How will Billy Donovan's successor at Florida fare as a recruiter?
Billy Donovan’s decision last week to become the head coach of the Oklahoma City Thunder prompted questions about the quality of the job he left behind. Can Florida, a football school through and through, still expect to compete with Kentucky for SEC championships on a regular basis without Donovan? How would the Gators rebound in a conference that now features a more revered cast of coaches? Is Florida a nationally relevant program solely because Donovan made it so? And in recruiting, can the Gators land enough talent to keep winning at an elite level?
That last question won't start to be answered until the Gators hire Donovan's replacement, a process that athletic director Jeremy Foley recently said could take until next month. Donovan was regularly able to reel in some of the most highly regarded players in the country, even though his most famous recruiting class, the Oh-Fours, did not include any players given five-star ratings by Rivals.com. That group did, however, include four players—small forward Corey Brewer (No. 31), power forwards Al Horford (No. 36) and Joakim Noah (No. 75) and point guard Taurean Green (105)—who were ranked among the top 110 players in 2004. Those players, of course, formed the backbone of Donovan's teams that won back-to-back national championships in '06 and '07.
That success helped make Gainesville an even more attractive destination for elite talent. Between 2007 and '14, the Gators pulled in 14 top-50 recruits, according to Rivals.com. The list includes the 2010 class—which featured five-star center Patric Young, four-star small forward Casey Prather and three-star power forward Will Yeguete—that anchored Florida’s run to an SEC title and the Final Four in '14, as well as the Class of 2013 haul comprised of two top-10 prospects in point guard Kasey Hill and center Chris Walker (who recently declared for the NBA draft).
Donovan made waves on the recruiting trail almost as soon as he arrived in Gainesville in 1996, when he began assembling the class that would take him to his first Final Four, in 2000. He also ruffled feathers, such as in 1998 when then-Kansas coach Roy Williams reported Florida to the NCAA because of suspected recruiting violations involving South Dakota standout Mike Miller; no violations were ever issued to the Gators. Still, despite almost two decades of success on the recruiting trail, the Gators, along with pretty much every other program in the country, have not kept up with Kentucky. Excluding 2015, the Wildcats have finished no worse than second in Rivals.com’s team recruiting rankings every year since 2009, John Calipari’s first season in charge.
Assuming Calipari does not leave for the NBA at some point in the near future, it’s reasonable to expect Kentucky to continue recruiting at a similar level. The challenge for Florida’s next coach will be to continue to compete for SEC championships and try to stage deep NCAA tournament runs even if the Gators are not accumulating the same number of blue chip high school prospects as their chief league rival. It’s a daunting task, especially considering the recent coaching hires at Alabama (Avery Johnson), Mississippi State (Ben Howland) and Tennessee (Rick Barnes), but it's made easier by the abundance of talent in the Sunshine State.
Prep schools IMG Academy (in Bradenton) and Montverde Academy (Montverde) have furnished several elite prospects in recent years. The latter had three players of Rivals.com's top 100 players in the Class of 2015 alone: power forward Ben Simmons (No. 2), center Doral Moore (No. 70) and power forward and Florida commit Noah Dickerson (No. 81). IMG produced Class of 2014 standout Chris McCullough (No. 19), who recently declared for the NBA draft after spending an injury-marred season at Syracuse, and juniors Jonathan Isaac (No. 45) and Romello White (No. 105) both attend the school. On the grassroots circuit, Each 1 Teach 1 and Team Breakdown are among the top programs in the state.
It’s important to note that Donovan often reached beyond Florida to fill out his rosters. Bradley Beal, a five-star shooting guard in the class of 2011, attended Chaminade College Preparatory School in St. Louis, Mo. Erik Murphy, a four-star power forward in the class of 2009, starred at St. Mark’s School in Southbourough, Mass. Donovan built up Florida to a level at which it became an intriguing option for recruits in other parts of the country, and his replacement will benefit from taking over the program after such sustained success.
Donovan’s successor will have a clear top recruiting priority: keeping players in the class of 2015 who already signed National Letters of Intent—Dickerson, four-star small forward Keith Stone, four-star shooting guard KeVaughn Allen and three-star power forward Kevarrius Hayes. The focus will then turn to the 2016 class, in which Florida already has a commitment from three-star power forward John Mooney.
