With a new conference realignment happening, this is an opportune time to take a look at the most attractive non-Power-5 programs in the Pac-12 for the 2015-16 college basketball season.
The Pac-12 conference is known for its high-level of talent, a reputation for producing NBA players like Stephen Curry, Derrick Williams, and Klay Thompson, and a reputation for sending a lot of those players to the draft. But just how much is each school selling to players and recruits? We took a look at the 2013 class and determined which teams sold the most to recruits and transfers and which teams were the least aggressive in actively recruiting players.
Earlier this month, we began our series of sales pitches by ranking ACC schools based on the quality of their enticing offers for basketball recruits, then moved on to the Big East, where we looked to see if anyone in the league could close the recruiting gap with Villanova. Last week was the Big Ten with the biggest first team of any conference we’ve seen so far.
This week, we continue our exercise by looking at the Pac-12, which hasn’t won a national championship since 1997, but is on its best NCAA Tournament run in years, culminating in UCLA’s appearance in the Final Four. There are many fertile recruiting grounds in the league, and the Pac-12 is also an attractive destination for international prospects.
Reminder: ESPN spoke with several anonymous coaches from the top seven basketball leagues (according to KenPom and other relevant statistics), as well as programs of national importance outside of those conferences, for our Sales Pitch column. Over the next eight weeks, we will rank programs based on their ability to sell recruits and transfers.
The top two recruiting spots in the Pac-12 are clear. UCLA and Arizona ranked first or second for each coach in the poll, with the Bruins receiving more first-place votes.
UCLA has more tradition and history than any other college basketball program, with 11 national championships and 19 Final Four appearances, including one last season. Their brand is one of the biggest in the sport, and the Bruins have produced countless pros. But UCLA’s biggest advantage over Arizona? A fertile recruiting ground.
According to one coach, UCLA has an inherent advantage in recruiting on the field. The staff can drive all over town and back to campus to practice, or set up a practice and go to a game that night. Phoenix is getting better, but it’s not the same as Los Angeles. There are few places in the country and in the world richer in talent than Southern California. Los Angeles produces so many children. They have a great tradition. No matter who the coach is, they have always brought in talented people. People have said about the team led by Mick Cronin that the talent level has dropped, but this is the most talented team he has ever coached.
Arizona, which also received the first vote, has a history: They won the national championship in 1997 and reached the Final Four four times. Under Sean Miller, the Wildcats have also recruited the most players in the country, although that effort has not been without controversy, as they have had seven consecutive seasons of top 7 recruits on the team. Coaches from around the league say Arizona’s biggest advantage is its atmosphere and fan base.
The passion of Arizona fans is considered an important calling card for recruits. Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports
Arizona has led the conference in attendance for 36 consecutive years, according to a Pac-12 coach. There’s a fan base that will fill the building, whether it’s a down year or a top 5 team. It’s a city of millions, and this is the only show in town. UCLA, as great as this year was, next season Pauley Pavilion will only be half full. The other thing is that Arizona fans travel better than any fan in the west. In the conference tournament, Vegas is Tucson North.
Arizona’s fan base is the best in the league, and it’s not even close, another coach added.
One coach also said the expectations at UCLA could make it difficult. Steve Alford was fired two seasons after his third Sweet 16 in four years. Ben Howland reached the Final Four three times and was fired the same season he won the Pac-12 regular season title.
Making the final four gets UCLA nowhere. They should put up banners, he said. The big coaches haven’t exactly been knocking down doors to go to Los Angeles [for Alford’s spot].
UCLA’s reputation and brand give it an edge over Arizona, as many consider the Bruins to be one of the true bluebloods of the sport.
When you wear a UCLA polo shirt, you come in for every kid, one coach said.
There was a dip after the top two spots, but all coaches surveyed placed Oregon third, which is well above league average.
The Ducks don’t have the history and tradition of UCLA or Arizona, nor do they have a fertile local recruiting base, but their resources and facilities are unmatched in the Pac-12. Plus, they have the power of the largest athletic shoe company behind them.
The Nike thing is a reality, one coach said. The strength of this brand and what it has produced, both in basketball and football, is in a class of its own.
