Babbitt Has Final Five

Reno (Nev.) Galena forward Luke Babbitt has had the nation's top programs after him for quite some time. Even though he is rated as one of the country's top forwards, Ohio State did not come in on him until later in the process. So why are the Buckeyes on his short list of schools? There's more to the story...

It wasn't that long ago Galena head coach Tom Maurer was talking over college plans with his star forward, Luke Babbitt. They had the unenviable task of paring a list of 10 impressive basketball programs to five.

Babbitt was looking to cut down a list that consisted of Arizona, Duke, Gonzaga, Illinois, Kansas, Nevada, Stanford, Texas, UCLA and Washington.

Maurer was a Gary, Ind. native that has lived in Reno for 15 years after his good friend and IU buddy Dan Dakich, now the head coach at Bowling Green University, helped find him a job with Galena High School that was just opening at that time.

Babbitt was a transplant from Cincinnati. His father is an aviation engineer and his mother a nurse. The 6-8, 215-pound junior came to Reno in the fifth grade. Now he's a strong student with a 3.9 GPA and according to Maurer, "lives basketball."

Being around Big Ten basketball, Maurer introduced Babbitt to the Midwest. The Indiana Hoosiers didn't take for Babbitt, but he found interest in Illinois and Maurer took a spring visit to Michigan this year to check out the Wolverine program on their behalf.

But Babbitt's greatest interest within the Big Ten was from the state he first lived. Babbitt grew up an Ohio State fan, but the Buckeyes had yet to show any interest or recruit him.

"I asked Luke, I said, ‘Luke, everybody in the Big Ten has recruited you except Ohio State. Are you sure you don't want me to call them?'" Maurer recalls. "He said, ‘no, that's OK, not unless they call me.'"

Plenty of other programs were actively recruiting Babbitt, who according to is the No. 20-ranked player in the nation.

Of his list of 10 teams, Babbitt attended elite camps at UCLA and Arizona within the past two summers. He also took an unofficial visit this fall to Texas on top of a trip to Washington.

"I got to meet some of the guys," Babbitt recalled of his experience at both PAC-10 schools. "I got a good feel for the programs at both Arizona and UCLA."

The visit to Austin came in September, as Texas had been high on Babbitt's list. It also happened to come the same week Ohio State was playing against the Longhorns in football.

"Truly, the focus was on the Texas program," explains Maurer. "But the football game was a great experience for Luke."

"It was an added bonus," adds Babbitt.

While Babbitt had not been able to visit a lot of places, Maurer was fortunate enough to check out many campuses. Babbitt, he says, trusts his opinion to evaluate certain programs.

"I do whatever I can for him and he values my opinion," Maurer said. "Last week I was at UCLA checking them out. They have a great program."

From the very beginning, when Babbitt was just a freshman, Maurer knew he had something special.

"I knew I had great potential with him because he had the will," the coach remembers seeing him early on. "Anytime you have the will of getting better, you have a chance."

Since that time, a seasoned staff that includes former Gonzaga head coach Adrian Buoncristiani has worked hard to first give the natural left-hander a strong right hand. Then, according to Maurer, their staff worked on Babbitt's mid-range.

"We want him to understand that if he plays the perimeter and makes a drive to the middle," explained Maurer, "if there's a 7-footer in front of him, he needs to have a mid-range game to pull up."

Since then, they have worked on his outside shooting, pulling up off the dribble and also his ball handling. The two biggest areas for improvement are strength and explosion – especially for rebounding purposes.

Quickness also comes up when asking about Babbitt's defense. "Can he guard the three?" many people ask Maurer.

"North Carolina was in here and they wanted Luke as a three," he responds. "Many teams see him as a three and many see him as a four. He's able to play both but I think he's shown the ability to guard some of those kids on the wing."

Dave Telep of shares a similar opinion.

"He's a power forward who can really extend his game and play facing the bucket," said Telep. "College coaches are really taken by his overall feel and his ability to move around and score from different positions."

Although the Tar Heels didn't make the list, there still were 10 other programs Babbitt was considering.

The process had not gotten much shorter. Babbitt was hoping to trim his list to five to alleviate the stresses of recruiting from his coach and family.

