INDIANAPOLIS – For a state with no player representation on a Final Four roster, Arizona’s up-and-coming basketball talent has the attention of coaches around the country.
“It’s as good as it’s been,” said Frank Burlison, who runs a high school scouting service that serves NBA and college teams. “Maybe ever.”
On my shuttle from Indianapolis International Airport on Thursday, an ACC assistant asked me about “the Bagley kid.” In a conversation a few hours later with former Arizona State coach Bill Frieder, a Westwood One radio analyst for the Final Four, he said there is buzz “that the talent in Arizona is good.”
It is no secret that the state has a strong crop of high school players, but it has been fascinating to watch the dialogue go national. One of the biggest reasons is Marvin Bagley III, the 6-foot-10 freshman from Tempe Corona del Sol who already has offers from UCLA, Connecticut and Arizona.
“He is as promising a prospect in the national freshman class as I’ve seen and I dare say I’ve seen most of them,” Burlison said. “He has a chance to be as good as the state has produced, right there with Richard Jefferson, Mike Bibby and Sean Elliott.”
Bagley is special. He has great size and footwork, impressive moves around the basket and a healthy respect for defense.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a better player as a freshman,” Royce Youree said.
Few have better perspective. Youree won five state titles in the 1970s and ’80s as coach of the now-closed East High and is still in tune with the talent in the state.
Among other highly regarded young talent are sophomores Markus Howard (Gilbert Perry) and Alex Barcello (Corona del Sol).
Could this mean we’ll soon start seeing more Arizona representation in the NCAA Tournament?
Only one Arizona-bred player was on an Elite Eight roster this season and that was Arizona’s Matt Korcheck.
Meanwhile, among Final Four teams, Michigan State sports seven players from the state of Michigan. Wisconsin has seven homegrown players on its roster and Duke, a private school based in Durham, N.C., has one.
A variety of factors have contributed to the lack of Arizona players on NCAA Tournament rosters in recent years.
Sometimes it’s as simple as population. More people, more possibilities of quality basketball players. Arizona ranks 15th in the country in population, according to the U.S. Census, with two Final Four teams — Michigan State and Duke — residing in more populated states.
It’s also about culture.
In North Carolina’s Tobacco Row, college basketball is hugely popular. Young kids watch it; fans support it. It’s home to Duke, North Carolina, N.C. State and Wake Forest, and to coaches like Dean Smith, Jim Valvano, Eddie Cameron, Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams.
When there is a passion for the sport, children start playing early.
Frieder said when he coached at ASU from 1989-97, “not many kids went to Division I schools from the state of Arizona, and the great ones like (Mike) Bibby, we’d lose to Arizona.”
What has changed?
Some of it is cyclical. Youree said he can’t go as far as saying Arizona is sporting the best crop of high school talent ever because some of the teams he coached in the 1980s were special.
He has a good measuring stick. For seven years, he coached in the Basketball Congress International, guiding teams of Arizona’s top high school players in national competitions.
And you can’t talk basketball in the state without thinking of Bibby or Jefferson or Elliott.
Overall coaching is better, too, and the state produces some highly regarded ones like Corona del Sol’s Sam Duane Jr. and Mesa Mountain View’s Gary Ernst.
Give credit to AAU coaches, too, Frieder said. For all the criticism they get, “they’ve really helped develop basketball in the state. Kids are playing year-round. They’re getting better.”
One need only look at the accomplishments of programs like the Oakland Soldiers, whose alumni include former Arizona guard Nick Johnson and former ASU guard Eddie House.
And programs within the state, like Arizona Power, are helping produce some quality players.
There is plenty of talent around like Corona del Sol senior Dane Kuiper and Gilbert Christian’s Mitch Lightfoot, both of whom are New Mexico-bound.
Maybe soon we’ll see Arizona’s high school talent on Final Four rosters.
Follow Paola Boivin at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter at Twitter.com/PaolaBoivin. Listen to her streaming live on “The Brad Cesmat Show” on sports360az.com every Monday at 10:30 a.m.
Arizonans in the NCAA Tournament: