Arizona Basketball: 11 All-Time Best Wildcats Recruiting Classes

Casey CroweFeatured ColumnistJune 4, 2012

Arizona Basketball: 11 All-Time Best Wildcats Recruiting Classes

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    Arizona remains a destination program for high-school basketball's star recruits, serving as a West Coast power broker on the college hoops scene for three decades.

    Sean Miller is bringing in the No. 3 recruiting class, according to ESPN. He owned the top slot for most of the year, before late high-profile commitments went to UCLA (Shabazz Muhammad) and Kentucky (Nerlens Noel).

    Lute Olson started the consistent influx. And Fred Snowden pulled in several premier classes before that.

    From Eric Money to Sean Elliott to Andre Iguodala to Jerryd Bayless, Snowden and Olson flooded the desert with pros.

    Miller is continuing that string, his initial class already producing an NBA lottery pick, Derrick Williams (No. 2, Minnesota Timberwolves).

    Brandon Ashley, Kaleb Tarczewski, Grant Jerrett and Gabe York will be arriving at McKale Center next year, and all are among the top seven prospects in the nation at their positions. Miller also picked up two key transfers—Mark Lyons (Xavier) and T.J. McConnell (Duquesne)—along with a JUCO forward (Matt Korcheck) who will redshirt.

    That class won't be judged until all have exited, but it owns the potential to be the best in Arizona history.

    Miller's first class is still playing in college—Solomon Hill, Kevin Parrom, MoMo Jones (at Iona)—and none of the first three will make the cut on this list—for now.

    This slideshow examines the 11 best recruiting classes in Arizona history based on the following criteria:

    *Impact on the win-loss records at Arizona and in the pro ranks.

    *Productivity statistically at Arizona and in the pro ranks.

    *Influence on Arizona basketball historically, including its brand.

    *Check out this annually-updated story from TucsonCitizen.com, by Javier Morales, for an in-depth look at all of Arizona's classes since 1972. That piece was invaluable in compiling this list.

    *Stats via Basketball-Reference.com, StatSheet.com, the Arizona media guide and TotalBasketballStats.com.

Honorable Mention: 1987, 1991, 1996

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    These classes were on the verge of the top 11 of all-time, but didn't display the depth needed to make the cut:

     

    1987: Matt Muehlebach, Sean Rooks, Mark Georgeson

    Rooks evolved into the Pac-10's best center in his final season, and sits just behind Bob Elliott and Channing Frye in terms of the school's all-time post men. He then went on to a decade-plus pro career as a reserve big man at seven NBA stops.

    Muehlebach was a heady guard who played key minutes throughout his tenure in Tucson.

     

    1991: Damon Stoudamire, Ray Owes, Sean Allen

    Stoudamire was perhaps the fastest guard to play under Olson, with apologies to Kenny Lofton, taking Arizona to the Final Four in 1994 before becoming the NBA's Rookie of the Year in 1996 and making $99 million over 13 NBA seasons.

    Owes also briefly ended up in The Association after displaying impressive athleticism in his combo-forward role in Tucson.

     

    1996: Mike Bibby, Bennett Davison, Eugene Edgerson, Quynn Tebbs, Justin Wessel

    Four of the five guys on this list saw minutes during the pinnacle moment in Arizona basketball history, the 1997 national title victory over Kentucky.

    Mike Bibby is the most famous point guard in program history, and would've assaulted major records at the school if he didn't leave after two years. Instead, he's gone on to earn nearly $108 million in contracts (Basketball-Reference.com) in the NBA as a top-tier PG for over a decade.

    Davison started that game against Rick Pitino's Wildcats, and is most famous for messing up Olson's hair in the post-game celebration.

    Edgerson was an enforcer during a long stay with the program and Wessel became a serviceable backup in the post.

11. 2006: Chase Budinger, Jordan Hill, Nic Wise

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    Chase Budinger was the highest-profile recruit Lute Olson brought to McKale.

