NCB On The Trail: VCU Rams

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Scouting the country each year I’ll not only see players’ skills, athletic ability and basketball IQ, but I’ll also witness their character along the way. This year’s class might not have any NBA superstars at the moment, but it will have difference-makers for the college game, both in the short term as well as those who will make a difference in time because of their character traits combined with their talent.

As we wrap up the Class of 2014, here are my five final thoughts:

1. The land of the giants

[+] EnlargeJahlil Okafor
AP Photo/The Sun News/Charles SlateDuke center signee Jahlil Okafor finishes the season as the nation's top prospect.
When you look at the top of a class it's so rare to have three post players sitting in the top three spots. Jahlil Okafor, who held the top spot for much of the season, finishes the season as the nation’s top prospect. The center from Chicago is a dominating presence in the paint. A Duke signee, Okafor led his high school team to a 4A state championship and was named the McDonalds Morgan Wooten player of the year.

He is special because he scores down low in the paint with his back to the basket. His combination of size, touch and fluid footwork is too much for one defender and when he doesn’t score, he attracts a double-team, which gives his team an advantage. He operates with patience and poise and when he reads the double-team he will accurately pass out to the open man. Defensively he guards the post and is improving at ball-screen defense as he is a barrier to the rim for his team.

Myles Turner, the nation’s No. 2 prospect, challenged hard for the No. 1 position and shows a big upside. Turner, who is uncommitted, is an elite shot-blocker and scores baskets with a soft touch and range. Cliff Alexander is going to be an absolute difference-maker for Kansas with his ability to rebound, finish and block shots, and he does it in an aggressive manner. Trey Lyles is one of the most skilled post players in this group and his future teammate at Kentucky Karl Towns Jr. has franchise skill-to-size ratio. Thomas Welsh is a fundamentally sound big who will anchor the middle at UCLA.


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Playing the comparison game 

February, 20, 2014
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It's a constant topic of conversation: Which player does this prospect remind us of?

Well, given that the current college basketball season has been dominated by freshmen, we took a look at Jeff Goodman’s latest ranking of college freshmen and played the comparison game.

Duke’s Jabari Parker reminds us of Duke signee Jahlil Okafor.
Although they obviously don’t play the same position or have the same style, the similarities are there, and not just the superficial ones such as their hometown of Chicago or college destination. Although Parker does his work primarily from the perimeter and Okafor on the block, Okafor has that same level of maturity that will allow him to adjust to offensive structure just as quickly as Parker has. Furthermore, Okafor likely will take over for Parker and become the immediate focal point of the way Duke plays in the half court. The Blue Devils have tailored what they do offensively to Parker this season, and they’re likely to do the same for Okafor next season.


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Tillman (Redford, Mich./Pershing) was a good find and VCU did a good job of finishing the recruitment off with his pledge. The three-star prospect fits the profile that VCU looks for in its recruits as he is long and athletic and he runs with some skill. He's a big-time finisher in the conversion game and a lob-catcher.

Offensive rebound put-backs are a specialty, as he not only has a strong vertical jump, he is a quick leaper up to the rim.

Tillman owns a soft touch if he stays close to the paint, and his free-throw shooting looks good. He has a chance to excel in VCU's system because he has a chance to improve his skills against a set defense and utilize his length and quickness on every defensive possession.

The state of Michigan is not that strong in the senior class this year, and he has had some big games so he might have a real chance at the Mr. Basketball award. The best player in the state of Michigan is ESPN 25 super sophomore
Josh Jackson (Southfield, Mich./Consortium College Prep), who is a serious candidate for the award.
Conference realignment has had lasting implications on every major conference in college basketball, but the group that might have been affected more than anyone else were the mid-major schools.

Annual powerhouses like Xavier, Memphis, Butler, Temple and several others have now been elevated to “high-major” conferences, leaving a void for other mid-major programs to establish their recruiting superiority at their own level.

So after grading the ACC, American, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac 12, and SEC last week, it’s now time to examine the best of the rest. Grading mid-major classes can be subjective, meaning there’s a little bit of a curve in order to account for the fact that recruiting at this level is tougher than ever before given the unprecedented number of competing programs who can now leverage their high-major conference affiliation.

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The early signing period arrives Wednesday, marking the first time 2014 prospects can officially sign their national letters of intent, turning previously unbinding verbal commitments into contractually binding scholarship agreements.

