NEW YORK – The way to win championships at the college level is through success on the recruiting front.
Regardless of whether a coach wins by bringing in a crop of top 50 recruits every season or through identifying the under-the-radar players who will thrive in their system, the key to winning games is bringing the right kids into the program.
Since he’s been at Arizona, Sean Miller has been a powerhouse recruiter, landing in eight four-star recruits and four five-star recruits once the Class of 2012 is included. You want a good gauge of how much talent has he brought into Tucson? Two four-star recruits — Momo Jones and Daniel Bejarano — have transferred out because they were recruited over. Perhaps more impressive is that both Derrick Williams, who was probably the best player in the country last season not named Jimmer or Kemba, and Kevin Parrom, who may be Arizona’s MVP this year, were three-star recruits coming out of high school.
So its no wonder that this year’s incoming class of Josiah Turner, Nick Johnson, Angelo Chol and Sidiki Johnson were the guys that got the majority of the headlines for Arizona over the past two months.
But the reason that Arizona is 4-0 right now, the reason they were able to overcome a 19-4 run that whipped St. John’s fans into a frenzy at Madison Square Garden — the Johnnies home-away-from-home — that put Arizona in a late 66-58 hole, was Miller’s veterans.
Only one freshman, Johnson, was playing during crunch-time on Thursday night. It was the play of Miller’s veteran leaders that sparked a game-winning, 18-2 run in Arizona’s 81-72 victory in the semifinals of the 2K Sports Coaches vs. Cancer Classic.
“Tonight we were more of a function of a couple of our veteran guys having been in the winner’s circle from a year ago,” Miller said after the game. “Finishing the game showed a lot of toughness.”
“We depended on our veteran and veteran leadership at the end of the game.”
There no question that Arizona has talent on their roster this year, but the knock on them, at least at this point in the season, is that they don’t have a go-to player. There is no star on this team. They don’t have that one guy that you can rely on to get a bucket in a crucial moment. There isn’t one player that can simply be isolated and asked to make a play to end a run or at the end of a game.
Tonight re-enforced that theory. There isn’t one star on this roster. Instead, Miller has three or four veterans that are capable of rising to the occasion.
The Wildcats looked like they were ready to take control of this game midway through the second half. After Turner threw Johnson a back-door alley-oop for a thunderous dunk, Arizona had a 54-47 lead with 14 minutes left and all the momentum in their favor. But Phil Greene answered with seven straight points, and after Chol gave Arizona the lead back on a lay-in, St. John’son scored 12 of the next 14 points to take an eight point lead and what appeared to be control of the game.
That’s when Arizona’s upperclassmen took over.
Kyle Fogg got into the middle of the St. John’s zone and found Johnson for a three. After a breakaway dunk by Turner, Fogg against broke down the zone and found Solomon Hill for a dunk. On the next possession, Jesse Perry made a nice move for a layup along the baseline and Hill followed that up with an offensive rebound, drawing a foul and hitting both free throws. All of a sudden, the Wildcats had the lead back.
The next three possessions were much of the same. Parrom found Fogg for an open three, Perry tipped in his own miss and Johnson found Parrom for yet another open three (Arizona made 14 of them), and with just 2:26 remaining, Arizona had a 77-70 lead and cruised to the nine point win.
“Very important,” Miller said when asked how valuable having multiple veterans capable of thriving when the lights are the brights. “That’s why I can’t understate the importance of Kevin Parrom because he’s now yet another very experienced player for us and, without him, we’re not nearly the same team.”
“Kyle looked like a seasoned, experienced player out there, and he is. He’s been in the Sweet Sixteen his freshman year, he’s been in the Elite Eight his junior year, he’s started now since I’ve been the coach at Arizona almost every game that he’s played, and you can feel that. Here we are in November of his senior year and he stepped up.”
Parrom and Fogg shot just 5-17 combined, but they had 11 assists to just a single turnover. Hill and Perry combined for 26 points and 17 boards, with seven coming on the offensive end of the floor.
With performances like that from his veterans, Sean Miller is going to win a lot of games this season.