The annual college basketball “Signing Day Special” on ESPNU didn’t result in any public commitments Wednesday evening — the first day of the regular signing period — but the show did feature updates on some of UK’s top recruiting targets.
Zion Williamson, who has become an Internet sensation in recent months with his highlight-reel dunks, joined ESPN’s Matt Schick and Paul Biancardi in the studio for two segments. He’s the No. 2 recruit in the class of 2018 — so he has another year to make a college decision — and he made it clear that he has a long way to go before he’s ready for that choice.
“I’m still enjoying the process,” Williamson said. “I haven’t made any lists yet. I’m just taking it step by step, looking at all of the choices and opportunities I could have with each school. So, I’m just taking it slow right now.”
UK Coach John Calipari and assistant coach Joel Justus visited Williamson a couple of weeks ago, extending a scholarship offer to the 6-foot-7, 230-pound wing player from Spartanburg, S.C. The Cats joined an offer list that already included Duke, North Carolina, Kansas and several other big-name schools, and Williamson’s recruitment is surely going to be one of the most hotly contested in the 2018 cycle.
Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and UNC’s Roy Williams were in Spartanburg to see Williamson in the opening days of the recent recruiting period. Calipari will be watching him plenty on the Adidas circuit this summer.
South Carolina and Clemson are also working hard to keep him home for college — telling him to “Rep South Carolina. Do what LeBron did for Cleveland,” he said — and Williamson has been receptive to their pitches.
In between Williamson’s two segments on the show, the ESPN hosts were joined by Gamecocks Coach Frank Martin, who led South Carolina to its first Final Four just a few days ago.
“You have to take advantage of those moments that the present players give you to knock on doors that maybe weren’t being answered before,” Martin said. “So we’ve tried to maximize that and put ourselves in front of people that would be excited that they can come to South Carolina and win and win big.”
Martin was asked if the recent success of in-state players like Sindarius Thornwell and PJ Dozier have had in his program would help recruit more South Carolina natives. Under NCAA rules, the coach isn’t allowed to specifically talk about Williamson, but he’ll be recruiting him hard over the next few months.
“You gotta recruit your backyard,” Martin said. “Unfortunately, one of the things that had taken place is that — the times when the BJ McKie’s of the world and all the guys that were good in the state, they always wanted to be Gamecocks — that had kind of gone away. We had to work real hard to re-establish a trust factor … to let it be known that you can be a Gamecock if you’re in state. That you can play in front of 15,000 fans every night. That you’re good enough to compete for an SEC championship and make a run in the NCAA Tournament.”
He’s No. 1
The only thing keeping Zion Williamson out of the No. 1 spot in the 2018 recruiting rankings is power forward Marvin Bagley, who has held that position since his freshman year of high school.
Bagley — a 6-11, 220-pound power forward — is from Arizona but is playing his high school ball in California.
He recently released a college list that included Kentucky, Duke, Arizona, Kansas, Southern Cal and UCLA. Sometime in the next year, he’ll make his college decision.
“I just can’t wait for my time,” Bagley said on the ESPNU show. “Just seeing (the 2017 recruits) making their decisions on where they want to go to school. Seeing them experience the McDonald’s Game and going to different places. It’s something for me to look forward to.
“I can’t wait to get to that point, and I’m going to work hard until that time comes.”
Bagley averaged 24.9 points and 10 rebounds per game this past season, earning California player of the year honors after being forced to sit out his sophomore season last year due to a transfer flap.
With his new college list, he cut Arizona State and Oregon and added Kansas and Southern Cal. UK, Duke, Arizona and UCLA have been the constants in his recruitment.
50/50 for Bamba
Mohamed Bamba — UK’s top remaining target for the class of 2017 — didn’t appear on ESPNU’s special, but there was still a segment dedicated to the 7-footer from Harlem, N.Y.
ESPN analyst Jeff Borzello was on the show to handicap the recruitment of Bamba, who has cut his list to UK, Duke, Michigan and Texas.
Borzello said Bamba’s recruitment is most likely a one-on-one battle.
“I think it’s down to pretty much Kentucky and Texas,” he said. “Both sides — they don’t really feel confident, (but) they don’t feel pessimistic. I think those two are still battling it out. … I think it’s 50/50 right now.”
Bamba has not set a specific timetable for his college decision.
Texas big man Jarrett Allen recently declared for the NBA Draft and intends to sign with an agent, and Borzello said that could be a small plus for the Longhorns’ in their pursuit of Bamba.
UK big man Bam Adebayo has also declared for the draft, but he has not yet signed with an agent and could still return to school for a sophomore season. Adebayo has until May 24 to remove his name from the draft, if he wants to return.
Bamba can wait as long as he wants before making a decision. Allen, for instance, didn’t reveal his college commitment until early June of last year.
Latest on Knox
UK is still recruiting five-star small forward Kevin Knox — John Calipari was in touch with him earlier this week — but the Cats aren’t expected to land his commitment.
Knox could still end up in the Southeastern Conference, however.
The 6-foot-9 prospect from Tampa, Fla., flew directly from the Nike Hoop Summit in Portland, Ore., to Columbia, Mo., last weekend so he could take an official visit to Missouri alongside No. 1 recruit Michael Porter Jr., and class of 2017 guard Blake Harris, who are both committed to the Tigers.
“It was a great visit,” Knox said. “The fan support out there is ridiculous. Everywhere we went, everybody was taking pictures and wanted to say, ‘Hi’ to us and everything. It was crazy. The visit was great. The facilities were great. And the coaching staff was great.
“I know they’re not really a good basketball school, so when they saw me and Mike and Blake up there, they had hope. It was definitely great. The fans are ridiculous.”
Knox had previously cut his list to UK, Duke, North Carolina and Florida State.
New Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin is selling Knox the vision of being a program-changer in Columbia.
“Me and Mike will be able to come in and have a great time,” Knox said. “Coach Martin will let us have our freedom. He’ll push us to be great and get us to the next level.”
ESPN analyst Jeff Borzello said on Wednesday night’s TV special that Duke had been the perceived favorite for Knox over the past few months, then North Carolina possibly took control with what — at the time — was thought to be his final official visit.
Knox is expected to make his college decision in late April or early May.
“Missouri is really in the mix right now,” Borzello said. “Michael Porter Jr. is really pushing Kevin Knox, and I think Missouri has a legit shot of landing him.”
UK has seven incoming players from the class of 2017 — five-star prospects Hamidou Diallo, Quade Green, Nick Richards, Jarred Vanderbilt and PJ Washington, and four-star guards Jemarl Baker and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander — but the Cats likely aren’t done yet.
Washington said as much during his appearance on Wednesday’s show.
“We’re going to be really good,” he said. “We got some pieces that we’re still missing, but I feel like this class is going to be special.”
ESPN’s Paul Biancardi pointed out that Calipari has always had young teams at UK, and he usually leads them to great success, mentioning the Cats’ six Elite Eights, four Final Fours and one national championship in Calipari’s eight seasons.
Biancardi sees a similar run next season.
“There’s a lot of talent on this team, when they get into the NCAA Tournament, to make a run,” he said.