The Most Intriguing 2014 College Basketball Recruiting Battles
Many of the top targets in college basketball's 2014 recruiting class remain unsigned, and some of them are in no hurry to resolve the drama.
There are storylines galore surrounding these hyped prospects, from players wanting to join forces in college to recruitments being reopened after long commitments to schools trying to secure signatures from sons of successful alumni.
These nine prospects—presented alphabetically—will make major waves with their commitments, whenever those decisions are made.
James Blackmon Jr.
A wild battle broke loose when shooting guard James Blackmon Jr. decommitted from Indiana University, a program that he first promised to attend before he even played a high school game.
Since then, 16 other schools—many of them among the nation's elite programs—have reportedly descended with offers for Blackmon, who is also still considering his home-state Hoosiers.
In addition, Blackmon may also be planning an unofficial visit to Michigan, which does not make offers until a prospect has been on campus. UMHoops.com quoted Blackmon as saying, "I like the way Michigan plays."
Freshman-year playing time is expected to be a major factor in Blackmon's decision.
Between that and James Blackmon Sr.'s status as a Kentucky alumnus, UK would appear to be a primary contender for Blackmon Jr.'s signature. He has reportedly scheduled a visit for Kentucky's season-opening Big Blue Madness celebration.
Louisville has already secured a commitment from Blackmon's good friend and AAU teammate JaQuan Lyle, but he only adds another body to a backcourt already expected to be crowded in the fall of 2014. This season's signees (Chris Jones, Anton Gill and Terry Rozier) will presumably still be around, along with Lyle and fellow 2014 recruit Shaqquan Aaron.
Blackmon could join another Spiece Indy Heat teammate, Trey Lyles, on visits to Louisville this week and Florida in October.
Compared to the chaos surrounding James Blackmon, fellow top shooting guard Devin Booker has a fairly cut and dried recruitment in progress.
Down to his final five, Booker set up four of his official visits via Twitter last week.
He's visiting Michigan State and Kentucky in September, with Michigan and Missouri to follow in October and Florida still called "pending."
In a recent interview with GulfLive.com, Booker praised the two Michigan schools as ones that were in on him early. The Wolverines began corresponding with him in the eighth grade, with Michigan State joining the chase one year later.
Missouri was also in on Booker early, appropriate considering his legacy status. His father, Melvin Booker, was Big 8 Player of the Year for the Tigers in 1994.
Unlike Blackmon's visit to Kentucky, Booker's visit will not coincide with Big Blue Madness, but instead a UK alumni game. Other prospects in Lexington that weekend will include top-ranked Jahlil Okafor, point guard Tyler Ulis and 2015 wing Derrick Jones.
In that above GulfLive interview, Booker also noted that he models his game after former Florida guard Bradley Beal, who became a lottery pick after one season in Gainesville.
All five of Booker's suitors have serious pull. His decision will come down to where he'll get playing time and draft status. As most of them do.
Top-10 swingman Stanley Johnson may be the most versatile prospect in the entire 2014 class. After starting his high school career as a post player, he has shifted out to the perimeter and exploded up every recruiting board in the industry.
Johnson's most recent visit schedule—per that reliable source @StanMan_41 on Twitter—has Arizona, USC, Kentucky and Florida penciled in for dates, with all but USC apparently planned as official visits. Johnson's tweet also still lists UCLA, Kansas and Oregon as potential destinations.
At one time, Johnson was the only small forward that Kentucky had offered for 2014.
Although UK coach John Calipari has extended scholarships to wings Justise Winslow and Kelly Oubre, Johnson assured the Louisville Courier-Journal's Steve Jones that "I’m the person that (Calipari) wants.”
Arizona has some interesting connections to exploit as it chases Johnson. UA is the alma mater of Reggie Geary and current ESPN analyst Miles Simon, both players who came out of Johnson's high school, Mater Dei (Santa Ana, CA.). Also, former AAU teammate Aaron Gordon is set to begin his first season in Tucson this fall.
While those other Wildcats are expected to be UK's primary foes in the Johnson recruitment, USC is beginning to draw notice.
