Today especially, we are blinded by the hype of five star freshman. Seemingly, the top teams are judged by how much star talent they can squeeze into each recruiting class year after year. The perceived success of a basketball program, for better or worse, is largely based on how many top recruits they sign.
The recruiting arms race has taken hold as the dominant narrative in college basketball, most clearly exemplified by Kentucky’s historically star-laden roster this season. It’s gotten to the point where the Fab 5 seems innocuous.
Despite the way the game seems to be trending, it doesn’t necessarily mean the future of college basketball is in the consolidation of a few super-programs. The NBA has likely slipped too far down that slope, but the amateur game is still navigating the fork in the road.
On the spectrum of recruiting juggernauts, Arizona is not far from Kentucky. Sean Miller and the Wildcats have hoarded talent on a scale unsurpassed by anyone except John Calipari, making them just as big of a contributor to the rich-get-richer model of NCAA hoops.
But there’s one key difference between Arizona’s approach and Kentucky’s, a difference that ultimately characterizes the two paths elite college basketball teams could follow.
In addition to the five star, future lottery picks, Miller has managed to blend in three and four year players as well. You could argue that he’s done it better than any coach in the country.
Take Elliott Pitts, for example. During the 2013-14 season most eyes were focused on freshmen Aaron Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, while their classmate Pitts flew almost completely under the radar. And despite the lack of hype, Pitts has blossomed into one of the most intelligent players on Arizona’s roster in just a short period of time.
Pitts doesn’t have freaky athleticism, he doesn’t break defenders down one on one, and his style of play doesn’t lend itself to the highlight reel. But he’s smart, he’s fundamentally sound, and he knows how to play the game. Those are the qualities that are giving him court time as a young sophomore, where he’s performed admirably. And those qualities are what will also make him a vital part of Arizona’s success over the next two and a half years.
While the rest of the college basketball world was chasing down NBA prospects, Miller managed to sneak in a top 100 recruit that could end up being a valuable four year player. Instead of targeting another potential one and done, Miller chose a different route with his recruiting class.
And he did the same thing this year, bringing in phenom Stanley Johnson but also less heralded recruits like Parker Jackson-Cartwright and Dusan Ristic.
Jackson-Cartwright was nowhere on the NBA radar coming out of high school, and Ristic’s background in international play made for a less sexy headline. But here we are, not even at conference play of their freshmen season, and both appear like they could be solid four year contributors.
The diminutive Jackson-Cartwright has dazzled with his maturity and court awareness, two skills that often get lost in today’s NBA potential centered recruiting world. But that didn’t stop Miller from pursuing Jackson-Cartwright, with relatively little hype despite being a four star prospect. Just like with Pitts, it was a sneaky addition that didn’t cause a splash, but ultimately landed the program it’s point guard of the future.
And what can you say about Ristic, other than he’s simply better than anyone gave him credit for? That’s a tip of the cap to Miller’s eye for talent, but also his commitment to acquiring players that can contribute over several years. Ristic just set career highs in points and rebounds last game, showing a surprisingly skilled offensive touch as a 7 footer. He could easily become an All-Conference caliber player by the time he’s done, but that gets lost in the discussion about who has the best incoming freshmen.
Forward Craig Victor was a highly rated recruit, but not one that was expected to have a brief college career. When you can fold in players like Pitts, Jackson-Cartwright, Ristic, and Victor with the superlative but short lived contributions of pro-ready talent, that’s smooth batter indeed.
The recruiting game is volatile, talent seems to come in waves and everything is based on the ever changing emotions and opinions of 17 year old kids, a precarious situation for stability-hungry college coaches. One year you might snag numerous McDonald’s All-Americans, the next year they might go elsewhere, Kentucky is the only one that has been immune, so far.
That’s the ebb and flow of cycling through big recruiting classes every year, nothing is a given. It’s a live by the sword, die by the sword kind of thing. Just look what happened to Kansas last year, who produced two of the top three picks in the NBA draft and now have nothing to show for it but a second round exit. But when a program can develop a backbone of multi-year players in addition to the revolving door of stars, there’s more insurance against crapping out.
Ultimately, the way college basketball will evolve will depend on who wins championships. If Calipari brings more rings to Kentucky, the rest of the NCAA will do their best to copycat their formula for success. In that scenario, college hoops would end up just like the NBA, with no parity and a handful of contenders that gobble up all the available talent.
But if teams like Arizona were to dominate the landscape of the game in the coming years, then maybe the rest of the college basketball would pump their brakes on the idea of cramming as many five stars into one class as possible. In that scenario, the idea of player development and long term contribution wouldn’t be just for the have-nots.
Whoever ends up winning championships will decide that part of the plot.
Which is just another reason to root for Arizona.