When Sean Miller took the Arizona job in April, he studied Lute Olson's empire -- the 11 Pac-10 titles, four Final Fours and national championship that preceded the recent chaos -- and noticed that early on Olson had received an improbable recruiting gift.
In 1983, the year Olson left Iowa for Arizona, the boys' varsity basketball team at Tucson's Cholla High featured a sophomore named Sean Elliott, who would go on to become a McDonald's All-American.
When Elliott graduated in '86, he stayed in his hometown to play for the Wildcats. In '88, he led them to the Final Four; in '89 he won the Wooden Award and was the No. 3 pick in the NBA draft. Elliott was the face of Arizona's rise into a superpower, but what were the odds that he'd fall into Olson's lap? There hadn't been a Tucson-born NBA player prior to Elliott, and there hasn't been one since.
There was next to nothing waiting for Miller in Tucson when he arrived, and he was in dire need of some recruiting luck. "I looked around the locker room," he said, "and understood we were starting from scratch." Following the Wildcats' Sweet 16 loss to Louisville, juniors Chase Budinger, Jordan Hill and Nic Wise -- who accounted for 71.1 percent of their offense in '08-09 -- put their names in the NBA draft. Only six players were returning, and a grand total of zero class of '09 recruits had been signed, due to the fact that the program had three different head coaches over the previous three seasons -- Olson, Kevin O'Neill and interim Russ Pennell.
Memphis' John Calipari, Pitt's Jamie Dixon, Gonzaga's Mark Few and USC's Tim Floyd all turned down overtures for the Arizona job, and Miller didn't immediately accept his offer from Wildcats athletic director Jim Livengood. Instead, the Xavier coach flew back to Cincinnati from their meeting in Albuquerque on April 5, and reports surfaced that he was turning down the gig. Miller had some legitimate concerns about the personnel situation; as he said, "There were no guarantees that we'd be able recruit anyone from the 2009 class."
In the brief window while Miller was wavering, James Whitford, one of Xavier's assistant coaches, phoned Kyryl Natyazhko, a 6-foot-11 Ukrainian from Florida's IMG Academy who was the Musketeers' top unsigned recruiting target in the Class of '09 (with a four-star rating from Rivals.com). Whitford told Natyazhko that he didn't think Miller was leaving for Arizona. "Coach!" Natyazhko replied. "You" -- and by this he meant the Xavier staff -- "should go to Arizona. That would be good for me."
Natyazhko, it turned out, already loved the Southwest after visiting Arizona State, and he had been worried about competing for playing time on Xavier's deep front line (the Musketeers already had Jason Love and Kenny Frease, plus possibly Derrick Brown returning). "He had wanted Xavier to be in Arizona, without all the big men," Whitford said.
When Miller changed his mind on April 6 -- following an increased contract offer to five years at $1.6 million per -- he was able to offer Natyazhko such a situation. Five days later, Natyazhko committed to him on the phone without even visiting the Tucson campus.
Whitford, who joined Miller at Arizona, remained in Cincinnati for part of that first week, and was researching his new team on the Internet when he came across a Rivals.com story from April 7 that mentioned Solomon Hill, a four-star small forward (and No. 27 player overall in the Class of 2009) from Los Angeles who was committed to USC. Hill had decommitted from Arizona in October 2008, and the Web site wrote that his father, Solomon Crawford, would be "open to pitches" from both Miller and John Calipari at Kentucky.
Whitford phoned Crawford and said, "I don't want to recruit anyone who's committed, but I just read this article ..." Crawford stopped him there. "He's not going to USC," he said of his son. "He's either going to Kentucky or Arizona, and I don't want him far from home."
On April 11, hours after Natyazhko committed, Hill switched his allegiance to the Wildcats. In just six days on the job, Miller had brought in two top-100 recruits -- a coup that late in the recruiting game. In May he added another member of Rivals.com's 150, three-star Bronx small forward Kevin Parrom, whom assistant Emmanuel Richardson, a Queens, N.Y., native, had originally lured to Xavier in '08. Miller may not have landed a Sean Elliott, but he had a talented foundation in place, and this, he said, "was a relief."
