It’s no secret that UCLA is on a recruiting trail. The Bruins have made a number of major in-roads in 2015. Already they have landed five-star prospects Kevin Porter Jr. (ISP), Kris Wilkes (Lafayette), Jaylen Nowell (Wash. CC) and Matt Jones (Gonzaga) to name a few. But, on the flipside, no major in-conference university has recruited with the same fury as our Bruins. Washington State, Oregon State, USC, Arizona State and Arizona all have thrown money into the UCLA-centric Pac-12 and it’s clear that the Bruins have the upper hand.
UCLA had a strong half this season, making the NCAA basketball tournament and finishing fourth in the Pac-12 conference, the school’s best finish in the conference since they were fourth in the conference in 2009. They had an impressive back-court, with TJ Leaf putting up some eye-popping stats and the team’s leading scorer Tony Parker. They also had a solid front-court, led by Kevon Looney.
7:00 A.M. EASTERN TIME
ESPN continued its Sales Pitch (ESPN+) series this week, looking at the Pac-12 men’s basketball programs that have the most and least benefit in recruiting and transfers on campus. After reviewing the results of our poll, ESPN.com writers Myron Medcalfe, Jeff Borzello, John Gasway and Joe Lunardi discussed some of the intricacies of recruiting in the Pac-12, including whether UCLA started recruiting early in Mick Cronin’s tenure, the intricacies of identifying prospects at Arizona and Oregon, and which program deserves special mention for its ability to do more with less.
Follow this link to read what anonymous coaches had to say about recruiting in the ACC, Big East, Big Ten and Pac-12.
Mick Cronin’s 2019 recruitment at UCLA was met with healthy skepticism, but Cronin’s first two teams have made huge strides against the odds. What part of Cronin’s project at UCLA impressed you the most? Are the Bruins once again the unquestioned team to beat on the Pac-12 recruiting trail?
Medcalf: I was on campus with him the first few months of his term. I have spoken to a number of supporters and followers. Most people thought UCLA would find a coach with a higher profile. Some felt cheated in their second consecutive search for a coach. It just wasn’t clear if Cronin would appeal to this fan base and its expectations after finalizing his divorce from Steve Alford. But Cronin didn’t let on. He wasn’t going to do anyone any favors. He promised to make UCLA a stronger team and earn his team’s support with his tenacity. I think he accomplished that.
I love how this group has fought for Cronin the last two seasons. He always demanded that his players work hard, while creating a strong bond with them. It worked in Westwood. Last year, UCLA finished in the top 50 of KenPom in adjusted defensive efficiency for the first time since 2014. A good Bruins team, I think, will be an untrained lead dog on the recruiting trail. It will be hard to compete with players who have the opportunity to play for UCLA, live in Westwood and compete for a national championship. The formula has not changed for this legendary program.
Borzello : When Cronin took over the team, the biggest questions were about his desired style of play and his ability to recruit at the highest level. He answered many doubts by reaching the Final Four after missing a game at Oregon in the regular season. But Cronin hasn’t given up what brought him success at Cincinnati and Murray State. The pace of his game has not changed since his nine consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances with the Bearcats. The Bruins had success in the NCAA Tournament with a physical style of play that worked extremely well in the half court. He did not compromise, and that is remarkable.
And on the recruiting trail, Cronin certainly answered the call. The Bruins recruited five-star point guard Dashen Nix in the 2020 class, but Nix opted to transfer to the G-League. He responded well in 2021 with Peyton Watson – a potential lottery pick – and Will McClendon, and started very well in 2022 with elite guard Amari Bailey and point guard Dylan Andrews. If Johnny Euzang returns to Westwood next season, UCLA will be a top 5 team according to the preseason, and the Bruins seem to be in good shape.
Johnny Euzang’s success after transferring from Kentucky to UCLA should help the Bruins in the future transfer market. Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images
Gas Road: When UCLA fired Steve Alford in December 2018, I uttered the following sentence: The efforts of such diverse personalities as Alford, [Ben] Howland and Steve Lavin suggest that the next Bruins coach will last more than four seasons and win about 70 percent of his games. And here we are: Cronin played two seasons and won 65% of the time. Among these victories, of course, was the remarkable Final Four, which lasted until the 45th minute. The minute of the national semi-final lasted. In that respect, Cronin is more like Bruce Pearl in 2019.