Dana Altman’s plan for Oregon has paid off for prospects, despite the sparse local landscape. AP Photo/Thomas Boyd
Several Pac-12 coaches noted that Dana Altman – the best coach in the league, according to one coach – set up his teams differently than other schools in the league, giving Oregon an advantage. The Ducks aren’t counting on the promising West Coast seniors too much. They were one of the first programs to open the streaming transfer portal each spring, and they have also done a good job of attracting potential students from Canada. Duck’s last contract? Quincy Guerrier, a Canadian-born transfer from Syracuse.
They have a niche in recruiting, in the way they rebuild their team every May, June, July, one of the coaches said. And they do it better than anyone else.
You can get the big players. It’s not the best direction, but the brand and connection with Nike helps, another coach said. They have an All-American or two, but it’s mostly transfers. They are in a different space than UCLA and Arizona.
Arizona State Sun Devils
This is the biggest step, and there is reason to believe that after USC and Arizona State, relegation is on the horizon. However, Washington and Stanford are tied for fourth place, leaving the Huskies and Cardinals in the middle of the pack.
USC has recruited arguably the best players in the league in 2019 and 2020, bringing in five-star Evan Mobley, Onyeka Okongwa and Isaiah Mobley. Since Andy Enfield took over as head coach in 2013, the Trojans have had some success on the recruiting trail, but have performed inconsistently on the field. Things began to change after Alford missed out on some local youth and Anfield hired Eric Mobley (Evan and Isaiah’s father and former NBA player) as an assistant coach. Mobley has been active in Southern California with assistant Jason Hart, among other top-notch grassroots programs.
UCLA recruited kids from the Compton Magic. UCLA is hiring Mobley’s father. They have Onyeka and Mobleys. They changed the plan, moved it to USC, and USC benefited, the longtime Pac-12 coach said. But they don’t have to take Compton Magic kids to be good. It’s a team from Los Angeles. Great study. Nice campus, nice weather. They had NBA players. Los Angeles feeds the entire Pac-12, and anything UCLA lacks, you should be able to get. And there’s a lot of talent at UCLA. And there are kids in this town who would rather go to UCLA.
That USC was able to attract a future NBA lottery player with Evan Mobley speaks volumes about the momentum. Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire
That said, it’s still UCLA’s little brother, and the problems UCLA faces – lack of atmosphere, hot and cold fan base – are the same at USC.
They clearly don’t have the tradition and history of UCLA, and if a top kid wants to stay in LA, he’ll go to UCLA. USC had a second-round pick after that, one of the coaches said. And it’s a football school.
Arizona State is a similar school to USC in terms of playing second fiddle, but the Sun Devils have improved in recent years in terms of recruiting. Five-star prospects Lugenz Dort and Josh Christopher chose Arizona State, as did many other ESPN 100 prospects.
I still think it’s a gold mine, one coach said. It’s all there. It’s a gold mine waiting to be discovered. Good location, facilities are sufficient. The arena is old, but that’s about it. There are more and more high schools in the state, so the talent level is high.
The strength is that there are a million prep schools. The weakness is that there are a million prep schools, another coach said. Now everyone comes to your area to surrender children. Generally, no one knows about the Arizona kids until it’s too late.
Arizona State has the same problems as USC.
Arizona State and UCLA both have big campuses, they’re both in big cities, the coach said. But there’s a lot going on in the [Phoenix and Los Angeles] area and outside of Arizona State and USC basketball. Both programs have been very good at times over the past 20 years, but that doesn’t mean fans come to the games foaming at the mouth.
Washington occasionally brings in top players like Markell Fultz from another state. Stephen Brashear/ESPN Images
Washington ranked seventh among those polled, while he was fourth on the league’s top scouts list. The Huskies have one of the best recruiting bases in the league in Seattle, and they get NBA player after NBA player from that city. They’ve had a good run under Lorenzo Romar, reaching the Sweet 16 three times in six years, but they’ve only made it to the NCAA Tournament once since 2011.
When they were really good, Romar had all the Seattle kids there, an old coach said. And then he added guys from Los Angeles, guys from Fresno. Mike Hopkins has several kids who go to other teams. These children usually never left. I got hired there, but I don’t really like it. It’s hard to get the kids out of there. And when things don’t go their way, they quickly return home.
