It was a whirlwind September for Josh Owens, who had to break from the Exeter (N.H.) Phillips Exeter Academy campus three consecutive weeks to take official visits to Notre Dame, Stanford and Vanderbilt. The last three weeks, Owens was able to be back at Exeter to catch up on schoolwork, basketball and recruiting.
"It was tough - no question," says Exeter assistant basketball coach Jay Tilton. "Josh has earned the right to do those visits, and his teachers worked with him on that. But the bottom line at Exeter is that you still have to make up the work. They will support him, but they're not going to excuse him [laughs]. That's the best way to put it. He's holding up his end of the bargain. It was tough, and when you think about the schools he visited, none of them were close proximity here in New England. He flew to South Bend, then Palo Alto and Nashville. That was not an easy thing for him. But all the while, he is flying back and maintaining all of his academic stuff."
"But he's back in his full routine right now and feels pretty good about the place he is in at this point," the coach continues. "Josh is very thorough, and he wants to get all the information on the table from the schools he has looked at before he moves forward. He eliminated Notre Dame from the picture a week ago, and he called Coach [Mike] Brey directly himself and thanked him for their recruitment of him. I know that he appreciated the way they handled it, from start to finish. He wanted to respectfully let them know that he was moving forward and going to make his primary focus on Vanderbilt, Stanford and his visit to Penn."
The elimination of the Irish is the biggest news to date in the slow-developing recruiting story of Owens. Notre Dame was one of the first schools to offer the student-athlete, yet they were taken out of the running while an Ivy League non-scholarship suitor remains in the race.
"He loved Notre Dame," Tilton maintains. "But in the end, when he evaluated the situations at the schools he has been at already, he just didn't think he would choose Notre Dame over the other two that he had seen. Out of respect for Coach Brey and his staff - they had been honest with him from the start, and he wanted to be honest with them - he wanted to let them move forward with their recruiting."
Irish eyes were not reddened for long, however. Notre Dame was able to take a commitment from fifth-year prep forward Tyrone Nash just days later. Owens and Nash both officially visited South Bend the same weekend in September.
Meanwhile, Owens left New Hampshire last night and is today embarking on his fourth and final official visit. The Georgia native is at Penn to take a closer look at the Quakers. An Ivy League school can rarely be considered on the same competitive recruiting landscape as the Pac-10 and SEC, but Exeter is an Ivy feeder school and Owens is open to the appeal of Penn.
"One of the attractive things about Penn is that it is an Ivy League school. He has a friend who is in their program who played for us a couple years ago, Cameron Lewis. In fact, Stanford had recruited him a little bit. They're close," Tilton explains. "Out of the three schools still in the picture, Penn has been recruiting him the longest. Granted, they have had a coaching change in the last year, but they are a school he has known about for some time. He has a lot of respect for the tradition they have there, and obviously the academic situation is pretty strong. He's certainly drawn, to a certain degree, to the fact that it's an urban environment. That is something that is interesting to him. The Palestra is an amazing place to play. Plus they're good. They are a team who has been to the NCAA Tournament a number of times, and that certainly has an appeal to him. Those things are all things he needs to evaluate, to see how important they are to him once he has a chance to take a look at them."
Reading the tea leaves in Owens' recruitment as been difficult, with limited access to the Exeter student-athlete. We do note that the recruit's mother, who lives in Georgia, did not join him for his official visit in South Bend. She did fly to the West Coast, however, to see Stanford and was able to make the 200-mile drive to Nashville. As of Tilton's last communication with his standout senior, Owens' mother was not expected to make this trip to Penn. Considering how close the mother and son are, it could be construed that Vanderbilt and Stanford are the odds-on favorites. Discerning a single favorite between the Commodores and Cardinal beyond that, however, appears too difficult at this point.
"I think they're both very close," Tilton opines. "They're two completely different situations. Both are great academically, without question. In terms of location, the league and maybe even style of play to a certain degree, you are talking apples and oranges. Right now, he has not indicated that he has a preference. Josh is also very close with his family, and it's not like he is in a situation where he is sitting down with his family every night to talk with them about this because his mom is in Atlanta. The gameplan has been to try, one way or another when he gets back from Penn, to get the important people in his life together and sort of lay out all of the cards and discuss the different things that are going on. Because he is a boarding student and has been for four years he is a pretty independent kid, but he still wants to have a chance to talk with the people who are close to him once he gets all the cards out after his visit to Penn."