Of 25 analysts who offered predictions on Johnson's 247 Sports profile, two actually picked USC—including Kentucky Sports Connection managing editor Dan Bodner. Johnson could fit nicely into new coach Andy Enfield's Dunk City West.
With Johnson not planning to make a final decision until the spring signing period, that gives the Pac-12 teams time to keep pressing Johnson and convince him to stay close to home. Still, Kentucky's pipeline of NBA talent may be hard to top.
The tantalizing "package deal" between top point guard Tyus Jones and top overall prospect Jahlil Okafor has multiple schools envisioning the nation's best pick-and-roll duo in their uniforms.
Jones and Okafor have plans to visit Baylor, Kansas and Duke together, and both will also take separate trips to Kentucky.
If there's a wild card in the Jones recruitment, it's the Apple Valley, Minn. product's home-state school. Minnesota has doggedly stayed in the chase through a coaching change. New Gopher boss Richard Pitino has kept his team alive for all three of the state's top prospects (Reid Travis and Rashad Vaughn being the others).
Pitino's up-tempo offensive style would seem to be a perfect fit for a quick guard like Jones.
The Gophers hosted Jones on an unofficial visit a couple of weeks ago, but a commitment to Minnesota would be a massive upset at this point.
Duke is still considered the leader for both Jones and Okafor, fueled primarily by speculation from Okafor's AAU coach. The pair could be Duke's best point guard-big man combination since Jay Williams/Carlos Boozer, if not the immortal Bobby Hurley/Christian Laettner duo. Both of those pairs led Mike Krzyzewski's teams to national titles.
For three weeks in October, Chicago center Jahlil Okafor will visit Arizona, Kansas and Duke on successive weekends.
That will take care of Okafor's official visits, after visiting Baylor this coming weekend and Kentucky on September 9 for the UK alumni game.
Unofficial trips are expected to Big Ten powers Ohio State, Michigan State and Illinois.
As alluded to on the Tyus Jones slide, Duke is widely considered the front-runner for Jones and Okafor, but Baylor currently stands as an intriguing dark horse for both players. While observers frequently question Scott Drew's coaching acumen, the record still shows that he has had great success in Waco.
His best seasons came with dynamic point-post duos, making the 2010 Elite Eight behind Tweety Carter and Ekpe Udoh (okay, LaceDarius Dunn helped, too) and repeating the feat in 2012, led by Pierre Jackson and Perry Jones. What could cost the Bears is that none of Baylor's recent products have gone on to be NBA stars.
The grind of the recruiting process and the constant media scrutiny are taking their toll on Okafor and Jones.
Of course, the only way for the players to alleviate the fatigue is to make a decision. While Jones has declared that he'd like to get his decision out of the way in November, Okafor's family has stressed that there is no timetable for his decision.
And the speculation continues.
It's been a few years since the state of Minnesota has been this large a factor in a college basketball recruiting class.
Not only are guards Tyus Jones and Rashad Vaughn showing up on a host of major schools' recruiting lists, but powerful 6'7" forward Reid Travis has generated substantial buzz himself.
Travis recently announced that he would be a full-time basketball player during his college career, dropping football to concentrate on his campus visits this fall. A foot injury aggravated by summer basketball tournaments contributed to the decision, with Travis' father telling the St. Paul Pioneer Press, "That just added to the falling-behind process (in football)."
A Minneapolis native, Travis has been an immediate priority for new Minnesota coach Richard Pitino.
While he's made enough unofficial visits to get a good feel for the campus, Travis is interested in seeing Pitino's team play before making his decision. Minnesota's lead recruiter on Travis has been assistant Ben Johnson, another product of De La Salle High School.
Gonzaga, Michigan State and Stanford are also leaders in the Travis stakes, with other suitors ranging from UCLA to Harvard, where Reid's brother Jonah currently plays.
Predictions on Travis' future are sharply split, with only six analysts willing to offer predictions on 247 Sports. As of today, the six have plumped for four different schools, with 247 scouting director Jerry Meyer and CBS Sports' Jeff Borzello siding with Stanford.
The point? No one knows much about Reid Travis' thought process right now, and that may even include Travis himself.
It's hard to imagine a 6'11", 225-pound center being unknown in the recruiting industry, but—after a broken ankle sidelined Bedford, TX native Myles Turner last summer—that's exactly what he was.