Arizona continued to catch breaks. Whereas Hill was a projected lottery pick (going No. 8 overall to the Knicks) and Budinger was thought to be a first-rounder (he fell to 44th overall), Wise's draft stock wasn't as strong, and on June 6, he announced he was returning for his senior season. He said that what Miller had done on the recruiting front mattered immensely. "If we didn't have those recruits," Wise said, "I wouldn't have come back. I'm too much of a winner, and we would've only had six players. I have no idea where the rest would have come from."
Three days after Wise's back-to-school announcement, Floyd resigned at USC in the wake of allegations he'd made a cash payment to an associate of O.J. Mayo, and Arizona moved quickly to capitalize on the disarray in L.A. Hill had already jumped to Tucson, but this put two other Trojan commitments -- four-star point guard LaMont "Momo" Jones, Rivals' No. 68 player overall, and three-star power forward Derrick Williams -- into play.
The Wildcats enjoyed a slight advantage in Jones' newly opened recruiting battle, which came down to Arizona and Florida: Richardson happened to be Jones' godfather. Jones committed on June 24. Getting Williams, whom Miller desperately wanted to help fill out Arizona's front line, wasn't as easy. But when Miller asked Williams' sister, who had been a high school basketball player in La Mirada, Calif., what she knew about Arizona, she mentioned that a couple of her former teammates had gone there. "It turned out that she had been on the same team with [Olympic softball star] Jennie Finch," Miller said.
"I told her, 'That's a pretty good Arizona athlete from your high school.'" While the Finch connection isn't what swayed Williams, it was, at the very least, another "in" with his family. He committed to the 'Cats on June 27.
That fivesome -- all of whom should be a part of Arizona's rotation in '09-10 -- gave Miller Rivals' No. 13-ranked recruiting class, the result of a three-month whirlwind of good fortune.
Without them and Wise, Arizona would have relied on junior forward Jamelle Horne (6.8 ppg last season) and sophomore guard Kyle Fogg (6.1) as their primary offensive options, and most likely suffered through an abysmal year in the Pac-10 cellar.
Reinforcements are on the way for '10-11, too: The Wildcats made their first recruiting splash of the fall last Wednesday, when Miller and Richardson's East Coast connections helped land Rod Odom, a four-star small forward (No. 88 overall) from Concord, Mass. The second -- and even bigger -- development came on Thursday, when Daniel Bejarano, a four-star shooting guard (No. 57 overall) from Phoenix, committed.
Bejarano is the only four-star-or-above prospect in the entire state of Arizona in the Class of 2010, and he came to the Wildcats due to a tragic circumstance. He had long been committed to Texas, but in June, his father was murdered during a break-in in Phoenix, and Bejarano re-evaluated his college choice and decided he wanted to stay close to home. The logical two options were Arizona and Arizona State.
Miller visited Bejarano's house on the same day he decommitted from Texas -- Oct. 1 -- and the Sun Devils eventually rescinded their scholarship offer at the 11th hour. At a dinner at a Tucson steakhouse on Thursday night, Bejarano toasted his family members and announced that he wanted to be a Wildcat, and on the way out of the hotel on Friday morning, he made a quick recruiting pitch to Adreian Payne, a five-star center from Dayton, Ohio, who was beginning his official visit.
All the recruiting-fueled optimism has caused fans begin asking Miller if he can keep the school's streak of 25 straight NCAA tournament trips alive, a feat that won't be easy given their level of inexperience, and the fact that none of their freshmen is a one-and-done level star who can contribute at Wise's level.
Miller answers them all the same way, which is, "I didn't come here to continue the streak." Bringing Arizona back will be a multi-year mission, and its fans should appreciate their early luck. Had the breaks gone the other way, Tucson could've been a disaster area. Wise could've gone to Europe, leaving them rudderless. They could have wasted scholarships on mid-major talent to fill empty roster space.
And remember: Arizona could have hired Tim Floyd.