First of all, I don't think it can be overstated just how bad the timing of this decision was for Arizona. If the decision was made six months ago, Arizona could've gone after a successor in a somewhat orderly manner. If Olson retired six months from now, the 2009 recruiting class would be signed and the next head coach would have had a decent chance of convincing those kids to stick with the Wildcats. But coming as it did a few weeks before the early signing period, as well as the start of the 2008-2009 season, Olson's retirement means that Arizona will likely lose all three of its committed recruits. And it's not like the Wildcats are losing just any three recruits. I'm a huge fan of Abdul Gaddy, Mike Moser and Solomon Hill. I would take all of three of them at UCLA. These guys are all big-time recruits, regardless of what you might see in some national rankings. By the way, that's officially the 10,000th time I've told readers, either directly or indirectly, to ignore national rankings on West Coast players. In case anyone missed it the first couple times.
Arizona Athletic Director Jim Livingood was obviously put in a very tough spot with the timing of Olson's retirement. He had two choices and neither one was very appealing. He could name an interim head coach, conduct a national search and go after a "big name" guy in the spring. Or, he could hire Mike Dunlap today to a long-term contract and remove the uncertainty currently engulfing the Wildcat program. In the first scenario, Arizona could potentially end up with a well-known – and presumably well-qualified – coach in the spring. The problem there, though, is that it would almost certainly mean the loss of the 2009 commits and it would put Arizona well behind other programs recruiting the 2010 class. Many of the 2010 prospects will either be committed or deep into their recruitments by April. On the other hand, if Livingood were to hire Dunlap right now, Arizona might have a chance at keeping some or all of the 2009 commits. The downside, though, would be Livingood's office getting a couple hundred calls a day from irate boosters saying "who the ---- is Mike Dunlap?" Arizona fans have obviously known for awhile that this day was coming with Lute Olson, but their expectation has always been that the Wildcats would replace him with a proven, big-name coach.
Personally, I probably would've hired Dunlap. The current state of the Wildcat roster is not good and they desperately need quality players in 2009 and 2010. I don't know Dunlap, but I've heard from enough people in basketball circles that I respect and they all agree Dunlap is a terrific coach. There's no question that would probably be a risky move politically for Livingood. But the reality is that Livingood needs the next coach to be successful – regardless of whether he's a big-name or small-name guy. And while fans, and the media, all love to throw out well-known names as candidates, there are a lot of good coaches who aren't necessarily famous yet. And Arizona needs a good coach more than it needs a big name. There's no guarantee Dunlap could've kept any of the commits, but he at least would've had a chance. Now those guys are all likely gone and the next coach, big name or no, will be looking at a very tough rebuilding job.
One of the reasons I would've hired Dunlap is I'm not convinced that Arizona will be able to lure a well-known coach to Tucson. It won't be easy finding someone who wants to follow a legend. Lute Olson is Arizona basketball. Take Olson away and you don't have a lot to sell. Arizona basketball doesn't have any inherent advantages that you might find at other top programs. There is no natural recruiting base and Tucson isn't a place that most head coaches would volunteer to live if they weren't working there. I've also heard from a few people that Arizona will have a difficult time coming up with the huge salary it would take to lure a proven, big-name coach. I've seen names like John Calipari, Mark Few and Jamie Dixon mentioned so far and the knowledgeable observers I've spoken to have scoffed at those suggestions. "No way" has been the standard response. Following a legend to a program that will have very little talent, no recruiting base and no other natural advantages isn't exactly appealing for a coach making big money at another BCS program. At the end of the day, I'm predicting Arizona will hire someone along the lines of a Randy Bennett or Mark Fox. And both of those guys would be excellent choices.
With Livingood's decision to name Russ Pennell the interim coach (I'm not sure why Dunlap decided to pass on it), and go after a well-known name in the spring, it appears likely that Gaddy, Moser and Hill will all end up elsewhere. It's theoretically possible that any of them could decide to wait until spring to see who the coach might be, but that probably won't happen. Given all the drama in Tucson over the last year, it's likely that all three kids would just as soon move on to a more stable situation.
Solomon Hill, 6-5 SR SF Los Angeles (Calif.) Fairfax, has been the least discussed of the three players but, as I wrote earlier, he's a terrific prospect in his own right. An above-average athlete, Hill can defend multiple spots on the perimeter. He's got an excellent feel for the game and he's as good a passer at his size as you'll find in the west. UCLA had some preliminary interest in Hill prior to his committing to Arizona, but he probably won't be a serious target for the Bruins at this point. Hill is scheduled to visit USC this weekend and the Trojans would have to be considered one of the early favorites for him.