Here are 10 storylines to watch for during the eight-day signing period:

Jahlil Okafor
AP Photo/Damen Jackson via Triple Play New MediaJahlil Okafor is hoping to sign during the early signing period. Where will he end up?
1. Package-deal decision day
Word is that Jahlil Okafor and Tyus Jones are both hoping to sign during the early period, and that means the country’s biggest package deal should have a decision within days. All indications are that the duo still intends to go to school together, but the final destination has become unclear of late. Duke has long since been considered the front-runner, but there’s been growing chatter for Kansas, especially as it pertains to Okafor. Baylor is the dark horse, and while nobody seems to be talking about the Bears anymore, neither prospect has said they’re out of the running just yet.

2. Awaiting word from Alexander
We’re anticipating an announcement from Cliff Alexander, the nation’s third-ranked prospect. The 6-foot-8 big man took the nation by storm during the recent EYBL season and picked up offers from some of college basketball’s most prestigious programs in the process. Four of those remain in the hunt for his services. While Illinois and DePaul have been the perceived favorites, Kansas and Memphis are in the mix as well. Look for Alexander to trim one of those four off his list before his announcement -- and ultimately make his choice from a list of three final schools.

3. Early or late? That is the question
While Okafor, Jones, and Alexander are all expected to make their decisions in time to sign during the early signing period (that is, on or before Nov. 20), there is another group of prospects we still don’t know what to expect from. Justise Winslow just took his last visit, and he could be ready to decide. William Lee is another ESPN 100 prospect who could very well be ready in the coming days. Stanley Johnson was once targeting a January decision, but he now appears to be on the fence, as there has been mounting speculation that he could abandon those original plans in time to sign early.

4. What’s left for the spring?
With 87 players in the current ESPN 100 already committed and at least four more expected to make their decisions in time to sign early, we’re expecting over 90 percent of the current ESPN 100 to officially be off the board within the next 10 days. That’s an almost unprecedented percentage, leaving very little left on the table for the spring’s late signing period. The big prizes for those playing the waiting game are likely to be Myles Turner, Rashad Vaughn and JaQuan Lyle, along with any of the previously mentioned top prospects who ultimately decide against early signatures.

5. Care for a contingency plan
With so few prospects remaining on the board following this period, the major question is what happens to the programs that have gone the distance with top remaining prospects -- only to end up missing out on them. The best examples are Duke and Kansas. The Blue Devils and Jayhawks have gone head-to-head for Okafor and Jones and have passed on other talented guys as a result. Now they’re in a spot where the consequences of losing out on Okafor and Jones could be especially high, with no good contingency plans left on the board unless they’re able to score Turner, who isn’t likely to be excited about being perceived as anybody’s runner-up.

6. Competition for Kentucky
Kentucky currently has the top-ranked recruiting class in the country. If the Wildcats can hold on to that spot, it would be the fifth time in John Calipari’s six years in Lexington he has secured that distinction. The reality, however, is that it may be unlikely. And while Kentucky’s class is undeniably loaded, the 2014 group will be remembered as much for the guys who passed on the Wildcats -- Okafor, Alexander, Jones, Emmanuel Mudiay, Kelly Oubre and James Blackmon Jr. among others -- perhaps signaling a decline in what has been one of the most dominant recruiting periods for any program in recent history.

7. The Big East is back (or never left)
If this season's recruiting class is any indication, the demise of the Big East has been somewhat exaggerated. While conference realignment might have forever changed one of the country’s most historic conferences, it apparently has not done much to hurt the brand. Xavier, Seton Hall and Georgetown have all put together top-10 classes, and Marquette and Providence are not far behind. With five different programs among the top-20 classes in the country and a total of 15 ESPN 100 prospects having already popped for the Big East, the league is recruiting as well as any in the country.

8. What’s the Matta with this class?
Ohio State has the second-ranked recruiting class in the country, a group loaded with four ESPN 100 prospects and another big man who is just on the cusp of that list. Yet nobody seems to be talking about the Buckeyes. With so much attention being paid to the potential classes at Kansas, Duke and Kentucky, Ohio State has flown under the radar. The reality is that coach Thad Matta did his work early and did it well. D’Angelo Russell, Keita Bates-Diop and Jae’Sean Tate are all coming in next year, and Payton Dastrup is essentially joining the Class of 2016 after he takes a two-year Mormon mission. The Buckeyes have solidified their future as well as any program in America.

9. Talking about the Tar Heels
Roy Williams and North Carolina are in a similar situation. They have a trio of ESPN 100 prospects on board for next season, all ranked among the top 15 prospects in the country. However, because all three were already committed by last May, the Tar Heels haven’t been at the forefront of any recent recruiting headlines. It’s a mistake to sleep on them, though, as they have one of the country’s best scorers on the wing in Justin Jackson, a swingman with elite athleticism; an alpha-male mentality in Theo Pinson; and one of the most dependable point guards in the country in Joel Berry.