Hayes told the Gainesville Sun that Florida’s coaching change will not affect his commitment to the Gators, while Stone said that he wants to meet Donovan’s replacement before deciding on his future. Meanwhile, an assistant coach at Dickerson’s high school told the Sun that Dickerson is fully committed to Florida “right now,” and Allen’s stepfather said on the radio program Sports Talk with Bo Mattingly that Allen intends to seek a release. Allen, the No. 67 player in the class of 2015, was named the Gatorade Boys Basketball Player of the Year in Arkansas this season after averaging 25.2 points, 6.2 rebounds, 4.7 assists and 3.1 steals per game and leading North Little Rock High to a state championship.
Whoever Foley hires will be taking over a program in far better shape than it was when Donovan was hired nearly two decades ago. A favorable recruiting environment should ease the transition.
(All class rankings are from Rivals.com)
• Less than a week after it watched one of its top targets in the class of 2015 choose its archrival, North Carolina secured a commitment from another highly regarded player in the same class. No, the Tar Heels didn’t land Brandon Ingram, who signed with Duke last week, but Kenny Williams isn’t a bad consolation prize.
The four-star shooting guard had been offered a scholarship to UNC before signing with VCU last November, but he was granted his release in April after former Rams coach Shaka Smart left to take the same position at Texas. Williams drew interest from several programs after reopening his recruitment but reportedly had narrowed his list to Florida, Michigan, North Carolina and Virginia.
"The comfort level when I was down there," Williams, a standout at Lloyd C. Bird (Va.) High, said to Rivals.com affiliate VirginiaPreps.com. "I felt like I was a part of the program already. It was always a childhood dream growing up to play at UNC."
Williams will join a Tar Heels team that figures to begin next season ranked in the top three of the polls. With true point guards Joel Berry and Nate Britt, combo guard Marcus Paige and wings Justin Jackson and Theo Pinson all returning, Williams may not be allotted major minutes as a freshman, but his shooting prowess could help the Tar Heels immediately while giving them someone who should see plenty of court time the following three years.
Williams’ commitment should also ease some of the angst caused by Ingram’s decision to pick the Blue Devils. The five-star forward had said he probably would have committed to North Carolina months ago had the school’s athletic program not been implicated in a wide-ranging academic scandal.
Clearly the threat of sanctions is already having an impact on North Carolina’s ability to recruit top prospects, but Williams’ pledge should at least be somewhat reassuring for Tar Heels fans.
• Michigan State landed two elite big men in the class of 2015 in Deyonta Davis and Caleb Swanigan. The Spartans are set to add at least one more in the class of 2016. Nick Ward, a 6'9", 240-pound power forward who attends Lincoln High in Gahanna, Ohio (which also produced current Michigan State freshman Javon Bess), gave his verbal commitment last week. "We're going to win a championship,'' Ward told MLive.com. "and I just love it there.'' Ward, the No. 69 junior in the country, chose the Spartans over scholarship offers from Indiana, Iowa and Ohio State, among other programs. He’s the first player in the class of 2016 to commit to Michigan State.
• Arkansas, Alabama and Connecticut are among the programs South Florida coach Orlando Antigua beat out for three-star prospect Troy Baxter. The 6'9", 181-pound small forward verbally committed to the Bulls last week. "I had a better relationship with Coach Orlando than any other coach," Baxter told Rivals.com. "The relationship is great, he calls me every other day. I appreciate all the other schools that recruited me but overall I felt most comfortable with South Florida." Baxter, the No. 127 player in the class of 2016, is the first junior to commit to South Florida.
• One of the top prospects in the class of 2016 released his list of final five schools. V.J. King, the No. 11 junior in the country, will choose from among Arizona, Connecticut, Kentucky, Louisville and Virginia. The 6'7" small forward played this season at Paul VI (Va.) High after transferring from St. Vincent-St. Mary (Ohio) High.
