olson and his staff signed two junior college standouts Pete Williams and Eddie Smith, who were not on the list of top major college programs. The most significant find in the history of the Arizona Wildcats program is Steve Kerr, who took a recruiting trip to Gonzaga and almost was a walk-on at Colorado (via Los Angeles Daily News)
Williams, Smith and Kerr were the cornerstones to Olson's success at Arizona. In only Olson's second year, after Arizona finished 4-24 with Ben Lindsey as coach in 1982-83, the Wildcats advanced to the NCAA tournament with a 21-10 record.
Williams and Kerr were two-time All-Pac-10 selections and Smith earned that honor as a senior in 1984-85. All three were selected in the NBA draft. Kerr, the starting point guard for Arizona's first Final Four team in 1987-88, lasted 15 years in the NBA and won five titles.
Smith was a clutch scorer and rebounder for Arizona. Despite recruiting Williams in his first class with the Arizona Wildcats, Olson has told the media that he is the best rebounder he signed in his 24 years as head coach (via WildAboutAZCats.net).
No. 3: Class of 1998
Three Arizona Wildcats responsible for taking the program back to the national championship game in 2001 came from the same recruiting class of 1998.
Richard Jefferson, Luke Walton and Michael Wright were signed after the euphoria of Arizona winning their first national championship in 1997.
One other player of the class of 1998, Rick Anderson, became a valuable starter for Lute Olson's team that reached the Elite Eight in 2002.
Moreover, one more recruit from 1998, Ruben Douglas, went on to become the NCAA's top scorer with New Mexico during his senior season. Douglas transferred to New Mexico following his freshman season at Arizona, which allowed Gilbert Arenas to have an immediate impact after his signing in 1999.
Although Jefferson was not an All-Pac-10 selection in his three years with the Arizona Wildcats, he was taken in the first round of the 2001 NBA draft. Walton, son of Hall of Famer Bill Walton, became a two-time all-conference selection.
Wright is among Arizona's top-20 scorers (1,491 points) and top-10 rebounders (832) in the program's history.
Jefferson impacts recruiting efforts for Sean Miller today. He paid $3.5 million toward a practice facility for the Arizona Wildcats that bears his name (via ESPN.com).
No. 2: Class of 1972
More than 40 years have passed since the late Fred Snowden recruited his first class for the Arizona Wildcats that was later dubbed the "Kiddie Korps" by the Tucson media because of the young talent.
Despite that amount of time and the successful 24-year career of Lute Olson with the Arizona Wildcats, Snowden's Class of 1972 remains one of the best in the program's history.
Eric Money and Coniel Norman, teammates at Detroit's Kettering High School, followed Snowden from Michigan, where he was an assistant coach with the Wolverines.
“The real restoration of Arizona basketball started in 1972,” Money told me in a 2010 interview with TucsonCitizen.com. “I mean, they won six games before we got here.
“The first year we were here, we went 16-10, and the year after that, we were 19-7. The year after that, they were 22-7. It progressively got better.”
Snowden also recruited forward Al Fleming from Michigan City, Ind., and guard Jim Rappis of Waukesha, Wis., in his first class.
Money, who scored 37 points twice as a freshman, and Norman were second-round draft picks in the NBA after their sophomore seasons. Norman holds the Arizona record with a career mark of 23.9 points a game.
Fleming is the program's top career rebounder (1,190) and Rappis was chosen to the 1976 NCAA All-West Regional team when the Wildcats came one game away from the Final Four.
Another recruit in 1972, forward John Irving, transferred from Arizona to Hofstra after his freshman season. Irving led the nation in rebounding as a sophomore at Hofstra, averaging 15.3 a game in 1974-75.
No. 1: Class of 1985
Lute Olson's recruiting effort in 1985 involved only three key prospects, but all of them became important to the Arizona Wildcats' development as a Final Four program.
The most significant player in the history of the Arizona Wildcats' program, Sean Elliott from Tucson's Cholla High School, was one of those three valuable recruits.
Anthony Cook and Kenny Lofton, who later played 17 seasons as a major league baseball player, joined Elliott as part of the class of 1985.
Elliott's impact on the Arizona Wildcats program gives this recruiting class a significant boost.
He not only is Arizona's career scoring leader with 2,515 points, he continues to be the face of the program. His jersey No. 32 is retired at the school along with Steve Kerr (No. 25), Mike Bibby (No. 10) and Jason Gardner (No. 22).
Lute Olson was fortunate to have Elliott come from Tucson, where he is idolized. No other major college program recruited Elliott significantly because of the sparse talent in Tucson, and coaches realized Olson had an unbeatable advantage with Elliott playing locally. His only recruiting "trip" was to Arizona (via Arizona Daily Star).
Lofton, from East Chicago, Ind., was offered scholarships from Butler, Arkansas State and Illinois State.
According to the Arizona Daily Star, Cook, of Los Angeles, never took a recruiting trip to Arizona and was close to committing to Loyola Marymount. Olson swayed Cook to attend Arizona, and he became program's top career shot blocker (278).
Lofton emerged as the Arizona Wildcats' career record-holder in steals with 200. That number has since been passed by four Arizona players, with Jason Terry holding the record with 245.
Elliott and Cook were the first Arizona Wildcats tandem to be drafted in the first round in 1989.
Honorable Mention: Classes of 1994 and 1999
Two other recruiting classes of note for the Arizona Wildcats include the class of 1994 and class of 1999.
The class of 1994 included two members of Arizona's 1997 national championship team, Miles Simon and Michael Dickerson. Another player recruited that year was power forward Ben Davis, a former Kansas and Florida signee who was signed by Lute Olson out of Hutchinson (Kan.) Junior College.
As a senior in 1995-96, Davis led the Wildcats with 14.2 points and 9.5 rebounds a game.
A year later, Simon and Dickerson were leading the Wildcats to their first national title. Simon was selected the Final Four MVP and Dickerson led the Wildcats with 18.9 points per game.
The class of 1999 for the Arizona Wildcats included a backcourt that rivaled Damon Stoudamire and Khalid Reeves and Mike Bibby and Simon as the best backcourt in the Olson era.
Jason Gardner and Gilbert Arenas signed with Arizona in 1999, certainly the best guard combination Olson attracted in one year.
The only tandem better that was signed in the same year was Eric Money and Coniel Norman in 1972.
Check out Javier Morales' blog at TucsonCitizen.com