TUCSON, Ariz. – Arizona fans have been fretting about basketball coach Sean Miller’s recruiting class since T.J. Leaf de-committed in early August.
The answer to the message board denizens and the talk-show callers is Lauri Markkanen.
Markkanen, a 6-foot-11 stretch forward from Finland committed last week on his official visit to Arizona, and, no matter what else happens from here, he’s the guy the Wildcats absolutely had to have. So, mission accomplished.
“I think that was huge for them to not only get a guy at a position of need, but maybe to calm some of the doubters a little bit,” said Matt Moreno, who covers the recruiting scene and runs goazcats.com on the Rivals network.
“There were people who were starting to think Arizona can’t recruit anymore. That’s definitely not the case. It gets the ball rolling for them now.”
Arizona is going to lose Kaleb Tarczewski, Ryan Anderson and Mark Tollefsen from its frontcourt after this season, so the key piece to the 2016-17 puzzle was adding a talented big guy to a roster that figures to still be strong in the backcourt, even without additional talent.
Markkanen will step into an immediate opportunity, joining 7-footer Dusan Ristic and 6-11 Chance Comanche, a freshman who is rapidly putting on the muscle needed for a bigger role next season.
Markkanen is a lottery type of talent in my opinion. Can stand to get tougher but he's a great NBA fit. pic.twitter.com/Xe521xdmVh
— Mike Schmitz (@Mike_Schmitz) October 17, 2015
Markkanen picked Arizona over North Carolina (his father played for Roy Williams at Kansas) and Utah (his mentor is former Utes star Hanno Mottola). So, yes, this was big. Recruiting analysts peg Markkanen as no worse than a top 25 prospect if he were a high school senior in the United States.
Mitch Lightfoot, a hard-working three-star forward from Gilbert (Ariz.) Christian, is set to announce his decision Saturday. Arizona seemed like the frontrunner, but the momentum reportedly is swinging toward Kansas.
The Wildcats’ No. 1 target all along has been the nation’s No. 1 prospect — wing Josh Jackson. This recruitment is far from over, but Michigan State — which recently got a commitment from Jackson’s good buddy, five-star Miles Bridges — appears to be the team to beat.
“Now that Michigan State is putting together one of their best classes — maybe their best class ever — I think it makes it all the more appealing to him,” Moreno said.
Beyond that, Arizona has its eyes set on 4-star combo guard Andrew Jones from Irving, Texas. It looks as if he’ll decide in the spring.
“He can do so many things,” Moreno said.
“He can play the point, but he’s so fast up and down the court. He provides something I don’t think I have really seen from a combo guard at Arizona. Maybe he doesn’t have that same leaping ability as a guy like Nick Johnson, but he’s just so fast.
“And he’s a willing defender, which is going to be one of the things Sean Miller always looks at anyway.”
Arizona has at least five potential spots in the 2016 class (four seniors and an open scholarship). For the sake of argument, let’s say the Wildcats sign Markkanen and one other high school player. No problem. After the season, Miller probably will tap into the transfer market, immediately eligible or otherwise, and call it good.
As he said earlier this month about this class: “This year a lot of things are going to happen for us later, not earlier.”
Miller has done a great job of replenishing the roster and filling holes with good-fit transfers, such as point guard Mark Lyons (Xavier), point guard T.J. McConnell (Duquesne) and, for this season, Anderson (Boston College), Tollefsen (San Francisco) and guard Kadeem Allen (junior college).
“I think Miller likes those guys,” Moreno said. “He likes having that senior leadership, those older guys. For every top graduate transfer, Arizona is going to be in play. Arizona is going to offer him a home.”
It’s a constant re-invention.
“It used to be a puzzle that maybe you looked at through a four- or five-year window of time,” Miller said of recruiting. “All of us have to look at it in a one-year window of time because a lot can change in six months. …
“With transfers, it slows down some of that transition, and instead of always welcoming in 18-year-old new faces who have never been a part of college, you can cushion some of the loss with somebody like a Ryan Anderson, who’s played in the ACC for three years, who also practiced with us over 100 times last year.”
Miller has certainly earned some trust. He’s had had five consecutive top-six recruiting classes, according to the 247Sports Composite. He has signed 10 five-star prospects in that span. Only Kentucky’s John Calipari has signed more.
Maybe this class won’t end up that high. (Yes, if Arizona lands Jackson, no if it doesn’t). But Markkanen was the big piece. All is well. Miller and staff are all over many of the best in the 2017 class.
Miller has dominated northern and southern California. But Cal and coach Cuonzo Martin have emerged as a force. UCLA, fueled with imports from the Compton Magic AAU team (T.J. Leaf, ahem), is loading up. So, no doubt, the landscape is changing.
But, as shown by Markkanen’s commitment, there’s not much reason to worry about Arizona.