Mike Moser, the 6-7 wing from Portland (Ore.) Grant, has a chance to be a better version of Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. Like Luc, Moser has the ability to defend pretty much anyone on the court. He's an exceptional athlete and an above-average rebounder. Unlike Luc, though, Moser has very good ball skills. He's a very good passer, with a terrific feel and good vision. While he's not known as a shooter, he's still a better shooter than Luc was at the same stage. Luc was older as a college freshman, and therefore stronger, so I'm not sure Moser would be quite as good a rebounder right away. But Moser has a higher upside than Luc and I agree with a scouting friend who feels that Moser will be a pro. He's been vastly underrated by national analysts and he'll be an eventual impact player at whatever school he chooses.
Whether or not UCLA has a good shot at Moser is unclear. He really didn't go through much of a recruitment before committing to Arizona. The UCLA staff did see him briefly in the spring, and tried to get him to their Advanced Skills Camp, but he committed to Arizona before the Bruins really had a chance to recruit him. In recruiting against UCLA, other schools will no doubt point to the Bruins' roster – and specifically to Tyler Honeycutt. But both Moser and Honeycutt are such versatile players that they could easily play on the court together at the same time. They're both big wings and their games would be complementary. Moser's strength is his defensive versatility and Honeycutt's strength is his offensive versatility. These are the kind of wings that Bruin fans were bemoaning the lack of when UCLA faced Corey Brewer and Chris Douglas-Roberts in the Final Four. Tall, athletic and talented wings that will ultimately end up playing in the NBA.
Abdul Gaddy, 6-3 SR PG Tacoma (Wash.) Bellarmine is the obvious player that UCLA will target since he nearly committed to the Bruins before choosing Arizona last month. Gaddy is the best point guard in the class of 2009 and another future pro. He's got great size for the position, with an extremely advanced feel for the game and outstanding overall skill level. When Gaddy committed to Arizona in September, he had eliminated every school on his list other than Arizona and UCLA – including Washington, Memphis and Texas – and was apparently close to picking the Bruins before a last official visit to Arizona sealed the deal for the Wildcats. Looking at it logically, one would assume that if Gaddy doesn't stick with Arizona, he'd choose UCLA. He was seemingly very comfortable with the Bruin staff and everything that UCLA had to offer. But recruiting isn't always logical and it's by no means a done deal that Gaddy will choose the Bruins. If you put yourself in his shoes, you can imagine that he probably has to be reeling at this point. He made not one, but two commitments to Arizona, only to have Lute Olson leave the program each time (the second time for good). This news has no doubt been a shock to Gaddy and it can't be easy for him to have to start thinking again about such an important decision that he thought he'd put to rest.
UCLA has four committed players at this point and the Bruins could take up to six players in the class of 2009. Doing so would mean assuming that Jrue Holiday leaves after his freshman year, but I think that's a reasonable assumption to make. So it's theoretically possible UCLA could take Moser and Gaddy if they both wanted to come to Westwood. Given everything I've heard in the last couple days, I think it's unlikely that both commit to UCLA. It could happen, but I wouldn't bet on it as of today. But even getting just one of them would be a major coup for the Bruins, given the strength of the class already with the four committed players.
Prior to Ben Howland's arrival, Arizona had been the premier program in the west for some time and it's been somewhat surprising to see the Wildcat program struggle in the last couple years. Given the state of the program today, and the potential short-term recruiting problems its facing, I think it could be awhile before Arizona gets back to being one of the elite programs in the country. Any chance at doing so is going to depend on the Wildcats making a very good hire in the spring. I think the right guy can definitely get things turned around in Tucson, but I'm not convinced that "right guy" needs to be a well-known name. The two best rebuilding jobs in the Pac-10 lately – other than UCLA – have been by Tony Bennett at Washington State and Herb Sendek at ASU. Sendek obviously had prior experience in the ACC, but he wasn't exactly one of those glamour names that every program was chasing. And each of those coaches did it the same way Howland did it at UCLA – by emphasizing attention to detail, defense, team play, toughness and solid fundamentals. Not coincidentally, those are attributes that have been noticeably missing from Arizona basketball during its recent slide. If the Wildcats want to return to prominence, they'll need a coach who stresses those things over the all offense/no defense, physically soft, me-first attitude that has infected Wildcat basketball in the last several years.