When Tremont Waters committed to LSU on Monday, it appeared to be just the latest indignity suffered by UConn in this most bizarre offseason.
A Connecticut kid (a New Haven kid!) who essentially bypassed UConn twice, first committing to Georgetown in the fall, and now to LSU this spring? Just another slap in the face for the Huskies, it appeared.
Over the past six months, UConn has lost out on several top-notch recruits in whom the program invested lots of recruiting hours. Hamidou Diallo chose Kentucky in January. Sidney Wilson picked St. John’s a couple of weekends ago. Several others had crossed the Huskies off their lists long before making their final decision.
Point guard Makai Ashton-Langford, UConn’s top incoming recruit, backed out of his commitment in April and pledged to Providence.
Add all that to the mass exodus from the program over the past few months that saw three players (Norwalk’s own Steve Enoch, Vance Jackson and Juwan Durham) transfer and it appears UConn just isn’t a destination school for top recruits anymore.
Or is it?
“When you walk in a gym,” said second-year UConn assistant Dwayne Killings, “people notice (UConn).”
But don’t take Killings’ word for it. Take it from coaches at prep schools from around New England.
“It’s still definitely one of the premier programs in the country,” said longtime Brewster Academy coach Jason Smith. “Coach (Kevin) Ollie is tremendous, and I think they made a fantastic hire. Coach (Raphael) Chillious is one of my closest friends in the business, one of the coaches I communicate with most frequently.”
“I know they’ve had some hiccups the last month or two, but that’s part of how recruiting goes in cycles.”
Added St. Andrew’s coach Mike Hart: “I’ve been here for 23 years. When I hear UConn, I think of national championships. I’m a big K.O. fan. I get excited when they’re recruiting one of my guys.”
But are the players still excited? Not as much, in some cases.
“It’s the league,” Hart said, referring to the American Athletic Conference. “It’s unfair, because I think it’s a very underestimated league. But kids are so wrapped up with the ACC, Big East, Big 10, Big 12, SEC. You’re gonna go to Rutgers over UConn? Are you kidding me? But there’s playing time available, too.”
Jere Quinn, who coaches St. Thomas More, agreed with Hart.
“Unfortunately, the conference lacks the luster with a lot of these kids,” said Quinn. “They’re in with the top players with every other major program, but the league doesn’t bring a lot of national prominence. The rivalries are new; it’s a new league trying to find itself. Connecticut is still going after the top-echelon kids in the U.S., and they’ve got some pretty good players, too.”
Indeed, just over the past few years, the program has landed several highly-rated recruits: Jalen Adams, Alterique Gilbert, Ashton-Langford, Durham, Terry Larrier (a transfer).
One thing seems certain: UConn is still in good standing with all three of these New England-based programs. Smith coached Adams at Brewster. He also coached Ashton-Langford and Wilson, and isn’t sure why either player ultimately bypassed UConn. Smith said Ashton-Langford’s close relationship with Glen Miller, who was fired as associate head coach after last season, was likely a factor.
As for Wilson: “He kind of made his decision pretty quick this spring. I do know he loved Coach Ollie as well as the coaching staff at UConn.”
While Smith said Miller is a close friend, he has an even closer bond with Chillious, against whom he coached while Chillious was at South Kent Prep. When Chillious was an assistant at Washington, he sent point guard David Crisp to play for Smith at Brewster as an undergrad after Crisp had committed to Washington. Crisp, who is still at Washington, was Adams’s roommate that season.
Quinn coached current UConn rising sophomore Christian Vital at St. Thomas More and consoled him back in April, when it still appeared UConn was bringing in Ashton-Langford and had its eyes on a transfer guard from Washington. Vital considered transferring at the time.
“He wants to be there,” said Quinn. “He wants to be loved, and he wants to play. He’s the easiest kid in the world.”
Hart sent Tony Robertson to UConn two decades ago and has had several players UConn has recruited over the years. The latest: Brycen Goodine, a Class of 2019, 6-foot-4 combo guard from New Bedford, Massachusetts. Goodine’s father is Jonathan DePina, a former UMass guard who was mentor for a young kid from Roxbury named Shabazz Napier.
“There’s no question, they’re gonna be more than fine,” Smith said of the Huskies. “Coach Chillious, Dwayne Killings are two of the most respected assistant coaches in the business. And Coach Ollie has proven to be a championship-caliber coach himself who has tremendous pedigree. Everything goes in cycles. You’ll see them bounce back, have a great year and continue to recruit great guys.”