T.J. Leaf departs, leaves UA basketball in hole for 2016

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Even the best of the college basketball programs can’t always hang on to their top recruiting catches during that dangerous period from verbal commitment to the actual signing of the athlete.

And the University of Arizona program, which has established itself among the nation’s elite in recent years, is no exception.  But the latest decommitment really hurts, and could come back to haunt the Wildcats if T.J. Leaf takes his talents to a Pac-12 rival – which appears to be a distinct possibility.

The Class of 2016 commit, who backed away from the verbal pledge he made to the Arizona program last November, announced his decision in a good-bye statement on Twitter just days ago.  It said, in part: “The school and staff of Arizona have been great to me and I have nothing but respect for Coach Miller and the entire staff and wish them nothing but the best.  But at this point in my life I know it’s best to explore my options and pursue other basketball opportunities.”

The five-star 6’10” power forward from El Cajon, CA, is ranked by ESPN as the No. 9 prospect in his class.  His departure comes just 14 months after head coach Sean Miller lost another elite commit when Tyler Dorsey dropped out of the current class.

Dorsey, a four-star guard that was ranked as high as No. 10 in the nation by Scout.com, decommitted in July of 2014 and made his verbal to Oregon the following February.

He was the first to commit to the Class of 2015, and Leaf was the first commit for 2016.

The difference is that Leaf was also the only commit that Arizona had for that class.  And that becomes real cause for concern.  It’s unusual for Miller to not have more commits lined up for the next class.  His program becomes one of only three in the Pac-12 now who do not have commitments on board for 2016, the other two being Stanford and Utah.

Dorsey left, in part, because Miller continued to pursue additional guard recruits when there was already competition for the position on the roster.  Leaf is leaving because his stock has risen considerably since his verbal to Arizona, prompting him to open his recruitment to look at other offers.  That’s based on a junior year at Foothills Christian High School during which he averaged 27.4 points and 14.2 rebounds a game, and a strong performance this summer at the FIBA U18 European Championships where he averaged 16 points a game playing for Israel’s national team (his birthplace) and was named the MVP of the championship game.

But there’s one thing they both have in common that may have contributed to their decisions to leave.

Dorsey was cut from the U18 national team last summer at the USA Basketball tryout camp.. Miller was an assistant coach for that team.  In June, Leaf was cut from the U19 team at the World Championships training camp in Colorado; that team went on to win a gold medal.  Miller was that team’s coach.

Regardless of the real reason, Leaf is moving on – although there is always the outside possibility that he will re-commit to the Cats after looking over the boat load of offers he’s sure to get now that he’s on the open market again.  He’s been ranked by the 247Sports Composite as the No. 11 overall player in the Class of 2016, and the No. 3 power forward.

Before committing to Arizona, he had interest from top programs like Duke, Kentucky, Kansas, Indiana, Florida, and UCLA, to name a few.  The Wolverines were high on his list after making several unofficial visits to the Ann Arbor campus and saying he felt he would fit in well at the wing position in their offense.

But the school that now poses the biggest threat to Arizona is UCLA.  Although Leaf has publicly said he’s wide open and hasn’t decided where he will go, there are reports he may be leaning toward UCLA.

The Bruins already have the No. 1 recruit from California on board, Lonzo Bell, who is ranked 6th overall.  And they are currently sitting as the No. 3-rated recruiting class in the country.  The addition of Leaf would make them even more of a formidable opponent next year in Arizona’s quest for a conference title.

Meanwhile, Miller and his staff are still beating the bushes, hoping some of the elite players at that forward position decide to come to Tucson.  One of those is close to a decision and Arizona is still in the running.  De’Ron Davis, a four-state prospect from Colorado who plays power forward, has the Cats listed in his final three options.

But here’s what is causing the sleepless nights for the Arizona coaches: The front court this season for the Cats includes Kaleb Tarczewski, Mark Tollefsen, and Ryan Anderson.

All three are graduating seniors.

(Photo Arizona Athletics)