On the other hand, coaching at UCLA comes with a little more pressure than at Auburn. What impressed me the most was Cronin’s ability to thrive in an environment where the ghosts of a glorious past have finally prevailed over his predecessors. Sure, it could happen with Cronin, but so far all signs are positive. Next season, the Bruins could have their best team since Lonzo Ball and T.J. Leaf led UCLA to a 15-3 record in the Pac-12 in 2017. Despite the ups and downs of this program, recruiting has rarely been an issue at Westwood over the past two decades. Cronin is poised to continue this trend by attracting elite talent, whether they are transfers or high school stars.
Lunardi: Cronin, the supposed embodiment of ugly – yet winning – basketball, coached America’s 11th most efficient offense last season. UCLA didn’t play fast (341st in adjusted tempo according to KenPom), but the Bruins played very well. Maybe Cronin just needed some more skills in Cincinnati. Cronin had enough last year to reach the surprising Final Four, and he’ll have even more if he becomes the national favorite in 2022. The Pac-12 is the best place with UCLA at the top, and the hiring of a once-questionable coach has put the Bruins in the best possible position after three consecutive Final Four appearances under Howland.
How do you think Tommy Lloyd’s formation at Arizona will differ from Sean Miller’s or Lut Olson’s? What bothers you most about Lloyd as he builds his program?
Gas Road: You want me to believe that Arizona’s team will become more international under Lloyd, because his specialty in Spokane was bringing in players from all over the world. Well, I refuse to give in to your smart move! From Lauri Markkanen (Finland) and Dušan Ristić (Serbia) to Deandre Ayton (Bahamas), Nico Mannion (Italy) and Josh Green (Australia), the Wildcats’ roster was already quite international before the new coach arrived.
My biggest concern about Lloyd’s has nothing to do with home field and everything to do with the NCAA. Arizona plays basketball in the shadow of an indictment accusing the program of five Level 1 violations. The Wildcats have banned themselves from the postseason for the 2021 season, but until Arizona resolves the FBI investigation once and for all, the program will be shrouded in an atmosphere of lingering uncertainty.
Borzello : Arizona had seven foreign recruits on the roster last season, and while some of them left through the transfer portal, Lloyd will feel like he’s in familiar territory after putting himself on the map as the sport’s best international recruiter during his time at Gonzaga. Some of the top NBA talent that came to Tucson under Sean Miller also came from overseas, so it wouldn’t be unusual for the Wildcats to have Lloyd scouting talent in Europe or Canada. It remains to be seen if Lloyd will bring back as many five-star prospects as the previous regime, where Miller brought back top-seven classes seven seasons in a row, but Lloyd also played a key role in recruiting five-star prospects like Jalen Suggs, Chet Holmgren and Hunter Sallis into the final two classes.
Tommy Lloyd is a well-known international recruiter who works for a school that has great success with international students. Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports
This problem is entirely the fault of the NCAA. Part of the reason Arizona used so many foreigners last season is the difficulty in attracting top American athletes, who have increasingly suffered from negative recruiting and concerns about instability within the program. And then there are the potential NCAA sanctions. Will the Wildcats be out of the postseason for another year or two? Will the stock markets be lowered? Unanswered questions could get Lloyd in trouble on the recruiting trail.
Lunardi: You have to wonder why Lloyd, who probably could have chosen any position – including Gonzaga if Mark Few went fishing forever – went to Arizona in the first place. Does the university administration know something about leniency that we don’t? And Lloyd? Of course, we can’t know that at the moment. Ultimately, I expect Lloyd and the Wildcats to recruit top players at home and abroad when the dust settles.
Medcalf: I think you’ll see more guys like Lauri Markkanen. And I don’t think that means it has to be international candidates. In Tucson, Lloyd can recruit from anywhere. But I think his teams will include versatile strikers and good players. Gonzaga just presented a lot of inconsistency at positions 3, 4 and 5. Rui Hachimura goes to the basket. Przemek Karnowski with his deft passes for the double teams. Killian Tilly is sprawled on the floor. Corey Kispert plays like a solid 6-foot-7 scorer who can hurt the team anywhere.
But I think this is all premature until we know what is going to happen with this independent unification process. We don’t know how this group thinks or acts. They did not close any of the cases submitted to them. They may be more lenient than traditional NCAA checkers, but what if they want to make every school that had anything to do with the FBI scandal pay stiff penalties that will haunt teams for years to come? There are a lot of unknowns. As a result, we may not see Tommy Lloyd’s team in Tucson until the third or fourth season, if the Wildcats don’t get punished.
Under Dana Altman, Oregon has done an excellent job of finding the right candidates in the transfer market. If you were to recommend one of the Pac-12 programs to a friend, would you choose the Ducks? Who then?
