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Kentucky gets the nod for having the best recruiting class from the late-signing period and as well as the one with the most NBA-level talent. Cincinnati grabbed the headlines for taking Lance Stephenson, the last big name, and possibly one of the most significant players in this year's class if he can elevate them to a conference contender.
But no one may have pulled off a bigger coup than Arizona under Sean Miller.
"On April 7, we had no one," Miller said.
Now, on July 1, the Wildcats have a team that is certainly capable of making a run for a top-3 finish in the Pac-10 and keeping alive a remarkable streak of 25 straight appearances in the NCAA tournament.
Miller had no idea the "Arizona brand" was so powerful until he got to Tucson. Seeing Jordan Hill go No. 8 in the NBA draft to the New York Knicks, Luke Walton win an NBA championship with the Los Angeles Lakers, and Richard Jefferson get traded from Milwaukee to San Antonio as one of the NBA offseason's key moves further enhanced the rep of the school under Hall of Fame coach Lute Olson as a factory for elite talent.
"The Arizona brand speaks for itself," Miller said. "It's an amazing recruiting tool."
Miller was fortunate that Tim Floyd imploded at USC. Arizona landed three former members of the USC recruiting class in wings Solomon Hill and Derrick Williams and guard Lamont Jones. The Cats also added Kevin Parrom, a onetime Xavier recruit under Miller, and Kyryl Natyazhko, who was heavily recruited by Pitt and Xavier. The five-player class has a little bit of everything -- a point, three wings and a center.
Kentucky's haul of guard John Wall, forward DeMarcus Cousins, point Eric Bledsoe and wing Darnell Dodson late, plus the retention of forward Daniel Orton (a Billy Gillispie signee), may produce multiple NBA-level talents and could put the Wildcats in the Final Four (along with returning all-SEC forward Patrick Patterson) if they mesh.
Cincinnati's addition Tuesday of big guard Lance Stephenson out of Brooklyn's Lincoln High, ranked No. 12 on the ESPNU top 100, to go along with the return of guard Deonta Vaughn, forward Yancy Gates and point Cashmere Wright means the Bearcats picked up a season-changing recruit (to go along with two other key newcomers in the class in point Jaquon Parker and shooting guard Sean Kilpatrick).
Kentucky was expected to be a major player on the scene as soon as John Calipari moved north from Memphis. The Stephenson pickup was unexpected for the Bearcats after the soap opera in his recruitment from all over the country, which reportedly touched even Arizona (though a Cats source denies this).
Miller's performance in late recruiting shouldn't come as a shock considering his recent success at Xavier in taking that program deep into the NCAAs and dominating the A-10. Still, he still made sure the Wildcats won't fade from relevance anytime soon. There was fear of an Indiana-like situation with the departures of Hill and Chase Budinger and a void in recruiting during two seasons of interim coaches. But Miller offered stability immediately. Having senior point guard Nic Wise come back gives the Wildcats an anchor to right the newcomers.
Wise didn't make the U.S. team for the World University Games, which is currently competing in Serbia, after he withdrew from the NBA draft. But Wise looked as though he had a bit of a post-draft hangover while competing in Colorado Springs. Miller was there for the first day and isn't fretting about Wise's decision-making. He said he expects Wise to be just fine under his get-it-and-go system. Miller, a former point guard, thrived with smaller playmakers like Drew Lavender. He should enjoy coaching Wise, too.
The Wildcats' schedule will be challenging early, with an appearance in the Maui Invitational against likely favorite Maryland and/or Gonzaga. Hosting UNLV, NC State and Northern Arizona, playing BYU in Phoenix, going to Oklahoma in the Pac-10-Big 12 Challenge and playing at San Diego State should prep the Wildcats for a run toward a possible bid out of the Pac-10.