10. Mid-major impact
A quick glance at the class rankings will show that the mid-majors are once again well-represented among this year’s top recruiting classes. San Diego State, VCU and UNLV have all asserted themselves as national recruiters. Steve Fisher’s four-man class is headlined by a trio of ESPN 100 products in Malik Pope, Trey Kell and Zylan Cheatham, while Terry Larrier and Mike Gilmore lead a similar four-man group for Shaka Smart and VCU. Dave Rice and the Rebels have one of the best incoming frontcourt tandems in the country in Goodluck Okonoboh and Dwayne Morgan.

Under-the-radar recruiting powers 

October, 22, 2013
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When it comes to recruiting, there are certain superpower programs that are simply on a different playing field from everyone else in college basketball. Programs such as Kentucky, Duke, North Carolina and Kansas are the most obvious there. Those teams are national brands with Hall of Fame coaches, rabid fan bases and a history of success at the highest levels.

But there are always surprising teams that can rise up and compete with the big boys. Change and evolution are inevitable in the world of recruiting. Whether that’s thanks to a dynamic coach, a deep run in the NCAA tournament or an impressive crop of local prospects, teams can quickly establish themselves as forces on the recruiting trail.

With that in mind, we asked our team of RecruitingNation experts to predict which under-the-radar team could become a recruiting power in the next few years.

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In the latest edition of the 2014 class rankings, there are three new additions (Vanderbilt, Miami and Michigan), while VCU, Xavier and Providence made big moves. Here's a look at one team making its move, one team that needs to pick it up, and what to watch for in the next week.

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Top five undervalued classes 

September, 19, 2013
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Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings landed a commitment from his second four-star prospect in as many weeks over the weekend when Matthew Fisher-Davis (Charlotte, N.C./Charlotte Christian) joined Wade Baldwin (Hillsborough, N.J./St. Joseph).

With a pair of four-star prospects now on board in mid-September, Stallings’ class is considered good, but not great, by most national standards.

But the reality is that each school comes into the summer with different needs and priorities, and ultimately those objectives are tied to winning basketball games, not class rankings. Coaches consider fit, style, personnel, and a variety of other variables.

For Vanderbilt, that means looking for high-character guys who fit their system and culture. Given that approach, the Commodores are one of five schools off that couldn't hope to be off to a better start.


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Weekly Commitment Roundup

September, 6, 2013
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American Athletic Conference
Louisville
Jaylen Johnson | PF | Ypsilanti, Mich./Ypsilanti
HT: 6-9 WT: 210
Class of 2014
Positional Rank: 15
Stars: 4
ESPN 100: 62

Big Ten Conference
Illinois
Leron Black | PF | Memphis, Tenn./White Station
HT: 6-7 WT: 215
Class of 2014
Positional Rank: 6
Stars: 4
ESPN 100: 36

Big 12
Baylor
Mark Vital | SF | Lake Charles, La./Washington-Marion
HT: 6-4 WT 215
Class of 2016
Positional Rank: NA

West Virginia
Jevon Carter | SG | Maywood, Ill./Proviso East
HT: 6-2 WT: 180
Class of 2014
Positional Rank: NA
Stars: 3

Big East
Marquette
Phillip Flory | SG | Wisconsin Rapids, Wis./Wisconsin Rapids
HT: 6-3
Class of 2017
Positional Rank: NA
Stars: Evaluation Pending

Conference USA
East Carolina
Lance Tejada | PG | Hollywood, Fla./Blanche Ely
HT: 6-1 WT: 175
Class of 2014
Positional Rank: 22
Stars: 4
ESPN 100: 96

Glenn Bryant | SF | Marietta, Ga./Kell
HT: 6-6 WT: 180
Class of 2014
Positional Rank: NA
Stars: Evaluation Pending

Southern Miss
Willie Carmichael | PF | Apopka, Fla./Wekiva
HT: 6-7 WT: 195
Class of 2014
Positional Rank: NA
Stars: 2

ACC
Virginia
Isaiah Wilkins | SF | Norcross, Ga./Greater Atlanta Christian
HT: 6-7 WT: 185
Class of 2014
Positional Rank: NA
Stars: 2

Wake Forest
Isaac Haas | C | Piedmont, Ala./Hokes Bluff
HT: 7-1 WT: 275
Class of 2014
Positional Rank: 18
Stars: 4

Pac-12
UCLA
Trevon Bluiett | SF | Indianapolis/Park Tudor
HT: 6-5 WT: 205
Class of 2014
Positional Rank: 10
Stars: 4
ESPN 100: 41