    There were heavy expectations that came with that status.

    While he fell short of guiding the program to a Final Four, he averaged 18 points, 6.2 boards and 1.4 steals as a junior and contributed to three-straight NCAA tournament squads.

    It was ultimately a face-stomping incident that brought Budinger onto the national scene at the college level, and led to a Sweet 16 run.

    He became a second-round pick in the NBA and is a role player for the Houston Rockets. Still known for his ups, Budinger was picked for this year's slam dunk contest.

    Jordan Hill was a gifted physical specimen for Arizona in the post.

    Relatively lightly scouted out of Patterson School in North Carolina, Hill was rugged in his early years with the program, eventually developing into an NBA lottery pick based on his quickness for his size. For 6'10", the man rises fast.

    He's now a backup power forward for the Los Angeles Lakers, and he saw increased minutes (along with some negative pub) late in the year.

    While Nic Wise won't go down in the pantheon of all-time Arizona point guard greats, he was a steady influence as a distributor and he came through with many crucial shots during the Russ Pennell-led season.

    Wise also was a key reason behind the Wildcats producing a winning record in Miller's first year.

    He's managed to keep himself in the public eye in bizarre fashion.

10. 2002: Hassan Adams, Andre Iguodala, Chris Rodgers, Chris Dunn

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    This is probably a questionable selection for some Arizona followers in the crowd.

    Given the possibilities with a hyper-athletic duo like Hassan Adams and Andre Iguodala, both of whom ended up in the NBA—Iguodala with the light-years-more-impressive career—Arizona should've seen a Final Four, right?

    This class came close to doing just that, falling in the Elite Eight to Kansas in their debut campaign, before losing to Seton Hall in the first round the next year.

    Based on the fact that they didn't go to the national semifinals, it is probably considered a disappointment.

    That doesn't mean it's not one of the top classes of the Olson days. It produced one of Arizona's best pros ever (Iguodala) along with another heavy contributor to the program (Adams), and a less-impactful third recruit (Rodgers) who saw big minutes at times late in his career.

    Their Arizona days were SportsCenter-highlight filled. Iguodala and Adams were both unreal leapers.

    And in Adams' final year, Arizona went 30-7 (15-3 in the conference) and made that long run in the tourney before blowing a double-digit lead to Illinois in the final minutes of the Elite Eight. A Final Four berth was theirs to lose (and they did).

    Arizona lucked into Iguodala, one of the unique athletes in program history, as he intended to go to Arkansas and play for Nolan Richardson. But after Richardson was outed in Fayetteville, Iguodala opted for Tucson.

    He went on to become the No. 9 pick in the 2004 NBA draft and he's played his entire career in Philly, grabbing an NBA All-Star appearance this year and nearly $45 million in contract coin so far.

    Hassan Adams came into Arizona with a massive amount of hype, hailing from Westchester High School in Los Angeles. While he often displayed his abilities near the basket as one of the premier dunkers in the program (along with Iguodala, Jefferson and Budinger), he struggled with a perimeter game.

    Because he wasn't height-blessed like Iguodala, his jumper was ineffective and his game did not translate as well to the NBA. He lasted a couple of years with the Nets and Raptors.

    Rodgers had a shaky tenure in Arizona, showing glimpses of potential at times, making bad decisions on and off the court at others.

    Rodgers was suspended for a portion of his last year at Arizona, but he returned to the club. Occasionally, he was a fierce on-ball defender, though he never fulfilled what could have been a strong career.

9. 1986: Jud Buechler, Tom Tolbert, Harvey Mason

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    Jud Buechler's NBA career summed up in a word: Trillions.

    Check out this gem from David Aldridge:

    55: Number of career "trillions" by former journeyman forward Jud Buechler, the most in league history, acording to a database created by the New York Times' "Off the Dribble" blog. A "trillion," if you don't remember, is when a player enters a game and plays at least one minute but doesn't do anything, creating zeroes in his box score. Reading across the box score, if you have a 1 followed by 12 zeroes, you'd have "1 trillion."

