Most of us knew it would not be easy, but the past few weeks have shown us that Sean Miller has some work cut out for him in re-establishing Arizona basketball among the elite. The Cats have been dealt a few minor recruiting blows that shows the biggest obstacle in returning Arizona to the greatness of the Lute Olson era my be Lute Olson himself.
Just a few weeks ago the Wildcat faithful thought there was a chance that they could land both Kadeem Jack and Eloy Vargas and at the very least one of the two big men. Now it looks like both will head elsewhere and there is a very good chance Kentucky and North Carolina could swoop in and land the players.
It was not too long ago that Arizona could recruit head to head with those two schools, and any school in the country. That is not the case right now. Sean Miller has to overcome two things: 1. Five years of mediocrity. 2. That Arizona was a “one coach” program.
If you are a 17-year old recruit, you were 12 when Arizona fielded its last elite team. You were eight when they last went to a Final Four and you were in preschool when Arizona won the national championship. Conversely, they were 15 when North Carolina won their last national championship.
While we remember 1997 fondly, most high school basketball recruits can’t tell you much about that time. Mike Bibby is an aging point guard on the Atlanta Hawks, Miles Simon is a television announcer and they don’t know who Bennett Davison or Michael Dickerson are.
The fact is, the last five years have been less than awe inspiring for Wildcat basketball. While young recruits know the legacy, they may also go 12 (or more) years without Arizona putting a point guard in the NBA. Most recruits I talk to know Arizona’s reputation. They know of all the players in the NBA, but they have not witnessed most of the greatness.
I think the bigger challenge is proving that Arizona can once again be great under a new coach. Lute Olson was an established brand. Kids, parents and coaches knew Olson, knew his reputation and knew his ability to develop talent. They knew Olson would keep Arizona relevant and elite.
They don’t know that for sure about Miller. Sure Miller has a great reputation, but can Arizona be a contender with a coach other than Olson? Seton Hall did nothing after P.J. Carlisimo left. Stanford has not been the same without Mike Montgomery. Lon Kruger has been nice at UNLV, but he’s yet to come close to the heights of Jerry Tarkanian. Heck, Tom Crean has yet to step out of the Shadow of Bobby Knight, and Knight was three coaches ago.
The fact is, Arizona has only had real success under Olson, so getting recruits to automatically believe the program will remain elite under Miller has not been an easy sell.
That is not to say they can’t, or won’t, but right now the Josh Selby and Doron Lamb’s of the world feel that schools like Kansas and Kentucky are safer bets. Perhaps Jack and Vargas also feel safer with programs that have won regardless of who the coach is. If so, Kentucky and/or North Carolina may find themselves a couple of big men.
Good players believe in Miller already, but he needs to land a few more great ones and to do that he’ll have to win a few more games with the players he has.
Miller can win in Tucson and should win in Tucson. It just might be a little bit tougher than he originally thought.