If Washington wants a Washington kid, no one will get one, another coach said. Especially if the people of Washington want him to stay there.
On the other hand, as one coach noted, the program’s talent level relies heavily on Seattle kids staying home to attend college. With the exception of Markell Fultz and Isaiah Stewart, most of the top players who have played in Washington in recent years are from out of state.
A lot of good players have come out of Seattle, the Pac-12 coach said. But this work and its success depend on the children of Seattle. When [local talent] is great, Washington is rich. If they’re just good, they’re average. And when they go down, they end up on the ground. It’s been that way for 30 years. There is so much talent between Los Angeles and California. Romar was an excellent recruiter, but he didn’t bring in the cream of the crop from Southern California. Look at this class. They have Jackson Grant, but Nolan Hickman goes to Gonzaga. Paolo [Banchero] is transferring to Duke. Shane Nowell is going to Arizona. So much pressure to have these kids. If you don’t understand it, it can be difficult.
Jerod Haase can sell top academic knowledge and a strong brand to a specific group of recruits. Bob Coopbens/Icon Sportswire
Stanford has also received mixed reactions, some coaches placing it fourth, others placing it ahead of Washington and closer to USC and Arizona State. The Cardinals have a long history and tradition. They reached the Final Four in 1998 and made it to 11 consecutive NCAA tournaments in the late 1990s and early 2000s. They have also produced an incredible number of NBA players.
Their main advantage is obvious: Elite academies.
At Stanford, unlike every other scholarship school in the country, you can walk through any door with your academic preparation, one coach said. People say: Can you take the boys to school? If there are 100 top students in the country with great academic abilities, Stanford will be in the conversation. I don’t think people realize how much talent there has been over the years. If you have excellent academic skills, they can work their way in. It is an Ivy League institution that can award four-year athletic scholarships.
The Cardinals recruited 2021 five-star forward Harrison Ingram and ESPN 100 point guard Isa Silva and 2020 five-star forward Ziair Williams. In addition, Tyrell Terry was selected in the second round of last year’s NBA Draft.
Good foreign players come to them and they’ve gotten a McDonald’s All-American two years in a row, one of the coaches said. It’s Stanford. It’s a brand. The name has weight.
California Golden Bears
This is a trio of teams well above the last two.
Utah has a lot to offer and it doesn’t take much for them to shift up a gear. The Utes have a strong fan base, great facilities and plenty of resources. The team hasn’t had much success lately, with just three NCAA Tournament appearances since 2005, but Rick Majerus has led them to a national title in 1998 and 10 NCAA Tournaments in 11 years.
He has an underrated fan base, an underrated tradition. It’s a normal public school. Good conditions, great fans, very good football which means they have money. It’s a big investment, one coach said. In terms of employment, we can say that they are close to Washington. They had good talents. Timmy Allen was from Phoenix. Andre Miller and Keith Van Horn are originally from Southern California. This is a really good city and stands for basketball. They love basketball. The College of Southern Idaho and Salt Lake Community College, two strong JUCO programs, are in their own backyard.
Craig Smith, the Utes’ first coach, is hoping for more success on the field than his predecessor Larry Krystkowiak. Orlando Ramirez – USA TODAY Sports
However, this has not translated into great success in recruitment. Since ESPN began keeping a recruiting database in 2007, Utah has put a total of two candidates on the ESPN 100 list. The growth of Wasatch Academy in the state could help, but it also means larger programs will come to the area to recruit.
Kids from out of state don’t really go, one coach said. And they will have the same problems as Arizona State. They have elite prep schools, but now everyone takes their best players. They’re good at JUCO, you can take a JUCO kid there. I like his apartment. But Larry Krystkowiak hasn’t forgotten how to coach. The kids didn’t go.
On paper, California should be closer to Stanford than it is now. The Golden Bears, both top academic institutions, produce professionals and recruit five-star teams. But that’s not what happened. They’ve won just 15 Pac-12 games in the last four years, and they haven’t drafted a single ESPN 100 prospect since Cuonzo Martin left the team in 2017.
