There was a time not too long ago when four-star Oak Hill Academy point guard Matt Coleman’s commitment to the Texas Longhorns over the Duke Blue Devils served as the most significant recruiting victory of Shaka Smart’s young career.
At some point in the coming weeks, that may no longer be the case.
While Coleman’s importance for the basketball program’s immediate future can’t be overstated, Texas is still very much in play for a program-altering prospect in five-star power forward Mohamed Bamba—the nation’s No. 3 overall recruit.
After outlasting a push from Kansas in the Jarrett Allen sweepstakes during the 2016 cycle and doing the same with Coleman as Duke applied pressure in the fall, Smart is now going toe-to-toe with what’s possibly college basketball’s bluest blood—the Kentucky Wildcats.
While Duke and Michigan are still in the mix for Bamba’s services, industry opinion has dubbed this as a two-horse race between Texas and Kentucky down the stretch and the ‘Horns may very well have the upper hand.
“It would be hard to place Duke ahead of either Texas or Kentucky and as it sounds in recent weeks, the Longhorns may be the leader,” Corey Evans of Rivals.com said.
Sounds absurd right?
How can Texas possibly slog through an 11-win season and bounce back with arguably the most significant recruiting victory in program history, considering the circumstances?
As you’ll hear from nearly every recruit that heavily considers Texas, Smart’s ability to cultivate relationships serves as the foundation of their interest.
The same can be said for Bamba, who starred on Smart’s Team USA U18 squad in Chile; a gold medal roster which also included a pair of Texas signees in Allen and James Banks, along with Coleman, whom committed in January.
“He's a good person to be around,” Bamba told 247Sports regarding Smart following his time with Team USA. “Not even as a coach, [just] a good person to be around.”
“I think the relationship Bamba has with Shaka Smart from their Team USA days has Texas firmly in the mix,” SB Nation’s A Sea Of Blue manager Jason Marcum told Burnt Orange Nation.
Soon thereafter his time with Smart and Team USA, Bamba released what was deemed an unofficial top seven and to the surprise of many, despite very little recruiting buzz connecting the two, the 6’11 Harlem product listed the Longhorns among those still being considered. Just over a month later, Bamba joined Coleman for an October 28 official visit to Austin and following reports of the visit going extremely well, the ‘Horns began to emerge as a legitimate power player in his recruitment.
"If you had to identify a favorite right now, it’s probably Texas,” ESPN analyst Adam Finkelstein said just weeks after Bamba’s visit to the Forty Acres.
After what then became a fairly quiet two months in his recruitment between mid-November and mid-January, Bamba trimmed things from seven schools to four—Kentucky, Duke, Michigan, and Texas.
For obvious reasons, Kentucky and Duke are the two schools that hold the most weight, and between mid-January and mid-March, Texas was consistently deemed a sleeper, but expected to fall short in a battle against recruiting gurus in John Calipari and Mike Krzyzewski.
Yet, despite arguably the worst season in school history, Smart and the Longhorns hung around and now entering the final stretch, confidence regarding Kentucky isn’t at high as it once was, evident in some recent comments from Matt Jones, the founder of Kentucky Sports Radio:
“For Bamba, I have assumed Kentucky was the leader for at least two months, and while I am still in that camp, my confidence isn’t quite on the level of most in the UK Fanbase. Up until three days ago, everyone I had spoken with said Kentucky leads and all of the circumstantial evidence, including his friendship with UK recruits and public statements, have made UK seem the obvious choice. But then I spoke with a source that is very good who said to me for the first time that UK was not getting him. While this person is against the grain and the only individual I know who believes the choice won’t be UK, it is someone with a great deal of knowledge and close to the situation. So I am left unsure of UK’s position.”
Related sentiments are becoming commonplace as time in Bamba’s senior year ticks away and his much-anticipated college decision nears.
“I do think Texas has surged past Duke and is nipping at Kentucky's heels,” Jason Marcum said.
At the McDonald’s All-American game in Chicago in late March, reports indicated plenty of buzz surrounding Bamba’s recruitment favored the Longhorns and on Tuesday, three-of-four Rivals.com analysts—Corey Evans, Dan McDonald and Krysten Peek—predicted Bamba siding with Texas over Kentucky.
While in Chicago, Bamba elaborated a bit on why his interest in Texas is so significant with Scout.com’s Eric Bossi; interest much stronger than many may have expected this late in the process:
Just Shaka and how he always tells me he basically left VCU so he can essentially get guys like me. Texas is probably a good spot as far as balance and academics, they have a Top 10 or 15 business school which I think I got into... I think, I’m not sure… It’s just a great balance, he’s real personable, he formed a connection with my family members pretty easily just being him being a charismatic guy. I don’t know, he’s just a good dude.”
“It's [Texas] up on the rise. It's up and coming,” Bamba later told 247Sports while in Chicago. “They really needed a point guard and they really got a point guard, so...”
Obviously, the point guard Bamba was referring to is Coleman, who didn’t have the opportunity to recruit Texas’ top target in Chicago as a McDonald’s All-American, but Coleman will be afforded the opportunity to sell a future as teammates on Friday when he and Bamba team up in the Jordan Brand Classic.
"They're going to have a better team next year as far as a point guard in Matt Coleman,” Bamba told Rivals.com. I’ve just watched the progression of Jarrett Allen this whole entire year. Whether he comes back or not, I don’t think it’s really gonna affect my decision because I feel as if I can play with him."
It’s still unclear as to exactly when Bamba will shut things down and announce where he’ll be playing college basketball. Considering Kentucky is Texas’ biggest threat at this point, and the Wildcats’ may feature a log-jam in the frontcourt based on the pending NBA Draft decision of freshman Bam Adebayo, it’s quite possible Bamba’s decision doesn’t come until mid-May after NBA prospects must decide on remaining in the draft or returning to college.
In fact, Bamba isn’t even sure as to when he wants to commit just yet.
“As far as picking and deciding, I’m not really sure,” Bamba told Scout.com. “I don’t really feel pressured on time because guys last year with Marques (Bolden) and Jarrett (Allen), they committed as late as June. I don’t want to drag it out for long but I feel comfortable in my own skin.”
What Bamba is sure, though, is what must be in place to earn his commitment, and it’s something that Texas fans should find confidence in after Smart’s relationship with his recruits has been as the heart of essentially every commitment he’s earned in Austin, and even at VCU.
“Whether I am there for one year or four, my relationship with the coach has to be spot on,” Bamba told Scout.
Many would agree that at this point, Bamba’s recruitment is a toss-up. Some will argue Texas, some will argue Kentucky, and some may even argue Duke will still ultimately be home to the elite rim-protector. This is the kind of recruitment that you won’t bet the house on either way, but you’d gladly bet a nice steak dinner on.
I wonder if Bamba knows the best steak is found in Texas ...