SPARTANBURG, S.C. — The plan seemed practical and palatable. At a press conference introducing Archie Miller as Indiana’s new men’s basketball head coach in late March, Miller said recruiting should start within state lines and radiate outward. Miller talked about dedication to high school coaches and players and AAU programs in Indiana, and how he thought it necessary that they feel like they’re being “dominated” by the university. Miller conceded that “you’re not going to get every player,” but he made clear that he and his staff intended to try to lure “difference makers” to Assembly Hall, whether they hail from Bloomington or Brussels.
Miller’s stated emphasis on recruiting in-state is prudent in a couple of very obvious ways. There are a lot of good players in Indiana, and many of them live pretty close to campus. But for Miller, it means more than it would for any head coach taking over any high-major program in any fertile recruiting area. Indiana is a basketball-crazed state with a hoops identity rooted in the high school ranks, and Hoosiers fans, in particular, relish seeing prospects raised nearby flourish in crimson and cream. Miller is going to win his way, he wanted Indiana partisans to know, and he is going to do it with players they know and adore.
Amid this backdrop, it is not difficult to see why Romeo Langford could be framed as a pivotal recruit for the Hoosiers. Langford is a 6’5,’’ 195-pound shooting guard who’s ranked no lower than fifth among rising high school seniors by any of the major recruiting services, and all of them place him first among backcourt players. As a junior last season, he averaged 28.7 points, 8.9 rebounds and 3.4 assists while leading New Albany High School to a 25-4 record and its first state championship in more than 40 years. He is viewed as the favorite to win Indiana’s prestigious Mr. Basketball award next year.
The class of 2018 is light on must-get prospects, and the likelihood of any of its members blossoming into a superstar at the next level or beyond would take a huge hit if Marvin Bagley, a five-star power forward out of Sierra Canyon (Calif.) School, makes good on rumors about a reclassification to 2017. Even if class of 2019 standout R.J. Barrett makes the opposite move to join 2018, an option multiple analysts have reported is a possibility for the Canadian wing*, it’s difficult to muster much excitement about that class’s top tier. But Langford, a proven bucket-getter with a well-rounded scoring arsenal, is as close to a sure thing as exists within it.
Rather than spending the spring and summer giving college coaches an updated look at how many different ways he can break defenses, Langford has been fighting off a hip problem that has affected his back. When Sports Illustrated spoke with Langford, he was in Spartanburg, S.C., for the Adidas Uprising Gauntlet Finale with his Louisville-based club team, Twenty-Two vision, for the first of three July live evaluation periods. Langford had just been subjected to an extensive massage routine during which he lay prone on a training table and killed time on his smartphone. He seemed more in the mood for a nap than an interview.
Langford said that Miller’s staff is recruiting him just as hard as former head coach Tom Crean’s was before he was fired in March. He added that the “main thing” he’s considering in evaluating programs is the relationship he has with their coaches. It sounds like Miller is off to a good start in that regard. “I just like coach Miller as a coach,” Langford said. Langford didn’t offer much else of substance about his opinion of the Hoosiers—or any of his other suitors, for that matter—but his father, Tim, said Indiana has indicated that it considers Langford its “No. 1 recruit” and that Langford has expressed an interest in visiting the school, although nothing has been planned yet. (Langford has been on campus, but not since the coaching change.)
Langford and his father, who said coaches interested in Langford “go through me,” are at the very least giving off the impression that Indiana has a chance. And even though Langford wouldn’t commit to a timetable for revealing his decision, he hopes to release a list of seven schools at the end of the summer, and his father said he thought Langford was still “still early in the process.” Said Tim Langford, “Whoever’s reaching out, we’re just taking in whatever they’ve got to talk about and just going from there.” That suggests Langford will get an opportunity to see how Miller’s first Indiana team performs before unveiling his choice, which should help the Hoosiers if their playing style appeals to him and Miller has them ahead of schedule in a Big Ten that’s shaping up as Michigan State and everyone else.
The more you dig into Langford’s recruitment, though, the more it feels like the Hoosiers are sailing against the wind. Langford may be an in-state gem squarely in the sights of the state’s flagship program, but this seems less like their battle to lose than a shot at a major upset. For as significant as it would be for Indiana to lock down a prospect of this caliber in the early stages of a new coaching regime, Langford’s decision should not be spun as a referendum on Miller’s recruiting acumen or a portent of his capacity to beat out other programs for prospects who call Indiana home. Langford would be a huge get for the Hoosiers. He is not a must-have.
Among the many reasons to question the wisdom of that line of thinking, the simplest one is geography. New Albany is just northwest of the Kentucky border, about a 15-minute drive from Louisville and 85 miles from Lexington. Langford grew up rooting for the Cardinals, and unsurprisingly, they’re pushing hard for his signature. He also got a chance to play under Wildcats head coach John Calipari after becoming one of only four high schoolers to make USA’s Under-19 FIBA World Cup team this summer (the injury limited him to only 29 total minutes over five games), and no program has a stronger recent track record of churning out NBA draft lottery picks.