• Richmond coach Chris Mooney expects the Spiders to contend for the Atlantic 10 title, challenging Dayton, Xavier and anyone else that figures to be in the mix. But he's also trying to put the Spiders in position to receive an NCAA tournament at-large berth. To do that, Mooney knew he had to upgrade the nonconference schedule. Tuesday, Mooney finalized the slate that should put the Spiders in position to be taken seriously if they can win some of these games.
The Spiders (20-16, 9-7 A-10), who get back center Dan Geriot from a torn ACL that kept him out of last season, return the top 3 scorers from last season's team -- Kevin Anderson (16.6 ppg.), David Gonzalvez (16 ppg) and Justin Harper (9.2 ppg) -- giving them a chance to be in the discussion come March.
Mooney said the Spiders will play in the South Padre Island event with Mississippi State, Missouri and Old Dominion. Mooney said the Spiders are guaranteed to play MSU, the favorite in the SEC West. Richmond is also playing at South Carolina, another possible NCAA tournament team from the SEC. Mooney picked up an open spot in the Orange Bowl Classic in South Florida against Florida, another team that could be in the NCAA tournament mix. Richmond is also at Wake Forest, VCU and William & Mary and hosts Chattanooga and UNC-Wilmington. That means Richmond will play three SEC teams -- a good year to do that -- one ACC team and possibly one Big 12. The rest of the A-10 should take note of this schedule. This is how you put yourself in position for a possible at-large bid if you don't win the automatic berth in a conference not among the power six.
• The addition of Stephenson, assuming he's eligible, should put Cincinnati in the thick of the chase for third in the Big East. Maybe I'll be wrong, but I'm conceding the first two spots to Villanova and West Virginia. After that, though, Cincinnati, Georgetown, Connecticut, Notre Dame, Pitt, Louisville and Syracuse can make a case for third. The other team that could potentially climb a bit more is Seton Hall, which adds transfers Herb Pope (New Mexico State) and Keon Lawrence (Missouri).
• USC assistant coach Bob Cantu is becoming an institution on campus. Cantu has survived multiple coaching changes. Cantu has worked under Henry Bibby, Rick Majerus, Jim Saia, Tim Floyd and now Kevin O'Neill.
• Wing Marcus Johnson, who played in only 16 games last season for the Trojans because of a combination of a shoulder injury and his midyear transfer from Connecticut the previous season, is now expected to come back to campus. Johnson won a waiver for a fifth season of eligibility but then initially said he was going to pursue the NBA. He went undrafted, and the USC staff expects Johnson to return. His athleticism on the wing should help an offensively challenged crew. Backup point guard Donte Smith is also expected back, as is forward Kasey Cunningham, who was injured for all but four games last season.
If the Trojans can find a point guard over the summer, they have a chance -- with scoring guard Dwight Lewis and defenders along the front line in Alex Stepheson, Marcus Simmons and Leonard Washington -- to be highly competitive in the Pac-10.
• Holy Cross is expected to interview one more candidate Wednesday before a final decision is made on the replacement for Ralph Willard. The stealth candidate, Holy Cross alumnus Rod Baker -- a former Tufts head coach and longtime college assistant who was in Massachusetts for the Paul Pierce camp -- comes on the heels of Holy Cross athletic director Dick Regan's interviewing Notre Dame assistant Sean Kearney on Monday and Pitt associate head coach Tom Herrion on Tuesday. Barring Baker's knocking Regan back, the choice will come down to Herrion or Kearney sometime before the end of the week.
• St. John forward Anthony Mason Jr. has been cleared the past month to play in games after missing last season with an injured right foot. The Red Storm, hoping to move up into the top 10 of the Big East, have settled on their nonconference schedule. St. John's will play Temple and Virginia Tech in the Philadelphia Classic at the Palestra in late November, host Georgia in the SEC-Big East Invitational, go to Duke, host Fordham, play St. Bonaventure in Rochester, and will participate in the Holiday Festival with Cornell, Hofstra and Davidson at Madison Square Garden in late December.