Even if Williams leaves, history shows Arizona Wildcats can carry onby Javier Morales on Mar. 29, 2011, under Sports
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RELATED LINK: Analyzing Arizona’s recruiting classes since 1972
Arizona coach Sean Miller has a potential top five recruiting class to soften the blow if Derrick Williams foregoes his last two years with the Wildcats to enter the NBA draft and hires an agent.
What did former coach Fred Snowden, bless his soul, have in mind in a similar situation in 1974 with the threat of losing prolific-scoring sophomores Eric Money and Coniel Norman to the NBA?
This is what was written by Steve Weston of the Tucson Citizen near the end of Snowden’s second season at Arizona on March 2, 1974:
No. 1 on most (recruiting) lists this season is 6-11 Moses Malone from Petersburg, Va. “We hope to have him visit,” said Snowden. “Of course, he’d be a great asset to our program.”
A great asset? How about a validation for a national championship?
Moses, a 13-time NBA All-Star and Hall of Famer, never took that recruiting visit to Tucson, although he reportedly became interested in Snowden and the Wildcats after watching them play New Mexico in Albuquerque that season. He signed a national letter of intent with Maryland but eventually went straight from Petersburg High School to the ABA in 1974.
Money and Norman, meanwhile, were chosen in the NBA draft that year. Money was taken in the second round (the 33rd pick overall) and Norman was the first pick in the third round (37th overall). That equates to early-second round selections today because the number of NBA teams has increased from 18 then to 30 now.
How did the Wildcats respond the following season after they finished 19-7 and failed to reach the postseason in the final year with Money and Norman? They actually had a better season, finishing 22-7 after losing to Drake in the championship game of the defunct National Commissioner’s Invitational Tournament (which featured teams that finished second in their respective conference).
The Wildcats excelled behind All-Western Athletic Conference frontcourt players Bob Elliott and Al Fleming, and a solid recruiting class that included playmaker Gilbert Myles and burly forward Phil Taylor.
Sports Illustrated, noting the Wildcats would take on a more physical look without Money and Norman, rated the UA No. 16 that year in its preseason Top 20. Snowden wanted more of a fearsome defensive presence after the loss of his star guards, who combined for more than 40 points a game in their UA careers.
Taylor, SI wrote, “bears a strong resemblance to Sonny Liston.” Snowden, known for his hyperbole, told the magazine that the team would be his best at Arizona after he went 35-17 in his first two seasons in Tucson.
Snowden proclaimed that Arizona would be “one of the five best in America by season’s end.” He looked like a prophet when the Wildcats started 11-1, but they staggered down the stretch.
Chances are that Miller, who is more close to the vest, will not proclaim next season that Arizona will be one of the nation’s top five teams if Williams does not return.
However, similar to Snowden’s third team succeeding without Money and Norman, the Wildcats in Miller’s third year should remain competitive without Williams with the incoming recruits and returners such as Solomon Hill, Lamont “MoMo” Jones, Kyle Fogg, Jesse Perry, Jordin Mayes and Kevin Parrom. Sports Illustrated will undoubtedly rank the UA in its preseason poll, likely higher than No. 16 as Snowden’s bunch.
Neither situation erases the thought of “what could have been?” If Money and Norman returned, the Wildcats would have played in the NCAA tournament in 1974-75, not a second-tier postseason tournament. Arizona will stay afloat without Williams. But if the Wildcats do not go deep into the NCAA tournament next season, the natural thought will be: How far could they have advanced with him?
The third year at Arizona for Snowden, Miller and Lute Olson are remarkably similar. All of them turned around a downtrodden program by their third season.
>> Snowden, a Michigan assistant, became the first African-American head basketball coach for a major-college program when he was hired by Arizona in 1972-73. Before his arrival, the Wildcats suffered three straight losing seasons, including five out of the previous six seasons. His first recruiting class included Money and Norman, teammates at Detroit’s Kettering High School; Fleming, from Chicago; center John Irving of Wilmington, Del., and accomplished guard Jim Rappis of Waukesha, Wis. Irving transferred after his freshman season to Hofstra, where he led the nation as a sophomore with 15.3 rebounds per game. In Snowden’s fourth season, the Wildcats reached the 1976 NCAA Tournament West Regional finals behind Fleming, Taylor, Myles and Rappis, as well as Elliott and Herman Harris (both of whom were part of Snowden’s second recruiting class).