They must be near Stanford, one of the coaches said. They can take kids who can’t go to Stanford. But the administrators handled it badly. They don’t have a training ground. They use the gym. Nice campus, nice view. A degree from UCLA means something. The arena is pretty good. It has a tradition, it has had great players. There shouldn’t be a gap until Stanford.
However, the school has experienced serious financial difficulties in recent years and the basketball program has suffered as a result.
It’s a shit show. They don’t have the money, a Pac-12 coach said. They are the fourth strongest team in the state.
Colorado doesn’t have many inherent recruiting advantages, but every coach surveyed said Buffalo has been the most effective program in recruiting players above their weight class in recent years. In fact, Tad Boyle’s team has recruited the 9th recruiting class for 2021.
It’s the best basketball school in the state, one of the coaches said. They are good at evaluating talent. Spencer Dinwiddie, McKinley Wright, guys like that. Jabari Walker. He was an excellent expert. They picked him up from a private school in Phoenix. Regardless of his rank, he was one of the best rookies in our league. You can sneak out to the Midwest and get a good guy from Nebraska or Western Kansas. Minnesota. And because they are part of the Pac-12, they can recruit students on the West Coast. Then you add the foreigners.
One coach said Colorado’s success is due in large part to its ability to find players who are not among the best known or to develop players within the program. Between Chauncey Billups in 1997 and the recent crop of NBA players, starting with Alec Burks a decade ago, Boulder didn’t exactly have an overwhelming amount of talent.
It’s not a big recruiting job, it’s an evaluation job, he said. They are very good at evaluating.
Oregon State Beavers
Washington State Cougars
All of the coaches surveyed consider these two schools to be the hedge funders in terms of recruiting, despite Oregon State’s amazing run to the Round of 16 last season.
The Beavers have some traditions, but they were almost entirely established over 30 years ago. Before this year’s success in March, the program had reached the NCAA Tournament just once since 1990. In those days there were also very few experts. Mainly Gary Payton, Gary Payton II, Brent Barry and some companions.
Ethan Thompson helped Wayne Tinkle and Oregon State get within minutes of the 2021 Final Four. Marc Lebryk/USA TODAY Sports
The biggest problem is location, one coach said. They have a training facility, they’ve upgraded their equipment. Corvallis is recognized as one of the best college towns. They love their Beavers and will support him. University is the most important thing there is. And it has a history; it’s in the top 25 all-time wins. But that takes luck. It’s hard to have a child outside the state. They want to go to Oregon or Gonzaga. They don’t grow up thinking Oregon is a basketball school.
Considering the Beavers hadn’t been to a tournament since 1990 before his arrival, making the NCAA tournament twice in the last six years is an impressive feat for Wayne Tinkle.
I give Wayne Tinkle all the credit in the world, the Pac-12 coach said. But their biggest concern is finding the next Ethan Thompson. They need to take advantage of those they don’t notice. Like the man they have now, Warit Alatishe. They still have a lot of evaluation and development work to do.
Washington State is clearly last, and like Oregon State, that’s largely due to its location. Pullman is on the opposite side of the state from Seattle, Washington (although it has attracted some very talented players from that city), south of Spokane and close to the Idaho border. It’s not really a neighborhood with much talent.
It’s so isolating, a Pac-12 coach said.
It’s the hardest job in the league, said another. Nobody wants to go out there and play. I think they just got Marriott. The weather is not good. It’s hard to do. The campus and arena are very nice.
Still, there is optimism in the league about what Kyle Smith is building with the Cougars.
The best thing they did was hire Kyle Smith, one of the coaches said. They had no personality in terms of recruiting. He’ll take the transfer/international route, which he should. He didn’t make the mistake that many coaches make when they get a job with a big team – he didn’t sit down at the big table and think he could convince the rest of the Pac-12. If you see all your peers in the same gym, go for it. You don’t stand a chance.
For Oregon State and Washington State, two schools not in recruiting hot spots, avoiding the annual reshuffle is important.
The most important thing is the bond, a Pac-12 coach said. That’s what makes Washington, and to some extent Oregon and Corvallis, difficult. It’s one thing to let kids go, it’s another thing to keep them there.