Once able to hit the court again, Turner made a stunning rise up the charts into every analyst's top 10.
Eight brand-name programs are in the mix for Turner, chief among them Big 12 rivals Kansas, Texas and Oklahoma State. Duke is working Turner as a hedge against Jahlil Okafor heading elsewhere, and Kentucky is also never far away from any top-10 prospect.
Still, it's the Big 12 trio making the most noise about landing Turner. While Turner may not be the player that puts OSU or Texas ahead of KU for the league title, he'll still be a pivotal figure in the conference's balance of power.
Kansas coach Bill Self has sent several big men to the NBA that were less talented than Turner. The Texan currently lacks only elite bulk and low-post skills but is otherwise dangerous on both ends of the court. Jayhawk Nation could be posting the Help Wanted sign in the pivot if 2013 signee Joel Embiid excels and declares for the NBA draft.
Oklahoma State pulled Marcus Smart and Le'Bryan Nash out of the Dallas area and will certainly need a big man of Turner's abilities in 2014. Proximity to home may be a major factor for Turner, and OSU is certainly closer than most of the likely candidates.
Texas, however, is closest of all. With Rick Barnes' recent recruiting classes struggling, he may need a commitment from Turner just to save his job.
Not every player is prepared to walk into a situation where he's considered a program's savior, though. How Turner reacts to that sort of pressure will be key to this decision.
Tyler Ulis' recruitment got much more interesting thanks to top point guard prospect Emmanuel Mudiay.
When Mudiay chose SMU over Kentucky this weekend, it made the Wildcats' offer to Ulis all the more important. Hedging his bets in case he was unable to land the physically gifted 6'3" Mudiay—a player who would be a perfect fit for his point guard assembly line—UK coach John Calipari decided to reach out to the diminutive Ulis.
The 5'8" Chicagoan poured in 22 points and dished 17 assists in a head-to-head matchup against Tyus Jones at the EYBL Peach Jam in July, a game that Calipari attended.
Michigan State, Iowa and USC have also been mentioned as finalists for Ulis. MSU and Kentucky are currently believed to be the frontrunners.
Ulis' next two weeks will feature three official visits, starting with Iowa on August 30. He'll then travel to Michigan State on September 6 and 7 before taking in the Kentucky alumni game on September 9.
Michigan State's advantage lies in starting early on Ulis, as the Spartans offered him back in May. Don't underestimate, though, the energy of taking in an actual basketball-related event at Kentucky, especially one with multiple NBA players there to speak with prospective recruits.
Rashad Vaughn intends to be a one-and-done player, and we know this as a fact. He confirmed as much to the St. Paul (MN) Pioneer Press earlier this month.
"My dream has always been to go to the league," Vaughn said. "The quicker I can do it is how I want to do it. Going one-and-done, that's really what I want to do. But it's really the time you put into it."
To that end, he's spending his senior year at Findlay Prep near Las Vegas, NV—a school that has sent several recent alumni to the NBA, most recently 2013's No. 1 overall pick Anthony Bennett. He'll then need a school where he can be a dominant player rather than one of many interchangeable parts.
If that school's in a power conference and he can still produce, all the better.
Vaughn trimmed his list to 11 schools in late July, and some have better reputations for producing one-and-dones than others. Rubbing elbows with Kentucky, Kansas, North Carolina and Arizona are relatively less heralded programs like Iowa State, UNLV and Minnesota.
Like fellow in-state stars Tyus Jones and Reid Travis, new Gopher coach Richard Pitino has kept his club in the mix for Vaughn against all odds.
In an interview with 1500 ESPN Twin Cities, Vaughn said "I like coach Pitino. The Gophers got a good chance."
The prospects of him getting all the shots he wants are certainly better than at Minnesota than Kentucky or Kansas, where he would surely enter alongside a host of other elite recruits.
Still, if anyone knows how to produce one-and-done lottery picks, it's John Calipari. Kansas can also point to the recent success of Ben McLemore, while North Carolina can sell Vaughn on being the player who can break the school's recent string of pedestrian shooting guards.
For more from Scott on college basketball, check out The Back Iron.
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