>> Olson took over the program that went 4-24 under Ben Lindsey before his arrival in 1983-84. Snowden took on an administrator role within Arizona’s athletic department after three straight losings from 1979-82. Lindsey’s dismal year followed before Olson arrived. Olson coached the Wildcats to a 21-10 record and NCAA Tournament berth in only his second season (1984-85). Olson did not lose players prematurely to the draft after that season, but All-Pac-10 selections Pete Williams and Eddie Smith exhausted their eligibility. Williams and Smith, both junior-college transfers, were part of Olson’s first recruiting class along with heralded guard Steve Kerr. Heading into his third season in Tucson, Olson immediately made up for the loss of Williams and Smith by attracting one of the program’s best recruiting classes in history. The Class of 1985 included Cholla High School star Sean Elliott, Anthony Cook of Van Nuys, Calif., and Kenny Lofton East Chicago, Ind. The Wildcats reached their first Final Four in 1988 with Elliott a junior and Kerr a senior (after he sat out 1986-87 with a knee injury).
>> Miller was hired in April 2009 after other high-profile coaches such as Jamie Dixon, John Calipari, Rick Pitino and Mark Few reportedly turned down the opportunity. Arizona was in a state of transition after playing consecutive years under interim coaches Kevin O’Neill and Russ Pennell following Olson’s leave of absence and sudden retirement in 2007 due to health issues. The Wildcats did not actively recruit during this period. After Miller’s hiring, he welcomed three players — Derrick Williams of La Mirada, Calif.; Jones of Harlem, N.Y., and Hill of Los Angeles — who either signed with USC or committed to play there. They left the Trojans after coach Tim Floyd, another Arizona coaching candidate, was forced to resign amid alleged NCAA recruiting violations. Parrom, of the Bronx, N.Y., and Ukrainian Kyryl Natyazhko were also part of Miller’s first recruiting class. The Wildcats struggled to a 16-15 overall record and failed to qualify for the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 25 years in Miller’s first season. Arizona improved to 30-8 in Miller’s second season, coming a missed three-point try at the buzzer away from reaching the Final Four.
Miller’s rise to the Elite Eight in only his second year is meteoric compared to Snowden (who made it that far in his fourth season) and Olson (fifth year).
The heralded Class of 2011, which recruiting gurus such as Van Coleman and Dave Telep call a “potential top five class”, should help make deep runs in the NCAA tournament common.
The class could start for most college programs: Josiah Turner, a 6-3 point guard from Winston-Salem (N.C.) Quality Education Academy by way of Sacramento, Calif.; Nick Johnson, a 6-3 shooting guard-wing from Henderson (Nev.) Findlay Prep by way of Gilbert; and Sidiki Johnson, a 6-8 power forward from the Bronx who played briefly this season with prestigious Mouth of Wilson (Va.) Oak Hill Academy.
Angelo Chol, a 6-8 shot-blocking post player from San Diego Hoover High School, has verbally committed to Arizona and should sign with the Wildcats on April 13, the first day of the spring signing period.
Derrick Williams was such an asset in Miller’s first two seasons that the UA’s success is a far cry from the building process under Snowden and Olson. The recruiting classes going forward will attempt to go only a step or two higher (Final Four and national championship) than what he did as only a sophomore. The Wildcats also won the regular-season Pac-10 title this season.
Olson won his first Pac-10 title in his third year, in Elliott’s freshman season. In terms of national prestige, Olson’s teams gradually improved year by year to reaching the pinnacle of the 1988 Final Four. As the years passed, Olson’s teams reloaded and played in four Final Fours, won a national title in 1997 and played for another championship in 2001.
Snowden won the WAC title and came one game from the Final Four in his fourth season, two years removed from the departure of Money and Norman. Recruiting shortcomings and player transfers spelled doom for Snowden in the last three years of his 10-year tenure.
The sudden deep run in the NCAA tournament signals that Miller is advanced enough as a coach that he will take Olson’s prolonged successful route, rather than Snowden’s short-lived time in the spotlight. Don’t forget: Miller and Olson had head coaching experience, including leading teams deep in the NCAA tourney, before moving to Tucson. Arizona was Snowden’s first head coaching gig.
The return of Derrick Williams will help Miller build a stronger foundation, but as Arizona’s followers have experienced before, the program has proven it can manifest itself.