Borzello : Altman was one of the first head coaches to begin building the team through the transfer market, and he has done so consistently every spring. Oregon always seems to have a few tricks up its sleeve for the rest of the summer, constantly changing its lineup before the preseason begins. That’s partly because the school switched to a quarterback system, which allowed them to get late reps like N’Fali Dante or Dillon Brooks. As for successful transfers, there are countless examples of players who arrived in Eugene and made an immediate impression. So I would have no problem recommending Oregon to a translator friend. At worst, for a year or two, he gets the best Nike has to offer.
Medcalf: Identifying the right transfers is an art, and Altman not only found the best players for his program, but he quickly integrated them into his culture at Oregon. I would recommend Oregon to a transfer first, not only for those reasons, but also because of all the talent Altman has sent to the next level lately. Dillon Brooks just signed with the Memphis Grizzlies for $35 million. Many former Ducks players, including Brooks, are in the NBA playoffs. That says a lot about Oregon’s ability to develop talent.
If not Oregon, then maybe UCLA. Tahj Iddi and other transfers have done well for the Trojans. But I think Oregon has a distinct home field advantage.
Villanova transfer Dylan Ennis helped Dana Altman and Oregon reach the Final Four in 2017. Jamie Squire/Getty Images
Gas Road: I think I would suggest my transfer friend choose between Oregon and UCLA. He can’t go wrong with those two. Dylan Ennis thrived in Eugene after his transfer from Villanova, former Georgetown standout Paul White was a 60-time starter for the Ducks, Elijah Brown had a good senior season after playing at Butler and New Mexico, and former Rutgers star Eugene Omorui was the centerpiece of the Oregon offense last season. As for UCLA, anyone who saw Johnny Eusang leave Kentucky and then impose his will on several NCAA Tournament contenders last March knows that a transfer can thrive in Westwood.
Lunardi: As I gear up for a cold, wet holiday weekend in New Jersey, almost every Pac-12 campus seems like a recommended destination. Even in Oregon, with its humid climate. The Ducks make up for it by having the best coach in the league. So, yes, Dana Altman would be my first choice.
Name another Pac-12 program that doesn’t get the credit it deserves for forming the team.
Borzello : Colorado is the program most often cited by coaches in the league for recruiting players above their weight class. Tad Boyle always manages to find guys who don’t stand out, whether it’s Spencer Dinwiddie, Derrick White or McKinley Wright. NCAA Tournament star Jabari Walker didn’t even have an ESPN recruiting profile.
Boyle hasn’t competed for the Pac-12 title every season, but the Buffaloes appeared in the NCAA Tournament four out of five times early in his tenure, made it to the tournament in 2020 and were ranked No. 5 this season. And maybe that success will spill over into recruiting: Colorado’s recruiting class, ranked No. 9 in the country, will arrive next fall.
Medcalf: For all the reasons Jeff mentioned, I think it’s Colorado. Buffalo is essentially a Purdue of the Pac-12. I think the talents Thad Boyle found and developed were the key to his success. He caught George King in Texas. He had success with Spencer Dinwiddie and other west coast players. McKinley Wright is originally from Minnesota. That’s what you have to do when you’re competing with strong recruits like Oregon, Arizona and UCLA in the Pac-12. You have to be creative. And it’s not easy to do. Just ask Washington State, Oregon State, Cal, or any other program that has tried to compete for talent in this conference.
Thad Boyle (along with McKinley Wright) produces top-notch teams in Colorado, but you don’t hear much about it. Maddie Meyer/Getty Images
Lunardi: I’m optimistic about what Craig Smith can accomplish at Utah, but he has yet to coach a Pac-12 game. Then add me to the Colorado Glee Club. Thad Boyle has proven that he can both build the team and develop his players long term. Let’s hope that formula holds true for Buffalo in the age of the transfer portal and its wandering eyes.
Gas Road: USC has had great times here. The first step in the process was to find a man with two sons who are at least 6 feet tall and then hire the father as an assistant coach.
Since Eric Mobley joined the team in March 2018, the Trojans have improved in each of the last three seasons. Isaiah and especially Evan Mobley certainly played a big part in that, but they had help. Nick Rakocevic, Onyeka Okongwu and Tahj Eaddi have also played their part in the revival. Andy Enfield led USC to the eighth finals in March, earning its best NCAA Tournament performance since 2001. Without the even more impressive success of a rival outside the city, the Trojans’ achievements might have attracted attention.