Recruiting Ripples

At 3 p.m. on Saturday afternoon, fans from seven schools gathered around their computer monitors to see what two Massachusetts prep school stars would decide. Each had narrowed their college choices to four schools; but seven schools because one school appeared on both lists: Providence College.

Both of the players – power forward Abdul-Malik Abu and shooting guard Jared Terrell – played for the Expressions squad, and the New England AAU program had promoted the event like it was an old-time championship boxing match, complete with a well-designed poster, ball caps of the possible choices and cakes decorated with the logos of the winning schools.

For months, internet chatter and recruiting gurus had attempted to solve the puzzle of where Abu and Terrell would go to college. Some theorized that, because the two had mentioned the possibility of playing together a year ago, the only possible scenario was Providence. Others followed their comings and goings closely and changed their predictions based upon no information other than the most recent visit.

At Providence's Elite Camp in August, Ed Cooley gathered his top targets – including Abu and Terrell – and treated them to a full court recruiting press that included a phone call from Chris Webber, an attempt to promote the idea of PC's own Fab 5. While Terrell seemed disengaged and rumors were already circulating that he preferred URI, the relationship between Cooley and Abu was warm and evident. And why not? Cooley had spent the last two years making Abu a priority. He was the power forward that Cooley wanted.

So, when Abu took last minute trips to North Carolina State and Florida last week, after both he and Ty Boswell, his Expressions coach, had expressly said that there would be no more trips prior to the September 7 press conference, red flags were raised in Alumni Hall. And when Terrell picked Oklahoma State over URI and Abu selected a North Carolina State ball cap, there was also deep disappointment.

The Friars recruit with a high reward/high risk strategy, as do many schools. Each year, they identify their top targets and then attempt to outwork every school for those targets. Ed Cooley becomes a fixture at every one of their AAU games over the summer and as many high school games as he can get to. PC schedules as many in-home and in-school visits as is allowed and invites those targets to campus on unofficial visits as often as possible.

It has become fashionable to hear recruits say that this school or that school is "coming at me the hardest," or to hear pundits comment that "this coach has worked harder than anyone to land so-and-so." Many summer events coincide with one another in different locations, and so schools send their assistants to be present and accounted for and to cover each event, but the head coach is always present at the top target's games.

This high reward/high risk strategy can pay off with huge dividends. Kris Dunn received this treatment from Cooley and he looks to be a breakout star this year. Paschal Chukwu also received this treatment this year from Cooley and that culminated a three year relationship that saw Chukwu, a 7'1 true center and the highest rated high school center to enter PC since Dickey Simpkins over 23 years ago, commit to the Friars in late August.

But there are also risks. Just last season, Cooley shadowed Jakarr Sampson, a lanky 6'9 combo forward, for a year. No one worked harder than Cooley did on Sampson, but at the last minute, Sampson pledged to St. John's, where he went on to become the Big East's Rookie of the Year. And now, after shadowing Abu for two years and outworking everyone for his services, the Friars are left looking elsewhere.

Because when you make someone a priority at their position and they snub you, you're left scrambling to make up ground with other prospects. Because other coaches have made those prospects their top priorities, and while your assistant coaches have been spending time with them and at times your head coach, they've been receiving nothing but the head coach treatment from other schools.

Adding a quality power forward to replace senior Kadeem Batts and play alongside Chukwu was obviously a priority for Providence this year. Abu was slated to be that player, but with him gone, where does PC turn next?

While many waited for the Abu-Terrell press conference, Cooley and staff were busy hosting 6'9 Ben Bentil on an unofficial visit. Bentil is an interesting case, a Top 100 player whose ranking has slipped after a mediocre summer. It's also thought that PC has some ground to make up with Bentil, as Georgetown, Temple and Miami have been prominently mentioned with him. Another intriguing soon-to-be visitor is Jacquil Taylor, a talented player whose ranking has been affected by injuries. Several other prospects for power forward are on tap, including Kelan Martin and recently mentioned Justin Johnson.

But Cooley is a master talent evaluator and there are reasons why Abu was his top target at power forward: he was the best player at that position that PC was in position to land. For example, ESPN has Abu as their 10th ranked power forward and 44th best player overall in the class. Bentil is their 19th ranked power forward and 91st in the class, Martin is their 21st power forward and not in the Top 100, Taylor is their 32nd power forward and Johnson is their 84th power forward and probably not in their Top 200. There is a talent drop-off.

One final thought to consider in the messy miasma that is college basketball recruiting: the importance of keeping the top talent home. Ed Cooley has made this a priority and he has struck deep into the heart of Connecticut, drawing their top player in two of the last three years. Providence will leave the region to recruit top targets – Jalen Lindsey from Tennessee and Brandon Austin from Philadelphia are two good examples – but PC's bread and butter will continue to be talent-rich New England.

With a fairly stagnant relationship with BABC over the past two years (Goodluck Okonoboh is the only BABC player to list PC, but the Friars were never serious players with him), Cooley has worked hard to build relationships with other top AAU program, like the Expressions. While that didn't pay off with Abu and Terrell, as PC starts to establish itself as a winning program, the recruits from those programs will come. Already, the talent pipeline in New England – Jalen Adams, Donovan Mitchell, Josh Sharma, Tomas Murphy – is full, and Cooley and staff are identifying their future top targets.

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