On Sunday night, the USA Basketball U18 team began its quest for an international gold medal in the FIBA Americas tournament in Canada.
The squad consists of 12 players — most of them still in high school — and its coach is Bill Self, who spent the previous week and a half running the USA Basketball training camp in Colorado Springs and will spend the next several days getting even more hands-on time with some of the top recruits in the country.
Is that a recruiting advantage for the Kansas Jayhawks’ Hall of Fame head coach?
Every player on KU’s radar that the Herald-Leader spoke to at camp last week came to the same conclusion.
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“Oh yeah, most definitely,” said Matthew Hurt, a top-five player in the 2019 class and a major Kansas recruiting target.
Hurt was one of eight prospects from the class of 2019 to make the final U18 team. He has scholarship offers from just about every major program in country — Kentucky, Duke and North Carolina among them — and Kansas has emerged as a possible favorite in his recruitment.
The 6-foot-9 power forward from Minnesota liked what he was seeing in the early days of USA Basketball camp, where Self took immediate control of the practice sessions.
“He’s a great coach,” Hurt said. “He led an undermanned team this year to the Final Four — had a great season. And however many Big 12 titles that they have — he’s done a great job with them. That’s why he’s one of the Hall of Fame coaches.”
Of the eight high schoolers on the U18 team, only Kentucky commitment Tyrese Maxey is pledged to a college team. A few of the others are major Kansas targets, and the team also includes Quentin Grimes, who will be a Jayhawks freshman this season.
In addition to Hurt, the Jayhawks are the leaders on the 247Sports Crystal Ball page of five-star forward Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, who plays his high school ball less than an hour from Lawrence and is the son of former KU player Lester Earl.
A couple extra weeks with Self can only help that recruitment.
Kansas has also expressed interest in Cole Antony, the No. 1 backcourt player in the class and a prospect who has been largely silent regarding his recruitment. The Jayhawks have also been recruiting Armando Bacot, another five-star recruit in the 2019 class.
The other three uncommitted 2019 prospects on the team — Josiah James, Trayce Jackson-Davis and Rocket Watts — are all top-50 national recruits, and while KU was not considered a major player for any of them going into the camp, that could change as a result of the U18 experience.
“If you think about it, most of the kids here are class of 2019. And most of them haven’t cut a list or committed yet,” said top-10 recruit Bryan Antoine. “So Coach Self can be like, ‘Maybe I want this kid at Kansas,’ and try to be on them as much as he can.”
Antoine was one of the 33 players invited to take part in the U18 training camp, and he was one of 21 to ultimately not make the team. Not long before camp started, the 6-5 shooting guard from New Jersey narrowed his list to five schools: Kentucky, Duke, Florida, Villanova and … Kansas.
Antoine’s circumstance — being cut from a team coached by someone who’s recruiting him — represents a possible downside of Self taking the USA gig.
UK Coach John Calipari found that out last summer, when one of his top recruiting targets at the time — five-star big man Bol Bol — didn’t make his U19 team. There were some hard feelings after that, but — though Bol ultimately chose Oregon — USA Basketball later explained to the Herald-Leader that Calipari was not responsible for the cuts, and Bol later said it had nothing to do with his college decision.
Self, like Calipari last year and Texas Coach Shaka Smart the year before that, is one voice in a room full of them when cuts are made and the final team is selected.
That’s something that seemed to be clear to the Kansas targets going into the camp.
Keion Brooks — a five-star forward from Indiana — was one such player. He advanced past the first round of cuts but didn’t make the final team. Brooks, also a major UK target, spoke before the last round of cuts on whether or not the outcome would affect his view of the Jayhawks.
“I think it just depends on the person,” he said. “Me personally, I don’t want to get cut, but if I were to get cut I’m not going to take it personally. I would just take it as, ‘I need to improve on some things and get better at that.’ So I think it really just depends on the person.”
Others five-star recruits such as Kira Lewis, Scottie Lewis and Trendon Watford had KU scholarship offers going into the camp but didn’t make the team. They had nothing but great things to say about Self early in the training camp.
Scottie Lewis didn’t include Kansas on his updated recruiting list last week — though the Jayhawks weren’t considered major players for him anyway, and the recruiting cut likely had nothing to do with his omission from the U18 team.
Self will surely leave this U18 experience in a better recruiting spot than when the spring began.
“Any college coach that’s recruiting kids that they’ll have a chance to coach in USA Basketball, that’s a win for them,” Lewis said. “They’re probably jumping out of their seats when they get that call.”