    There's something to be said for consistency.

    Truth told, Buechler was a contributor to some great NBA moments before ending his career deep on benches.

    Before he was riding out a surprisingly-long NBA career, Buechler and Tom Tolbert were pieces of Arizona's burgeoning onto the national scene.

    Buechler was a Pac-10 first teamer in his final season and finished with over 1,100 points (and had a sweet nickname: The Judge).

    Tolbert was one of the wild cards of the early glory years.

    A fierce rebounder, Tolbert was only in the program for two years after transferring out of UC Irvine to Cerritos College and then on to Tucson. He averaged better than 14 points and nearly six boards per in 1988.

    The 6'7" Long Beach, California native parlayed his years in Arizona, which included a Final Four berth in 1988, into a lengthy pro career after being selected late in the second round of the NBA draft by the then Charlotte Hornets, a similar story to Buechler's.

    And his post-hoops career is stellar, doing television commentary for the NBA Finals on ABC in 2003. He's also a popular San Francisco Bay Area radio host.

    Harvey Mason was a high-quality reserve guard for Arizona through three Pac-10 titles, and he went on to become a Grammy-winning music producer, even creating the latest "One Shining Moment." A knee injury limited his career.

8. 2001: Salim Stoudamire, Channing Frye, Will Bynum, Isaiah Fox and More

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    Salim Stoudamire is in the conversation as the most electric player in Arizona history.

    He occasionally sulked and clashed with the staff and his teammates, but he also ranked among the purest shooters and all-time clutch guards the program's rostered. This piece from John Gustafson of ESPN does strong work in retelling his tale.

    Stoudamire was an undersized shooting guard with a lethal three-point stroke and body control, and he posted among the all-time great seasons in program lore in his final year in Tucson, scoring 18.4 points per while hitting over 50 percent of his high-arching threes and 91 percent of his free throws.

    Stoudamire succumbed to injuries, which limited his court time, after playing three seasons in the NBA with the Atlanta Hawks, making $2.19 million in the process (Basketball-Reference.com). He extended the Stoudamire blood lines in Tucson, as he's the cousin of Damon Stoudamire (whose class, with Ray Owes, narrowly missed the cut).

    Channing Frye is the best center to ever play for Lute Olson, and also one of the most likable.

    A lanky 6'11", Frye possessed an automatic jumper from 16-feet and in. 

    And he's turned his stroke into a very nice NBA career, signing a five-year deal for $30 million with his hometown Phoenix Suns.

    Will Bynum, out of Chicago, was a phenomenal athlete for a 5'11" guard, and was considered the star of the class upon the initial entry of this crew to Arizona.

    But he was erratic under Olson, which cost him time on the court, and he eventually transferred to Georgia Tech—his stated reason being so he'd be closer to home so his mom could watch him play—where he helped the Yellow Jackets to the Final Four.

    He's also become a regular rotation member, at times, in the NBA with the Detroit Pistons.

    Dennis Latimore also seemed to own pro potential during the recruiting phase, but he struggled to crack the top eight for most of his tenure at Tucson, and eventually departed to Notre Dame.

    After a high-caliber freshman season, Isaiah Fox was set up to be a key player during his time at Arizona. But it all devolved from there, and in strange fashion.

    Fox was busted for stealing a bagel, two packets of cream cheese and a candy bar as a senior, a crime that could've cost him six months in jail and a $2,500 fine (ESPN). He got off with a small fine and community service. After that incident and injury issues, he wasn't much of a on-court contributor.

7. 1983: Steve Kerr, Pete Williams, Eddie Smith, Michael Tait

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    Lute Olson knew how to make a first impression.

    The initial Olson-era recruiting class included a slow, nonathletic, lightly-heralded guard out of Pacific Palisades, California: Steve Kerr.

