Okafor, Jones, Alexander & Johnson: Next Year’s Title Contenders Start TodayPosted by Bennet Hayes on November 15th, 2013
For any college basketball purists awaking from a decade-long slumber, I have bad news. The senior superstar is an extremely endangered species. I know, I know – the game cannot be the same without them, surely. But the good news? There’s a new breed of players taking over the sport, and if you happened to catch wind of the goings-on in Chicago on Tuesday night, you could be convinced that the raw excitement they bring to the game is every bit as compelling as the nostalgic narratives of their predecessors. We of course are talking about the freshman stars in today’s college basketball world, and it’s a discussion that, quite frankly, has never been hotter. Tuesday night’s Champions Classic gave college basketball and its starring freshmen a rare November national stage, and the kids did not let us down. After that display, I can’t blame anyone for wanting to simply enjoy this season before dealing with the next one, but the reality of the one-and-done era is that this will be our lone ride alongside Wiggins, Parker, Randle and the rest of the gang. So peering ahead, who’s in line to fill their shoes, and where will they be doing it? Today will go a long ways towards answering the second question, as four of the consensus top five players in the class of 2014 (according to RSCI hoops) will announce their college decisions this afternoon.
Jahlil Okafor and Tyus Jones have nabbed the majority of headlines heading into this recruiting bonanza day. Okafor’s status as the top player in the class has fairly added to his surrounding buzz, but the duo has found more notoriety from their package deal pledge. Jones and Okafor said they were going to play their college ball together from day one, and there has been little wavering from that stance here in the final days, which all but assures either Duke or Kansas (according to sources) of landing two top-five talents in one fell swoop. Bill Self and the Jayhawks are also a possibility for another talented Friday decision-maker, as Chicago-bred big man Cliff Alexander will choose between Kansas, Memphis, and Illinois. The last top recruit set to announce his decision Friday is California wing Stanley Johnson. The timing of Johnson’s announcement is surprising, as he previously declared he would wait and make his choice next spring. It appears that folks in both Arizona and Kentucky are bullish on the local team’s odds to land the top wing in the class of 2014, while USC also remains a possibility.
I don’t think you need me to tell you that landing any of these players would constitute a major get for any of these programs (yes, even Kentucky), but the stakes are different for each school. In the case of USC and Illinois, a commitment from Johnson or Alexander, respectively, would give recent hires Enfield and Groce some real credibility in future recruiting efforts, while not to mention a cornerstone for their rebuilding projects on the court.
The five other schools (Kansas, Duke, Kentucky, Arizona, Memphis) awaiting the decisions of these youngsters are a little more accustomed to housing elite recruits in their dormitories, but the immediate influence of freshmen today means these recruiting battles are more important than ever. No longer are freshmen brought in to provide value in a year or two; they arrive on campus and immediately matter. It’s an arms race for the best high school talent, with the winners hauling in not only the most talented prep prospects, but also one of the pole positions to next year’s title. Quantifying the phenomenon may be unfair; netting the fourth-ranked player in the class instead of the 20th-ranked guy may not mean the difference between a Sweet Sixteen and a Final Four, but imagine putting a good but not great recruit in the place of a Jabari Parker or Andrew Wiggins. Duke and Kansas would see their title chances take a pretty solid hit, no?
The 2013-14 college basketball season will keep on rolling after Friday’s announcements, and we’ll surely get lost all over in the dynamism of the artist formerly known as the high school class of 2013. But take today’s news, whatever it may be, and tuck it away in a safe place, because the announcements from Okafor, Jones, Alexander and Johnson may provide a startlingly accurate preview of what teams we will be investing our belief in at this time next year.