Saunders Jr., a graduate of the Wasatch Academy, played his first two seasons in Cincinnati.
Craig Smith received a commitment from the NCAA Transfer Portal late Saturday afternoon from University of Cincinnati point guard Mike Saunders Jr.
To help with the recruiting process last week, the University of Utah’s basketball coach had to stare down at a deadline.
Smith and Ute’s assistant Tim Morris, a former Bearcats assistant who successfully recruited Saunders Jr. who in the 2020 class, had already gotten deep into Saunders Jr. since he entered the portal on March 21st. On Wednesday, Smith reached out to Indianapolis natives to inquire about potentially pushing one last-minute, out of nowhere evening visit into his home.
Saunders Jr., surprised by this request, agreed to it, so Smith jumped on a plane from Salt Lake City later that day. By 9:30 p.m., Smith was at Saunders’ home and met with Saunders Jr., his father, Michael, and his mother, Nicole. As Saunders Jr. remembering that, the meeting lasted about two hours, meaning Smith was out of there before midnight.
The importance of the meeting ending before midnight is traced to the NCAA’s Division I recruiting calendar. The document for 2021-22 states that March 31-7. April is a dead period, which means it is impermissible for coaching staff to make personal contact with potential student-athletes, whether on or off campus.
Utah was already in good position with Saunders Jr., but Smith decided to play an eleven-hour face-to-face meeting, which made it overwhelming. Had Smith not reached out, Saunders Jr., a popular figure in the transfer portal during his 2 1/2 week stay there, had not agreed to meet, his recruitment could have been worn on and possibly ended up somewhere else. BYU, Miami, UNLV, Nevada, Loyola Marymount and Wichita State offer just a few of the programs that reached out during the process.
Instead, Smith crossed an important task from his off-season checklist on Saturday, upgrading his point guard spot.
“It was one of the best lectures we’ve ever had,” Saunders Jr. said. to The Salt Lake Tribune Saturday night. “It was a couple of years ago I had actually seen him so it was great to see him and have that conversation. We clicked and I think he went out that night and felt the same way and had it good with everything.We are on the same page.I have a vision, the vision he has for me, it agrees.
“I have no doubt this is the right coach for me.”
As the recruitment business continues to change with the advent of the transfer portal and the NCAA’s one-time transfer exemption, which provides immediate access to any student-athlete transferring for the first time, the basis for recruitment continues to be building and cultivating relationships.
Morris and Saunders Jr. goes back to at least 2016, when the former was an assistant in Northern Kentucky and the latter was an eighth grader, still a season away from debuting at Indiana high school power Lawrence North. When John Brannen got the Cincinnati job in April 2019, he hired Morris as an assistant. Saunders Jr. committed to the Bearcats in June of that year.
Amidst the Morris-Saunders Jr. dynamics, the 6-foot, three-star recruit spent his last two years in high school at the burgeoning National Power Wasatch Academy in Mount Pleasant, starting in 2018.
Da Saunders Jr. began at the Wasatch Academy, Smith was in his first season as head coach at Utah State. As Wasatch Academy’s basketball program grew in fame, an arbitrary number of Division I coaches took the trip there to see the wealth of talent available, Smith among them.
“He recruited me when he was in Utah State and he liked my game back then, but he said he’s always kept an eye on me ever since,” Saunders Jr. said. “I already know them both (Smith and Morris). They really care, they pay attention, they know my game. I trust them.”
Smith becomes the third head coach of Saunders Jr. for as many seasons. He played for Brannen as a beginner. After he was fired after the 2020-21 season, Saunders Jr. came. into the transfer portal, but eventually removed his name and chose to play for Wes Miller last season.
“If I have to be honest, if I do my due diligence, then they have been attentive and know my game more than anyone else,” Saunders Jr. said. “The fact that coach Smith had that faith in me then, right up until now, I could not help but let go. No other school can match that type of relationship with the head coach. I’m excited to play for him.”
There may be more portal departures from Smith’s list in the coming weeks, but things have stabilized after Lahat Thjonen and Riley Battin both announced their respective transfers last month as expected.
With Saunders Jr. in the fold, Smith now has three open scholarships for 2022-23 at his disposal.
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