The coach's comments bring up another point. Owens has been unable to readily consult, or certainly sit down with, his parents during this recruiting process because he lives away from home. His mother is in Austell, Georgia while his father lives in New Jersey. The former is a three-hour drive from Vanderbilt, while the latter is even closer to Penn. Stanford is thousands of miles away from anything Owens could call home. Could that distance dissuade him from a Stanford decision in his final calculus?
"I think he would certainly take that into consideration, but you also have to remember the fact that he left Atlanta as an eighth grader to come to New Hampshire for four years. He's not a kind of kid, I think, who weighs that," Tilton answers. "He's obviously close to his family, and he'll certainly respect their position on his college choice as well. But he's an independent kid and ambitious kid, and I don't think he will let that necessarily be the determining factor in the very end. As he is looking at schools now, I think he is evaluating a lot of different things. He gets the basketball situation at each place. He gets that in terms of where he could play and what his role would be. In the end with the distance factor, I don't know the role that it is going to play. It is going to be a factor, but I don't think it is going to be the factor for him."
One factor that needs to be resolved is Owens' admissions status with Stanford. He was this week in the final steps of polishing his application essays, with all of his teacher and counselor recommendations already in order. The Exeter senior intended to drop the completed application in the mail on Thursday before leaving for his Penn visit. With less than two weeks until the start of the fall signing period, time is short for Owens, but he has not been lazy in his approach to the application. Instead, he has been careful and conscientious, just as he is toward every aspect of his academic career.
Tilton tells a story of a couple weeks ago, when Owens approached him and asked if he could miss a pair of Exeter basketball workouts scheduled for a Thursday night and Friday night. Owens wanted to adjust his sleep schedule, hit the sack Friday night at 9pm and wake up fresh early Saturday morning to take the SAT. His coach was bit incredulous, considering that Owens already scored an 1880 his junior year.
Tilton: "Josh, you really don't need to take them again."
Owens: "I know. I just want to see if I can do better this time."
Assuming that application is on its way to The Farm, and for a moment assuming that he will be accepted by the school, Owens still has to examine Stanford for its pros and cons for his fast-approaching decision. His official visit to the Cardinal campus was an unmitigated success, so much so that we were hearing immediately afterward that Notre Dame was effectively eliminated from comparative consideration.
"He loved it. He had a great visit," Tilton shares. "I think the one thing that really stuck out for him was the kids on the team. He loved a couple things. He really enjoyed the kids on the team, and I think he really liked the cohesiveness of Coach [Trent] Johnson's staff. He felt that there was a real connection between the kids there and the coaching staff, which he appreciates. I think he was also really struck by the type of non-basketball opportunities that the kids at Stanford have. They're well-rounded. They're passionate about basketball, but there's more to those kids, too, which is very much like he is. I think he is drawn toward that. In a lot of ways, I think his experience at Exeter is similar to what he found at Stanford. He found some pretty eclectic people who are very passionate in whatever their interests may be. They're also very serious about the academic piece. They're well-rounded people, and that's what he liked about it. I don't think the weather hurt [laughs]. Of all the schools he is involved with, Stanford is the only one I haven't been to, but he said the campus was incredible. It was a very positive experience for him. His mother was there, too, and I think she really enjoyed it."
Tilton says there were no real negatives to the Stanford visit, but there also were a rousing set of positives to come out of Owens' Vanderbilt visit. Interestingly, they center upon a distinctly different collection of criteria.
"He loved the level of play. Obviously SEC basketball is pretty darned good," the Exeter coach explains. "He saw how much development their young kids have had in a relatively short period of time, physically. He does like the staff there, as well. He has built a nice rapport with Coach [Kevin] Stallings and Dan Muller, who has been the primary recruiter of Josh for a long time. It's another school that has a little bit more of an urban feel for him. He can walk off a pretty nice campus and be in the city, so to speak. Those are some of the things that are quite appealing to him. It's also a Southern school, and he's a Southern kid. I think there is a little bit of an advantage in that area."
Taking stock of these comments, albeit from the lips of a coach rather than the recruit, there appear to be several arenas where Stanford and Vanderbilt collide in this recruitment. Campus locale. Geography. The student-athletes. Pac-10 vs. SEC. Style of play.
Which of these criteria will prove most important, and which way Owens will lean - that is anybody's guess. But expect answers to come in the next week-plus, with the early basketball signing period starting on November 8. From three schools to one, Josh Owens should soon have a college decision. Stay tuned.
Are you fully subscribed to The Bootleg? If not, then you are missing out on all the top Cardinal coverage we provide daily on our website, as well as our full-length feature articles in our glossy magazine. Sign up today for the biggest and best in Stanford sports coverage with TheBootleg.com (sign-up) and The Bootleg Magazine (sign-up)!