    Kerr eventually became the greatest three-point shooter in the history of basketball... the greatest three-point shooter in the history of basketball.

    He hit over 45 percent of his threes in his NBA career and won five championships, three with Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls.

    All Kerr did at Arizona was play a leading role in taking Arizona to its first-ever Final Four in 1988.

    Junior college transfer Pete Williams went on to become a force on the glass for the Cats, averaging 14.5 points and 9.5 boards in his junior season.

    His numbers actually went down the next year, but he was still an effective power forward, one of the best on the glass of the Olson years. The Denver Nuggets took him in the fourth round of the 1985 NBA draft.

    Eddie Smith's final season was good enough to make him an NBA draft pick. He was an extremely steady presence in Olson's formative years at Arizona.

    Michael Tait transferred to Clemson.

6. 1999: Gilbert Arenas, Jason Gardner, Lamont Frazier, Robertas Javtokas

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    Gilbert Arenas' full story is drama riddled in sometimes humorous, always strange fashion.

    Lute Olson didn't have to fend off many suitors in recruiting Arenas to Arizona, as the smooth 6'3" guard wasn't a hot commodity at North Hollywood's Grant High School. 

    But he outplayed his prep reputation, becoming one of the top two-year players out of the program.

    Still, playing a vital role in guiding Arizona to the brink of a national championship as a sophomore wasn't enough to snare NBA-level love, as he wasn't selected until the second round in the 2001 draft.

    Eager to prove doubters wrong again, Arenas thrived in his early days in the Bay Area, and turned that into a $111 million contract with the Washington Wizards.

    But almost as soon as he became a star, he self destructed.

    Arenas allegedly drew a gun on his own teammate, Javaris Crittenton (who was later charged with murder in an unrelated case) in the locker room during a dispute.

    Already suffering from nagging injuries, Arenas was never the same after returning from the suspension involved in the gun case.

    Jason Gardner is among only four players to have a jersey floating in the McKale Center rafters. The others: Mike Bibby, Sean Elliott, Steve Kerr.

    The former Indiana Mr. Basketball averaged 14.6 points, 4.6 assists, 3.7 rebounds and 1.7 steals across his four-year stay under Olson, and was the lone starter to not bolt to the pro ranks following the 2001 title-game loss.

    Although he didn't have an NBA career, Gardner was among the most productive point guards under Lute Olson.

    Lamont Frazier was a rare junior college recruit, who played solid defense in a reserve role.

    Robertas Javtokas moved back to Lithuania after a short stay in Tucson, and played his way in to becoming a second-round pick of the Spurs in 2001.

5. 1973: Bob Elliott, Jerome Gladney, Herman Harris, Bob Aleksa and More

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    Bob Elliott set the standard for inside play at Arizona, a program that eventually became more known for its prowess on the perimeter.

    "Big Bird" Elliott is in the mix as the premier center to ever play in Tucson, averaging 18.7 points and 9.5 rebounds over his college years. That included a sophomore season in which his scoring spiked to 23.3 points per game.

    Although he struggled with injuries at times, he led his squad to two NCAA tourney appearances and was the school's all-time scoring and rebounding leader by the time he left campus (he's now second in each category).

    That led to a second-round selection in the NBA draft by Philadelphia (No. 20 in that round), before he played three years with the New Jersey Nets. 

    In his senior season, versatile forward Herman Harris blossomed into a scoring threat, averaging 20.1 points and just under four rebounds per game en route to being drafted one pick behind Elliott, with the 21st selection of the selection round, also by the 76ers.

    That 20.1 average more than doubled his previous season's production. But his pro career never really got started.

    Jerome Gladney's numbers were nothing spectacular in his college playing days, but his skills were good enough to make him a pro draftee, although he was aided by the fact that the NBA draft went way too many rounds in those days.

    Gladney was taken in the eighth round by the San Antonio Spurs in 1977.

