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NCAA tournament proof of narrowing talent gap in college hoops

INDIANAPOLIS – One by one, the college basketball coaches had filed into the sweltering gym on the campus of Whitney Young Magnet High School, dressed in their polos and windbreakers and sporting their school logos, all craning their necks to get a glimpse of one of the best prep prospects to come out of Chicago in years.

It was impossible to miss the 6-foot-11 frame of Jahlil Okafor, casually throwing down those dunks in the warmup line.

It was much easier to miss freshman teammate Lucas Williamson.

A few years later, Okafor has gone from can’t-miss prospect to one-and-done star at Duke to the riches of the NBA, while Williamson has become one of the darlings of the NCAA Tournament. The slender guard with the big game has become the do-everything star for Loyola Chicago, which is once again making an inspired run through March.

The fact that Williamson ended up at Loyola Chicago, and Loyola Chicago in the Sweet 16, is evidence of what some coaches have predicted for years: A once-yawning talent gap between haves and have-nots has narrowed to nothing.

The difference in a top-50 kid headed to Duke or Kentucky and an unranked kid heading to Loyola might have felt like night and day 15 years ago. Now, the difference is negligible – if it exists at all.

“There’s just more good players,” Loyola Chicago coach Porter Moser explained. “Thirty years ago when I got into this in Texas, to now, you look at it – there’s so many five-star players. But it’s across the board. Kids are getting better. They’re doing more improvement. Skill development. They’re getting bigger and stronger. There’s more of it.”

That sheer volume of talent on high school and AAU teams is why a kid like Williamson, who had every big-name school in his gym to watch Okafor during his freshman year, could still get overlooked by just about everybody.

By the time he was a senior, Williamson had few scholarship offers and ultimately chose to join a team now led by All-American forward Cameron Krutwig, a three-star prospect out of high school in suburban Chicago whose only other offers were from Northern Illinois and American.

Backcourt mate Braden Norris began his career at Oakland before he arrived on Chicago’s north side. Marquise Kennedy is perhaps the most coveted prospect Loyola has landed in years, but even he picked the Ramblers over offers from the likes of Bradley, Hofstra and Northeastern.

The bluebloods of college basketball weren’t beating down the doors for any of them.

Not that it bothers them these days. Kentucky and Duke didn’t even make the NCAA Tournament. Kansas and Illinois were sent packing the opening weekend. And the Ramblers, the guys who ousted the top-seeded Illini, moved on to face Oregon State on Saturday.

“The end of the day,” Williamson said, “the respect that teams give us before we play, that doesn’t really concern us. We’re only focused on winning games and continuing this big run that we’ve been having.”

Oregon State can relate. The Beavers’ signing classes have ranked outside the top 50 nationally each of the past two years, according to recruiting site Rivals.com. Yet they ran roughshod through the Pac-12 tourney to earn an NCAA invite, then beat Tennessee and Oklahoma State to reach their first Sweet 16 since 1982.

One of their leaders, sophomore guard Jarod Lucas, chose to play for the Beavers over Nevada and Fresno State.

“I think at the end of the day it’s all about, there’s a bigger plan for all of us,” he said. “Not a lot of us had the best looks or the high-majors, other bluebloods, but we all had one coach, one university that believed in you. All of us at Oregon State have one coach that believed in us. And we all appreciate the belief coach (Wayne) Tinkle has in us.”

Recruiting rankings are heavily subjective, of course. Prospects grow and develop in college, some more than others, and it’s nearly impossible to identify intrinsic qualities such as pride and work ethic that portend a future star.

Yet rankings do illustrate how evenly spread talent is across college basketball these days.

Five of the top 12 schools in Rivals.com’s final recruiting rankings for 2020 failed to make this year’s tourney, and the top four from the previous year failed to make it, too. That includes Kentucky, which had the No. 1 class last spring but went 9-16 this season, and Memphis, which was No. 1 in 2019 but had its bubble burst on Selection Sunday.

Meanwhile, nine of the 16 teams remaining had recruiting classes last season that landed outside of the top 25. Loyola, Creighton, Syracuse and UCLA haven’t had a top-40 class the past three seasons. Oral Roberts, the second No. 15 seed to ever reach this point in the tournament, hasn’t had a class that ranked in the top 100.

The Golden Eagles are a prime example of unearthing overlooked and underappreciated talent. There isn’t a team in the country that wouldn’t love to have high-scoring guard Max Abmas or talented forward Kevin Obanor, who led Oral Roberts to wins over Ohio State and Florida and have their sights set on Arkansas this weekend.

Obanor played at North Carolina prep school power Mount Zion Christian Academy, which produced the likes of NBA stars Tracy McGrady and Amar’e Stoudemire. Its campus is less than 5 miles from Cameron Indoor Stadium, yet Duke never came calling. Twenty miles the other direction is North Carolina State, which only showed mild interest.

Think the Blue Devils and Wolfpack would like to be playing basketball this weekend?

“We put our shoes on just like they put their shoes on,” said Obanor, who had 30 points against the Buckeyes and 28 against the Gators. “We don’t look at, ‘OK, they are ranked No. 2 or they have higher standards so they are better than us.’ We come out with the mentality that, ‘You feel like you’re better than us? Just prove it.’”