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Arizona AD Byrne: Strong tournament could lead freshmen to the NBA

LISTEN: Greg Byrne, Arizona Athletic Director

On March 24, 2011, Derrick Williams arrived on the national scene.

The Arizona sophomore exploded against the Duke Blue Devils for 32 points and 13 rebounds in a Sweet 16 game, propelling the Wildcats to the Elite 8 and the forward into the conversation as one of the top picks in the upcoming NBA Draft.

Provided, of course, he chose to leave school early, which he did.

A couple months after his outburst against Duke, Williams was selected No. 2 overall by the Minnesota Timberwolves. But though he hasn’t played for the program since that season, Williams’ impact is still being felt.

Because while having players leave early certainly can have a negative impact, it certainly does not hurt a program’s reputation to keep churning out NBA talent. And when players think you can get them to the NBA, they are more likely to have interest in your school.

And the more players who have interest in your school, the more likely your school is to land top-tier talent year after year.

A guest of the Dan Bickley Show with Vince Marotta on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM Monday, Arizona athletic director Greg Byrne said everyone knew that performance pretty much meant the player would be leaving early.

“I remember Sean telling me, ‘Well, we walked in at halftime with Derrick in that Duke game saying if he keeps this up and we go beat Duke, this is probably it for him,'” Byrne said. “Because he came onto the scene in such a strong manner.”

Three years later, history could be repeating itself. In Sunday’s tournament win over Gonzaga, Arizona freshman Aaron Gordon scored 18 points to go along with six rebounds, six assists and four steals, while fellow first-year player Rondae Hollis-Jefferson had 18 points, five rebounds, five assists and four blocks.

Each has a professional career in their future, and it’s possible the future could arrive sooner than some may have anticipated.

“That’s just the reality of the world we’re in today, that the NCAA Tournament can elevate the path these kids are on and have them come out sooner than later, because we saw that with Derrick,” Byrne said.

But as the AD noted, the school’s job is to keep players on track academically so that if they stay all four years they can graduate, and if they decide to leave early, can always come back and graduate.

That’s task number one.

“And secondly, that certainly bodes well for the success you can have at the University of Arizona, the passion that’s here from our fan base,” he said. “We probably had half the the arena [Sunday] night, at least, and Vegas, where we probably had 80 percent of the fan base.

“That separates us, and young people want to be a part of something special like that, so that sets us up for long-term success we hope.”