"Luke is a researcher – he's going to spend a lot of time researching how he's going to fit in," Maurer said. "Some of Luke's reasons for why he's going to that university are pretty good in my opinion… One of the issues is that he wants to know about availability to get into the gym and work out at any time. Another issue he will look at is how he fits in with the team – where does he play. He wants to play for a great coach and a great program that has a chance to get to the Final Four every year."

The Bruins are coming off a Final Four appearance. Arizona has had plenty of history with the Final Four. Meanwhile, Gonzaga and Nevada are programs with a history of making the NCAA Tournament. Gonzaga has been close under Mark Few for the last several years.

These are four of the programs that began emerging for Babbitt.

"Each school has something good about it," he said. "They all are great programs that I like a lot."

Hundreds of miles away, Ohio State assistant coach John Groce got a call out of the blue from someone wanting to meet. They asked for just 10 minutes of his time. It was Babbitt's great uncle who was coming from the Cincinnati area.

"I probably can't do the story justice and I can't remember all the exact details, but he needed 10 minutes of their time to talk to one of the assistants and drove a hundred miles to Columbus to show them a gravesite that had a Buckeye engraved on the marker," said Maurer. "One of the grandparents ate, drank, slept and died an Ohio State fan and they wanted Ohio State to know that this kid had great roots to Ohio, his parents came from Cincinnati and that Luke would probably love to hear from Ohio State. That's when they found out about Babbitt."

Having seen Babbitt before and knowing of him, Ohio State placed a call to Maurer at Galena two weeks ago.

"John (Groce) called me up two weeks ago and said, ‘do you think that we (Ohio State) have a shot at Babbitt?'" Maurer recalled Ohio State asking. "I said shoot, ‘you've got a great shot at Mr. Babbitt.'"

Maurer informed Babbitt of the call he received.

"It took him by surprise, but once it did, Luke is a kid that will study everything (about them)," he added. "He eats, drinks and sleeps basketball. He's a Midwest kid. He doesn't do anything but play basketball and weight lift."

"I was definitely surprised. It's not as early as the others – they're the latest school to contact me," added Babbitt. "Anytime a new school calls, especially one as big as Ohio State, it's a big thing."

The Reno Gazette Journal spoke with Babbitt and he revealed his final five schools, which now included Ohio State along with Arizona, Gonzaga, Nevada and UCLA.

The article caught Maurer and several other programs by surprise that didn't realize the list was being trimmed yet. Maurer had planned to call the schools being eliminated just days later.

"I asked him what was going on and he thought he had a couple more days before they put that out," Maurer explained about the timing of the article. "I said, ‘well what about Ohio State? How serious are you?' He said, ‘Coach, I'm very serious about Ohio State.'"

Whether the Buckeyes become a match made in heaven for Babbitt, or simply a charming story, is the unsolved part of the equation. At very least, they have to play catch up with four programs that have been recruiting Babbitt for a very long time.

But by nature, Ohio State does have some plusses for Babbitt.

"I've been a big fan of Ohio State since I started playing basketball," Babbitt said. "I remember back in the Final Four run watching Michael Redd. I really admire their program and enjoyed watching them.

"As long as they're real interested in me, I'll be interested in them," he adds. "Obviously I have a lot of family back there, they have all these great players coming in, they won the Big Ten last year, they're a great program and it's close to the family. So it's a good fit."

Babbitt says he usually returns to Ohio with his family twice a year – once during the summer and once around Christmas. This Christmas, Babbitt will be focusing on five schools and watching them play.

He plans to visit a couple of schools throughout the season if he can slip away for a game without missing any practice time. If not, he hopes once his high school season ends in February, there will be a two or three-week window where he can go visit UCLA, Arizona, Gonzaga or Ohio State.

"He wants to see a game but he doesn't want to miss a practice," Maurer said. "He wants to verbal somewhere by the end of the summer."

Babbitt has his pick of the litter.

"They're just all great schools," he concludes. "It's going to come down to where I feel comfortable and where I fit in best with the coaches and players."

Now that his coach helped him get from dozens down to 10, and then from 10 to five, now he will be excited when Babbitt reaches one.

"The Big Ten for me is a great conference and I wish the best for it and I wish the best for him," concludes Maurer. "I'm from Indiana, but if he ends up at Ohio State, I will be really happy for him. It would be good to see him there. But I'll do anything for this kid and I'll be happy with whatever he chooses."

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