Sales Pitch discussion: Can anyone stop UCLA on Pac-12 recruiting trail?

ByESPN staff ESPN logo
Thursday, May 27, 2021

ESPN continued itsSales Pitch (ESPN+) series this week, examining the men's college basketball programs in the Pac-12 that have the most and fewest advantages in enticing recruits and transfers to campus. After seeing the results of our survey,'s writing team of Myron Medcalf, Jeff Borzello, John Gasaway and Joe Lunardi debated some of the finer details within the Pac-12 recruiting landscape; including whether UCLA has hit overdrive in 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 said about recruiting in the ACC,the Big East,the Big Tenand the Pac-12.

Mick Cronin's hiring at UCLA in 2019 elicited a healthy amount of skepticism, but Cronin's first two teams have wildly overachieved relative to expectations. What part of Cronin's UCLA blueprint has most impressed you? Have the Bruins again become the unquestioned team to beat on the Pac-12 recruiting trail?

Medcalf: I was on campus with him in the first few months of his tenure. I talked to a bunch of boosters and supporters. Most of them thought UCLA would land a coach with a higher profile. Some felt like they'd been duped for the second consecutive coaching search. It just wasn't clear if Cronin would fit with that fan base and its expectations after they'd finalized their divorce from Steve Alford. But Cronin never succumbed to any of that. He had no plans to cater to anyone. He vowed to make UCLA a tougher squad and win support with his team's tenacity. I think he achieved that.

I love the way this group has competed for Cronin over the last two seasons. His blueprint has always been demanding toughness from his players while forming a strong bond with them. That has worked in Westwood. Last year's UCLA team finished top-50 in adjusted defensive efficiency on KenPom for the first time since 2014. A good Bruins team, I think, will become the unquestioned top dog on the recruiting trail. It will be difficult to compete for players who will have the option to play for UCLA, live in Westwood and compete for a national championship. The formula hasn't changed for the storied program.

Borzello: When Cronin took over, the biggest questions surrounded his preferred style of play and his ability to recruit at the highest level. He answered a lot of the doubts by making a Final Four run, one year after finishing one game back of Oregon for the regular-season title. But Cronin hasn't strayed from what brought him success at Cincinnati and Murray State. His adjusted tempo hasn't sped up from the grind-it-out style he rode to nine straight NCAA tournaments with the Bearcats. The Bruins made their NCAA tournament run thanks to a physical style that excelled in a half-court setting. He hasn't compromised and that's something worth celebrating.

And on the recruiting trail, Cronin has certainly answered the bell. The Bruins landed five-star point guard Daishen Nix in the 2020 class, but Nix opted to go to the G League. He responded with ESPN 100 prospects Peyton Watson -- a potential lottery pick -- and Will McClendon in 2021, and is off to a very strong start in 2022 with elite guard Amari Bailey and ESPN 60 point guard Dylan Andrews. If Johnny Juzang returns to Westwood next season, UCLA is going to be a preseason top-five team and the Bruins seem to be in good shape moving forward.

Gasaway: When UCLA sacked Steve Alford in December of 2018, I flung out the following sentence: "The exertions of figures as otherwise dissimilar as Alford, [Ben] Howland and Steve Lavin suggest it's probable that the next coach of the Bruins will last four-plus seasons and win about 70% of his games." And here we are: Cronin has logged two seasons and emerged victorious 65% of the time. Included in those wins, of course, was a remarkable Final Four run that extended all the way to the 45th minute of a national semifinal. In this respect, Cronin rather resembles Bruce Pearl in 2019.

Then again, the coaching gig at UCLA comes with a bit more pressure than does the one at Auburn. What has impressed me most has been Cronin's ability to thrive in a setting where the ghosts of an illustrious past have eventually worn down his predecessors. That could happen eventually to Cronin too, of course, but for now the signs are all 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. Even through this program's ups and downs, recruiting has rarely been an issue in Westwood over the past two decades. Cronin is poised to continue this trend of securing elite talent, whether in the form of transfers or high school stars.