    Len Gordy averaged over seven points and 4.5 assists as a senior at Arizona, making him a relatively key reserve as he actually outscored Gladney on teams that introduced the Wildcats to some national pub.

    Gary Harrison's final campaign under Snowden—who was the first black head coach in NCAA Division I history—was notable, yet another valuable piece from this crew, as he scored 9.3 points per game from his guard slot.

    Bob Aleksa became a lightly-used backup post. And Steve Kanner was an end-of-the-pine kind of a guy on several good teams.

4. 1994: Michael Dickerson, Miles Simon, Ben Davis, Donnell Harris and More

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    Michael Dickerson and Miles Simon evolved into two thirds of the starting backcourt trio—along with Mike Bibby—who were the driving force behind the 1997 national title (with bench help on the perimeter from Jason Terry).

    Simon was the tourney's most outstanding player, the instigator of the takedowns of three No. 1 seeds in that championship run (go ahead and revel in that video clip).

    Although his pro career was cut short due to injuries and a somewhat awkward shot, Simon's college career was dominant. And he took over the tournament in 1997, etching himself into the program's biggest moment.

    Dickerson was picked No. 14 overall in the 1998 NBA draft and went on to become an NBA difference maker, eventually signing with the Grizzlies for six years and $43 million.

    But a bizarre groin injury (a stress fracture) cut way short his tenure with the franchise, and he was forced to retire.

    He's made a couple of unsuccessful comeback attempts since, but still racked up over $46 million in contract money during his brief time in the NBA.

    In college, Dickerson was a scoring machine, an always on-balance scorer with nice mid-and-long range touch.

    During his short stay in Tucson after transferring from several different colleges (Kansas, Florida, Hutchinson Community College), Ben Davis was an authoritative presence in the middle, playing his way into the NBA with the Phoenix Suns and New York Knicks. He averaged over 14 points and nearly 10 boards per game as a senior.

    Also a member of this class was reserve center Donnell Harris who played well in the tourney run, but was booted off the roster the next year for discipline issues.

    Marty Bartmentloo left the program.

3. 1972: Al Fleming, Eric Money, Coniel Norman, Jim Rappis, Ron Allen and More

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    Fred Snowden debuted by recruiting four future pro players to his first class at Arizona.

    Eric Money (pictured) ended up enjoying the longest pro career of the foursome, playing 10 years with the Detroit Pistons, New Jersey Nets and Philadelphia 76ers. While at Arizona, he set the freshman scoring mark of 18.9, which remains intact.

    But he left school after just two seasons to pursue his pro aspirations, a rare move in those days, just as Arizona was peaking under Snowden (via TucsonCitizen.com). In what would've been his last season at Arizona, the Wildcats made a deep run in the tourney, coming up two games shy of the title game.

    Money's famous career highlight was scoring for both teams in a Philadelphia 76ers vs. New Jersey Nets game. He was traded from one side to the other in a game that ended up being completed on two different days due to a protest (Los Angeles Times).

    Along with his high-school teammate Money, Coniel "Popcorn" Norman also landed on an NBA roster. Before that, Norman left an indelible note on the program in his two years in Tucson, leaving with the highest career scoring average (23.9 points per game). That he still owns.

    However, Norman's pro career was short lived in Philadelphia and San Diego. He ended up in the military, and then things took a turn, according to this piece from the Arizona Daily Star's Patrick Finley. He moved back to Detroit, his home area, to live in a complex for homeless vets.

    Al Fleming—who owns the single-game scoring mark for any Arizona player at McKale Center with 41—was also in The Association, for an extremely brief period of time.

    Jim Rappis was a steady-shooting guard who averaged 13.3 points per game as a junior in his breakout scoring season. The Milwaukee Bucks took him in the fifth round, though he didn't find his way to a roster.

    Guard Ron Allen's brief tenure at Arizona saw him average right at 8.4 points per game.