• Texas A&M’s 2015 recruiting class features four players ranked in the top 70 of the Rivals150, including four-star center Tyler Davis (No. 28) and four-star power forward Elijah Thomas (No. 29). The Aggies—who also signed South Florida transfer point guard Anthony Collins—may not compile as strong a haul in 2016, but they’re off to a promising start with the news that point guard J.J. Caldwell has given his verbal commitment. Caldwell, the No. 68 player in the class of 2016, picked the Aggies over scholarship offers from Kansas State and Oklahoma, among other programs. He averaged 13.9 points, 7.6 assists and 6.5 rebounds at Cypress Woods (Texas) High last season, according to MaxPreps.
• Notre Dame secured its first commitment from a player in the class of 2016 when Temple "T.J." Gibbs, the No. 66 junior in the country, picked the Irish over Boston College, Georgetown and St. John’s, among other programs. He has college basketball in his blood, as oldest brother Ashton played for Pittsburgh (2008-12) and older brother Sterling is transferring from Seton Hall. Temple averaged 19.2 points, 3.9 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 1.6 steals per game at Seton Hall (N.J.) Prep this season, according to MaxPreps.
• Florida State positioned itself to improve upon last season’s ninth place finish in the ACC with a 17-16 overall record by pulling in three top-100 prospects in the class of 2015. On Tuesday, it added a top-100 player from the next junior class. Trent Forrest, a 6'4" shooting guard who attends Chipley (Fla.) High, pledged to the Seminoles over scholarship offers from Georgia, Miami and Vanderbilt, among other programs. “After praying and talking with my family. I have decided to end my recruitment and commit to FSU. I want to thank all the coaches that have Recruited [sic] me and took the time out for me! #FSU20 #TomahawkNation,” Forrest wrote in two Twitter posts. Forrest, the No. 82 player in the class of 2016, is the first junior to commit to Florida State.
• SMU added one member to its 2015 recruiting class and saw one member of its 2016 class renege on his verbal commitment. Simeon Carter chose the Mustangs over Kansas State and South Carolina, among other programs. A few days later, LaGerald Vick, the No. 137 junior in the nation, announced that he has decided to reopen his recruitment. When the 6'5" shooting guard committed to SMU last October, he reclassified from 2015 to 2016. However, reports say there’s a possibility Vick, who attends Douglass High in Memphis, Tenn., could reverse that move. Kansas, Kentucky and UCLA are among the schools that have contacted Vick since he decommitted from the Mustangs.
• Ike Anigbogu committed to UCLA last week. The No. 144-ranked junior picked the Bruins over scholarship offers from Arizona and Cal, among other programs. Anigbogu, who is renowned for his defense and rebounding, attends Centennial High in Corona, Calif. The 6'8", 205-pound center joins five-star point guard Lonzo Ball and three-star shooting guard Kobe Paras as members of the class of 2016 to commit to the Bruins.
• The Ballislife All-American game took place on Saturday at Long Beach City College. The event featured several of the nation’s top senior prospects, including the Kentucky-bound pair of Skal Labissiere and Isaiah Briscoe, Louisville commit Donovan Mitchell and Florida State signee Malik Beasley. Labissiere and uncommitted center Thon Maker were named Most Valuable Players, and Rutgers signee Corey Sanders generated attention on social media with a series of crossovers he used to fake out a defender near the three-point line.
Meanwhile, UNLV-bound forward Derrick Jones reinforced his reputation as the best dunker in the class.
• Nolan Narain, a 6'9" power forward who attends La Lumiere (Ind.) School, announced on Monday that he has committed to San Diego State. Narain, the No. 62 player in the class of 2016, had drawn scholarship offers from Kansas State, Miami and Vanderbilt, among other programs, but narrowed his options to the Aztecs and Gonzaga. While Narain is set to join San Diego State for the 2016-17 season, he told U-T San Diego that he’s contemplating a move to the class of 2015. The Aztecs have no other players committed from the junior class, but their incoming group features four-star center Brodricks Jones and four-star shooting guard Jeremy Hemsley.
• New St. John’s coach Chris Mullin has missed on two of his top recruiting targets in the class of 2015—shooting guard Brandon Sampson, who picked LSU, and power forward Cheick Diallo, who chose Kansas. Mullin earned a commitment from a less heralded prospect last week in three-star shooting guard Malik Ellison. Ellison, the son of former Louisville star and No. 1 NBA draft pick Pervis Ellison, chose the Red Storm over Minnesota, Rutgers and South Carolina.