Lunardi: Cronin, a supposed paragon of ugly -- and consistently winning -- basketball, coached the 11th-most efficient offense in America last season. UCLA didn't play fast (341st in adjusted tempo according to KenPom) but the Bruins played very well. Maybe Cronin's grind-it-out ways at Cincinnati just needed a little more skill. Cronin had enough last year to reach an unexpected Final Four, and he'll have even more as a national favorite in 2022. The Pac-12 is a better place with UCLA in a marquee position, and their once-questionable hire of a coach has the Bruins in as good a spot since their three straight Final Four appearances under Howland.

In what ways would you expect a Tommy Lloyd Arizona roster to look different than a Sean Miller Arizona roster or a Lute Olson Arizona roster? What is your biggest concern for Lloyd as he constructs his program?

Gasaway: You're trying to trick me into saying Arizona rosters will take on a more international flavor under Lloyd, since recruiting from all over the globe was his specialty in Spokane. Well, I refuse to fall for your clever gambit! From Lauri Markkanen (Finland) and Dusan Ristic (Serbia) to Deandre Ayton (The Bahamas), Nico Mannion (Italy) and Josh Green (Australia), the Wildcats were already pretty international in their composition before the new coach's arrival.

My biggest concern for Lloyd has nothing to do with countries of origin and everything to do with the NCAA. Arizona's playing basketball under the shadow of a Notice of Allegations that has charged the program with five Level I violations. The Wildcats self-imposed a postseason ban for the 2021 tournament season, but until Arizona puts the FBI investigation to bed once and for all there will continue to be an air of lingering uncertainty around the program.

Borzello: Arizona had seven international prospects on its roster last season, and while a couple of them have departed via the transfer portal, that's still going to be a familiar feel for Lloyd, who established himself as the best international recruiter in the sport during his time at Gonzaga. Some of the best NBA prospects to go through Tucson under Sean Miller also came from overseas, so Lloyd heading to Europe or Canada to find talent won't feel unusual for the Wildcats. Whether Lloyd takes as many five-star swings as the previous regime did when Miller landed a top-seven recruiting class in seven straight seasons remains to be seen, but Lloyd also played a key role in landing domestic five-star prospects Jalen Suggs, Chet Holmgren and Hunter Sallis in the last two classes.

The concern is completely NCAA-related. Part of the reason Arizona opted to go so heavy with internationals last season was its struggles to land top-tier U.S. prospects -- who are always going to be more influenced by negative recruiting and concerns about instability within a program. And then there are the potential NCAA sanctions. Will the Wildcats be banned from postseason play for another year or two? Will there be scholarship reductions? The unanswered questions could pose some problems for Lloyd on the recruiting trail.

Lunardi: The whole thing makes you wonder why Lloyd, who could probably have had his pick of jobs -- including Gonzaga, whenever Mark Few goes fishing for good -- would go to Arizona in the first place. Do the university higher-ups know something we don't in terms of leniency? Does Lloyd? It's obviously impossible to know at this point. Ultimately I would expect Lloyd and the Wildcats to recruit the highest-level players, foreign and domestic, whenever the dust settles.

Medcalf: I think you'll see more guys like Lauri Markkanen. And I don't think that means they have to be international prospects. In Tucson, Lloyd can recruit everywhere. But I think his rosters will be anchored by versatile forwards and bigs. Gonzaga just presented a multitude of mismatches at the 3, 4 and 5. Rui Hachimura slashing to the basket. Przemek Karnowski with his slick passing out of double-teams. Killian Tillie stretching the floor. Corey Kispert playing as a strong, 6-foot-7 scorer who could hurt teams anywhere.

But I think this is all premature until we know what will happen with this independent resolution process. We don't know how this group thinks or operates. They have not finalized any of the cases that have been presented to them. There is a chance they're more lenient than the traditional NCAA enforcers, but what if they want to make every school attached to the FBI scandal pay with severe sanctions that follow the teams for years? There are a lot of unknowns. As a result, we might not really see a "Tommy Lloyd team" until his third or fourth season in Tucson, if the Wildcats get crushed by penalties.

Oregon has done a notably outstanding job of finding the right fits on the transfer market under Dana Altman. If you were recommending a Pac-12 program to a transfer friend, would the Ducks be your first pick? Then who?