    John Irving only lasted one season under "The Fox," averaging 4.1 points and a notable 6.2 boards.

    But he went on to become one of the best rebounders in Hofstra lore, taking down over 15 per game in his three years there.

    Dave Burns and Jim Wakefield saw sparse action over two seasons as post presences.

2. 1998: Luke Walton, Richard Jefferson, Michael Wright, Rick Anderson and More

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    Luke Walton came into Arizona with a famous pedigree, the son of Hall of Famer Bill Walton. And then he was groomed by one of college basketball's all-time coaching legends, Lute Olson.

    After battling injury issues of his own, Walton went on to play a starring role in Tucson, a 6'8" power forward with unusual instincts distributing the ball, rebounding skills and a sound mid-range game.

    He went on to become a multiple-time NBA-champ alongside Kobe Bryant with the Los Angeles Lakers and he currently owns a roster slot in Cleveland. He is one of the program's all-time faves.

    All Richard Jefferson did was develop into among the NBA's elite small forwards for a period. 

    Jefferson never overwhelmed in the scoring department at Arizona. But he did everything well, often in above-the-rim fashion. And he was a lockdown defender.

    In his NBA days, he teamed with Vince Carter to form a hyper-athletic tandem in New Jersey before moving on to Milwaukee, San Antonio and now Golden State.

    Michael Wright was a rare breed for Arizona basketball, a bruiser in the middle. A 6'7" power forward out of Chicago, Wright was a quiet enforcer with a complete game near the hoop and a decent close-range jumper. His lack of height limited his NBA potential as a power forward, but he had a long career overseas.

    Ricky Anderson (pictured) was overshadowed on Arizona's loaded rosters of the late 1990s-early 2000s. He was a lanky power forward with an outside stroke and a willingness to play his role as a late option on a team of stars. He averaged over 10 points and almost seven boards per game as a senior, hitting 37 percent of his threes.

    This class also featured Ruben Douglas, a gifted shooter who was something of a headache in his time in Tucson. Douglas went on to a featured role in New Mexico, becoming that program's fifth-leading scorer all time.

    Traves Wilson transferred out of Arizona after an unmemorable stay.

1. 1985: Sean Elliott, Kenny Lofton, Anthony Cook, Eric Cooper, Bruce Wheatley

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    Two classes after Steve Kerr's arrival, Olson brought in the landmark player in Arizona history.

    Sean Elliott was a local product, hailing from Tucson's Cholla High School. And his commitment to Lute Olson was crucial in developing the program into a national power.

    A smooth, long combo forward, the 6'7" Elliott was the Wooden Award winner, a two-time All-American and the leading scorer ever at Arizona.

    Professionally he went on to become a two-time NBA All-Star, playing a key role in the San Antonio Spurs' 1999 NBA title after drilling the Memorial Day Miracle in the Western Conference finals. Also playing in that game were Kerr, a reserve for the Spurs, and Damon Stoudamire, the Trail Blazers' point guard.

    Kenny Lofton, out of Chicago, was a blur on the basketball court, one of the first in the lineage of very good Arizona point guards.

    Lofton eventually made his mark in a different sport, securing a place among the best leadoff hitters of the modern era, his best years with the Cleveland Indians.

    Anthony Cook is the most productive power forward ever in Tucson, the main post presence during Arizona's rise into a tourney contender, manning the inside in the school's first Final Four. And he still owns the school record for blocked shots.

    Eric Cooper's two years at Arizona saw him average 1.7 points per game. Bruce Wheatley eventually was voted off by his teammates, according to Greg Hansen of the Arizona Daily Star.

    Elliott, Cook and Lofton form the core of the best recruiting class in Arizona history, as that was the group that started the program's ascent.

    Cooper, who transferred after a short stay in Tucson, owns a chance to contribute to Arizona further when his son, Eric Cooper Jr., takes the floor for Sean Miller (ESPN).