Neither of those two heavyweights may end up nabbing Langford, but he’s received scholarship offers from basically every brand-name program in the country, including the two mentioned above, UCLA, Duke, Kansas and North Carolina. According to the Recruiting Services Consensus Index, a composite ranking incorporating data from several services, Indiana has not reeled in a recruit in Langford’s orbit—let’s go with the top-10—since New Hampton (N.H.) School power forward Noah Vonleh in 2013. By that time, Crean had already gone through four full recruiting classes, and Vonleh’s commitment came a day after the Hoosiers’ opener in a season it began ranked No. 1 in the country.
The only other top-10 RSCI prospect of the Crean era was Cody Zeller in 2011. Zeller, like Langford, hails from Indiana, though his high school is about 45 minutes closer to Bloomington than Langford’s. Yet as Alex Bozich, the editor and co-founder of the Indiana basketball website Inside the Hall, pointed out, Zeller’s recruitment came down to a battle among the Hoosiers, a Butler program then residing in the Horizon League and North Carolina, where Zeller’s older brother, Tyler, was on the roster. By contrast, there are several national powers involved with Langford, including a perennial ACC contender in his backyard with legit Final Four potential for 2018.
Hiring Miller rather than making a nostalgia-fueled bid for UCLA’s Steve Alford was the right move, but it’s unreasonable to expect a coach only a few months into his new job after making a leap from a mid-major conference, which entailed recruiting from a pool of players far less highly touted than Langford, to fend off a Hall of Famer like Rick Pitino for a premium prospect, even if he resides in-state. “I think he’s important,” Bozich, a 2000 graduate of New Albany High, says of Indiana’s recruitment of Langford. “But I think they’re obviously facing an uphill battle.” Adds Evan Daniels, a recruiting analyst for Scout.com and 247Sports, “It’s not one of those situations where you say, ‘Well [Miller is] the new head coach at Indiana—he has to go get him.’”
The chances Langford rebuffs the out-of-state programs on his tail in favor of spending his (presumably) one season of college basketball laying waste to Big Ten defenders while electrifying the Hoosier faithful inside a packed Assembly Hall seem slim, but that hasn’t deterred Miller and his staff. Miller visited Langford in New Albany this spring and made clear during a tour-stop speech at a southern Indiana winery in May that he’s making Langford a priority. “I can’t talk about recruiting,” Miller said to the hundreds of fans in attendance, moments before he proceeded to, well, talk about recruiting. “And I do know where New Albany, Indiana is.”
In assessing the likelihood Langford ends up at Indiana, it’s worth reviewing the program’s recent history recruiting the state’s top players. Crean notched some big wins on home turf, but an inability to consistently close on Indiana’s most coveted prospects added negative momentum to his flagging tenure. A 2017 cycle in which four top-30 in-state guys fled for Michigan State (power forward Jaren Jackson Jr.), UCLA (small forward Kris Wilkes), Louisville (center Malik Williams) and Xavier (point guard Paul Scruggs) drove the point home. “I think that really kind of opened the eyes of people that follow the program—follow recruiting closely,” Bozich says. (Scruggs attended Southport High in Indianapolis before transferring to Prolific Prep in Napa, Calif., for his senior year.)
Between Crean’s first complete recruiting class at Indiana in 2009 and 2017, the program reeled in three top-25 in-state prospects, according to the RSCI, and all of them went on to have productive college careers, with each earning all-conference honors in their final seasons in Bloomington. Unfortunately for the Hoosiers, they’ve come up empty on top-25 in-state players since the 2014 class, in which Marion High shooting guard James Blackmon Jr. (No. 20) chose Indiana over Kentucky, and they went 0-for-3 last year with Jackson (8), Wilkes (20) and Williams (24). Other misses include Hamilton Southeastern School shooting guard Gary Harris (16) in 2012, who starred in two seasons at Michigan State, and, two classes later, Arsenal Tech High power forward Trey Lyles (12), a longtime Indiana verbal who went one-and-done at Kentucky.
Though the RSCI has not posted its first set of rankings for the class of 2018, Langford checks in at No. 5 in the 247Sports Composite. He’s Indiana’s only top-50 recruit in the class of 2018, but the Hoosiers have already snagged one of the state’s two other top-100 players, Riley High small forward Damezi Anderson, and one of their targets, McCutcheon High point guard Robert Phinisee, is No. 102. Miller also has done really good work outside of Indiana, plucking 2018 small forward Jerome Hunter from Pickerington North (Ohio) High and 2017 power forward Race Thompson from Robbinsdale Armstrong (Minn.) High. Plus, he convinced the three out-of-state recruits who signed with Crean in 2017 (forwards Justin Smith and Clifton Moore and guard Aljami Durham Jr.) not to jump ship and made enough headway with Brentwood Academy (Tenn.) five-star point guard and Gary, Ind., native Darius Garland to get Indiana on the top-six list he released earlier this month.
The Hoosiers’ progress on the recruiting trail under Miller so far should provide solace in the event they miss on Langford. He’s the ultimate prize for 2018, and getting him on board would amount to a seismic off-the-court breakthrough to complement whatever improvement Indiana shows on it during Miller’s first season in charge. But realistically, the Hoosiers are not working from a position of strength in this recruitment. Perhaps this is the best way to understand what’s at stake for Indiana with Langford: He is important because of what his addition to the Hoosiers could mean, not because of what his decision to choose another school would mean.
* Update: Barrett announced Monday that he's reclassifying.