Borzello: Altman was one of the first head coaches to truly buy into building a roster via the transfer market, and he's done it consistently every spring. Oregon always seems to have a trick or two up its sleeve late into the summer, constantly tinkering with its roster until preseason begins. Part of that has to do with the school being on the quarter system, allowing it to get a late reclassifier like N'Faly Dante or Dillon Brooks. In terms of successful transfers, there are countless examples of players who came to Eugene and made an immediate impact. So I would have no problem recommending Oregon to a transfer friend. Worst-case scenario, he gets the best swag Nike could offer for a year or two.

Medcalf: It's a skill to identify the right transfers and Altman has not only found the best players for his program, but he's also rapidly incorporated them into his culture at Oregon. I'd recommend Oregon first to any transfer, not just for those reasons but also because of the amount of talent Altman has recently sent to the next level. Dillon Brooks just signed a $35 million contract with the Memphis Grizzlies. Multiple former Ducks, including Brooks, are competing in the NBA playoffs. That says a lot about Oregon's ability to develop talent.

If not Oregon, then probably USC. Tahj Eaddy and other transfers have done well with the Trojans. But I think Oregon has a sizable lead over the field.

Gasaway: I guess I would suggest to my transferring friend that he take his pick between Oregon and UCLA. He can't go wrong with those two. Dylan Ennis thrived in Eugene after transferring from Villanova, onetime Georgetown wing Paul White made 60 starts as a Duck, Elijah Brown had a nice senior season after stops at Butler and New Mexico and former Rutgers star Eugene Omoruyi was the focal point of the Oregon offense last season. As for UCLA, anyone who saw Johnny Juzang leave Kentucky and then impose his will on multiple NCAA tournament opponents last March knows that a transfer can thrive in Westwood.

Lunardi: As I prepare for a cold, wet holiday weekend in New Jersey, pretty much any Pac-12 campus sounds like a recommended destination. Even Oregon, with its own soggy climate. The Ducks make up for that by having the best coach in the conference. So, yes, Dana Altman would be my top choice.

Name one other Pac-12 program that doesn't get the credit it deserves for constructing a roster.

Borzello: Colorado is the program mentioned most by coaches in the league for recruiting above its weight class. Tad Boyle has consistently been able to find under-the-radar guys, whether it's Spencer Dinwiddie or Derrick White or McKinley Wright. NCAA tournament star Jabari Walker didn't even have an ESPN recruiting profile.

It's not as if Boyle is competing for Pac-12 titles every single season, but the Buffaloes went to four of five NCAA tournaments early in his tenure, would have made it in 2020 and earned a 5-seed this past season. And perhaps that success is translating onto the recruiting trail: Colorado is bringing in the No. 9-ranked recruiting class in the country next fall.

Medcalf: For all the reasons Jeff mentioned, I think it's Colorado. The Buffaloes are essentially the Pac-12's Purdue. I think the talent Tad Boyle has identified and developed have been the key to his success. He grabbed George King in Texas. He's had success with Spencer Dinwiddie and others from the West Coast. McKinley Wright is from Minnesota. That's what you have to do when you're up against powerhouse recruiters such as Oregon, Arizona and UCLA in the Pac-12. You have to get creative. And that's not easy to achieve. Just ask Washington State or Oregon State or Cal or the other programs that have tried to compete for talent within that conference.

Lunardi: I am optimistic about what Craig Smith can achieve at Utah, but he's yet to coach a Pac-12 game. So add me to the Colorado chorus. Tad Boyle has proven to be outstanding at both building a roster and developing his players long-term. Hopefully that formula can continue for the Buffaloes in this era of the transfer portal and its wandering eyes.

Gasaway: USC's had a pretty good run here. Step one in that process was to find someone with two sons who are at least 6-foot-10 and then hire their father as an assistant coach.

Since Eric Mobley joined the staff in March of 2018, the Trojans have improved over each of their last three seasons. Isaiah and, especially, Evan Mobley had a lot to do with that, of course, but they had help. Nick Rakocevic, Onyeka Okongwu and Tahj Eaddy all played a role in this resurgence as well. Andy Enfield got USC all the way to the Elite Eight in March, giving the program its best showing in the NCAA tournament since 2001. If not for the even more spectacular tournament run of a certain crosstown rival, the Trojans' heroics may have attracted their fair share of notice.