Utah
Kyle Kuzma | SF | Burton, Mich./Rise Academy
HT: 6-8 WT: 200
Class of 2014
Positional Rank: 27
Stars: 4

Isaiah Wright | PG | Boise, Idaho/Borah
HT: 6-2 WT: 175
Class of 2014
Positional Rank: NA
Stars: 2

Stanford
Robert Cartwright | PG | Pasadena, Calif./Flintridge Prep
HT: 6-2 WT: 165
Class of 2014
Positional Rank: 34
Stars: 3

SEC
Auburn
Sam Logwood | SF | Indianapolis/La Lumiere
HT: 6-7 WT: 205
Class of 2014
Positional Rank: 20
Stars: 4
ESPN 100: 78

Jack Purchase | PF | Melbourne, Australia/Carey Baptist Grammar
HT: 6-10 WT: 200
Class of 2014
Positional Rank: NA
Stars: Evaluation Pending

Vanderbilt
Wade Baldwin | PG | Hillsborough, N.J./St. Joseph
HT: 6-2 WT: 180
Class of 2014
Positional Rank: 29
Stars: 4

South Carolina
TeMarcus Blanton | SG | Locust Grove, Ga./Luella
HT: 6-4 WT: 185
Class of 2014
Positional Rank: 37
Stars: 3

Atlantic 10
Virginia Commonwealth
Justin Tillman | PF | Redford, Mich./Pershing
HT: 6-8 WT: 175
Class of 2014
Positional Rank: 29
Stars: 4

George Washington
Paul Jorgensen | PG | Ramsey, N.J./Don Bosco
HT: 6-3 WT: 185
Class of 2014
Positional Rank: 45
Stars: 3

Horizon League
Illinois-Chicago
Tai Odiase | C | Chicago/Homewood-Flossmoor
HT: 6-9 WT: 195
Class of 2014
Positional Rank: NA
Stars: 2

Ivy League
Pennsylvania
Mike Auger | PF | Hopkinton, Mass./New Hampton
HT: 6-6 WT: 205
Class of 2014
Positional Rank: NA
Stars: 2

Cornell
Jordan Abdur-Ra'oof | SF | Rockville, Md./Gonzaga College
HT: 6-7 WT: 200
Class of 2014
Positional Rank: NA
Stars: 2

Yale
Eric Anderson | PF | West Chester, Pa./The Haverford School
HT: 6-6 WT: 200
Class of 2014
Positional Rank: NA
Stars: 2

Sun Belt
Georgia State
Jeff Thomas | SG | Norwalk, Ohio/Norwalk
HT: 6-5 WT: 185
Class of 2014
Positional Rank: NA
Stars: Evaluation Pending

Jordan Session | SF | McDonough, Ga./Eagles Landing
HT: 6-9 WT: 190
Class of 2014
Positional Rank: NA
Stars: Evaluation Pending

Colonial Athletic Association
College of Charleston
Evan Bailey | SG | Massillon, Ohio/Jackson
HT: 6-6 WT: 185
Class of 2014
Positional Rank: NA
Stars: 3

Atlantic Sun
Mercer
Jestin Lewis | SG | Richmond, Va./Wallace State C.C.
HT: 6-2 WT: 170
Class of 2014
JUCO

Jacksonville
Tim Bond | SG | Baltimore/City College H.S.
HT: 6-4
Class of 2014
Positional Rank: NA
Stars: Evaluation Pending

MAC
Buffalo
Mory Diane | SG | Detroit/Country Day
HT: 6-3 WT: 170
Class of 2014
Positional Rank: NA
Stars: 2

WAC
Cal State Bakersfield
Sadiq Inuwa | PF | Houston/La Lumiere
HT: 6-7 WT: 200
Class of 2014
Positional Rank: NA
Stars: Evaluation Pending

Starting 5: Kuzma grows on Utes 

September, 3, 2013
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Each week, Starting 5 takes you on a tour of the recruiting landscape. It delves into topics, recruiting trends and stories. This edition focuses on the Utah Utes' recent run of commitments, emotional toughness in recruits and tells you what happened on last weekend's commitment spree.

Utah could have one in Kuzma

[+] EnlargeKyle Kuzma
Dave Telep/ESPN Kyle Kuzma grew six inches and became a bigger prospect. Utah noticed early.
The Utah Utes last weekend added a player that isn’t nationally known – yet – but is significant to the future of the program. Small forward Kyle Kuzma (Burton, Mich./Rise Academy) is one of those neat stories that manage to fly under the radar until that first breakout week on the scene in college. Consider yourself warned.

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