Arlington Country Day center Jason Bennett has been the hottest name left on the 2006 recruiting board for a number of months now. Interested programs have been jockeying for a position in the race for his services ever since he re-opened his recruitment back in the summer. The Florida big man was all set to take his talents to Cincinnati until he got the news of Bob Huggins' ouster. "I was committing to Cincinnati until he got fired," Bennett said. "Until that happened, I didn't know all of these other colleges wanted me. I'm kind of holding off right now. I'm still open to everybody. Coach Huggins is still in there, but if he doesn't get a job right away I'm not really waiting for him."
Once he made the decision to explore his options, Bennett put much of the recruiting process on the backburner so he could focus on his season. That really paid off for Country Day. He has been a force in the middle for the Apaches…averaging 15 points, 17 rebounds, and eight blocks to help propel the team to a 19-3 record.
Bennett's play improved low post game has been particularly noticeable this season. The soft-spoken big highlighted two big reasons for his increased effectiveness. "My improvement has everything to do with confidence and strength," said Bennett. "I've gotten a whole lot stronger and that made me more confident out there. That's going to help me out in the long run."
That rise in his level of play only made the fight to get in the running for the talented 7-footer more fierce. Michigan was one of the schools to jump in almost immediately after he opened things up this summer. That's when he first took notice of the Maize and Blue. New Wolverine assistant Mike Jackson made the youngster one of his recruiting priorities and the two really hit it off. "I like Mike Jackson a lot," Bennett said. "I like the way he coaches. If I go there, they're still going to have big men there, but he told me that after they leave I'll be stepping in and taking their position and working my (behind) off."
Since then, the Wolverines have held firmly to their spot on the coveted big man's list of favorites. He whittled things down in recent months using some very specific criteria. When the dust settled, only Michigan and four other lucky programs were still standing.
"Alabama is on my list," he said. "Florida State is on my list. Clemson was in there, but I didn't really connect with the coaches. That's my thing. I can like the college, but I have to connect with the coaches to go there. I really connected with Mike Jackson. Coach Amaker has been down to see me and I really connected with him too. I'm also looking at Auburn."
When asked if any programs on his reduced inventory of suitors stood out, Bennett answered without hesitation. "Michigan, Auburn and Alabama," he said. "I am thinking stronger about them then any other colleges right now."
Some pundits had the home state Seminoles with a leg up over the competition in this race. According to Bennett, however, that definitely is not the case. "I heard they're keeping Jonathan Kreft, so I don't think I'll be going there," he said regarding Scout.com's #6 center prospect. "I don't know yet. My point guard Josue Soto is going there. Leonard Hamilton called Josue and told him that they might not get Kreft anymore. I don't know why."
When it's all said and done, the single most important factor in Bennett's ultimate choice will clearly be the relationship he establishes with the coaching staffs. That said, there will be some other key criteria that come into play as well. "It has to be a team that will pass the ball down low to the big men," explained Bennett. "I know that when I get double teamed, I'm going to pass it back out. I'm not a selfish player. I just need to know that they will try to get it down low. Any college I go to is probably going to give me the same education and everything. I'm looking for a coach that will help me make it to the next level."
The time to evaluate the pros and cons of each program is still a ways off. Bennett plans to wait until after his high school season is over to take his visits. After those trips, he will know all he needs to about each of his possible homes for the next four years.
"I took an unofficial visit to Clemson, so I don't think I'll be visiting them again," Bennett said. "I'll definitely be taking a visit to Michigan, Auburn, Alabama, and Florida State. I want to check them (i.e. the Seminoles) out and see if they really took Jon Kreft. I'm not going to commit on a visit. I'm going to go out and look at all of the colleges and see what the do with their big men, see how they are with the education see about tutors, and meet people like the academic advisors and the athletic director."
"I'm going to make my choice after basketball season. Probably in May I think."
GoBlueWolverine will have more on Bennett in the coming months.