One proven way to avoid the NCAA sniffing around your basketball program is not to sign a lot of highly ranked prospects from distant places in a short period of time. NCAA investigators routinely check such scenarios.
Fired LSU basketball coach Will Wade was under the NCAA microscope virtually upon arrival in Baton Rouge in 2017. The investigation deepened, and things did not end well.
New LSU basketball coach Matt McMahon, on the other hand, has often won by tapping the bottom of the barrel – as far as recruiting rankings at least – and fishing locally. Considering he likely won’t have the full allotment of 13 scholarships because of impending NCAA sanctions and probation for major violations committed by Wade, allegedly, that’s a good thing.
“He’s recruited hidden gems,” LSU athletic director Scott Woodward said Wednesday at a press conference after hiring McMahon, 43, on Monday. “And he’s developed them into lottery picks.”
That was the stunning case of 6-foot-3 point guard Ja Morant, who was not listed by any of the so-called experts at the various recruiting sites around the nation coming out of Crestwood High in Sumter, South Carolina, in 2017. He was the second pick of the first round in the 2019 NBA Draft by Memphis after averaging 24.5 points, 10 assists, 5.7 rebounds and 1.8 steals a game as a sophomore in the 2018-19 season when No. 12 seed Murray State beat No. 5 seed Marquette, 83-64, in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Morant scored 17 points with 16 assists and 11 rebounds in that one.
All this didn’t happen overnight. Morant averaged just 12.7 points, 6.5 rebounds and 6.3 assists in his freshman season under McMahon in 2017-18 when the Racers reached the NCAA Tournament.
Morant was the NBA Rookie of the Year in 2020 and an All-Star this season. He is averaging 26 points a game and just scored 52 on 22-of-30 shooting in a win over San Antonio on Feb. 28.
Morant was the first player in NCAA history to average at least 20 points and 10 assists in a season since the NCAA started keeping track of assists officially in 1983. He signed with McMahon at Murray State over South Carolina, but the only others interested were such powers as Maryland Eastern Shore, which sounds like a reality show, Duquesne, South Carolina State and Wofford.
“We had a chance to get that guy in South Carolina,” said LSU president William Tate, who was a provost at South Carolina at the time, to McMahon at the press conference. “You identified him. You understand transformative folk.”
Actually, McMahon’s assistant at Murray State at the time, James Kane, noticed Morant while recruiting another player, which has happened so frequently for so long it makes you wonder about recruiting services.
Kane was at Spartanburg Day School in Spartanburg, South Carolina, for an AAU combine in July of 2016 to watch guard Tevin Brown of Fairhope High in Fairhope, Alabama, play. Kane went to a concession stand for chips and noticed a three-on-three game away from the main combine area and one Temetrius Jamel “Ja” Morant. The rest is history. On Sept. 3, 2016, Morant committed to Murray State, which also got Brown.
“Anybody can walk in the gym and see who can dunk and who can shoot,” McMahon said Wednesday. “That’s how a lot of those stars get assigned in the recruiting rankings. But you have to have a very thorough and detailed evaluation process for what you’re looking for in your program to find special people like that. We’ll look to continue to do that here at LSU.”
Yeah, and there is also luck and potato chips involved sometimes, so McMahon should consider bringing Kane to LSU as an assistant coach. Kane was at Dayton this past season.
But Morant is the exception. McMahon also signed transfer point guard Jonathan Stark from Tulane in 2015 after a prep career at Munford High in Munford, Tennessee that did not garner high rankings. Nor did forward K.J. Williams at Cleveland Central High in Cleveland, Mississippi, and there are others.
Stark developed into an All-Ohio Valley Conference player at Murray State in 2016-17 with 21.9 points, 5.2 assists and 1.3 steals a game. He was the conference player of the year the next season with 21.4 points, 3.9 assists and 1.3 steals a game.
Williams was just named the Ohio Valley player of the year after averaging 18 points and 8.4 rebounds. As a freshman, he averaged 7.6 points and 4.7 rebounds, which grew to 12.7 and 7.3 and 15.6 and 8-5 before last season. He has a chance to be a second round pick in the 2022 NBA Draft.
“We wanted a program builder,” Woodward said.
“K.J. came to us from Cleveland, Mississippi, worked like crazy,” McMahon said. “We invested a lot of time to grow and develop his skills, and now he’s poised to make a great living playing this game for a lot of years.”
McMahon built his third NCAA Tournament team and second one to advance since 2018 in 2021-22 with veterans like Williams as well as three first-year transfers.
He will need to get some players to LSU fast. Since Wade was fired on March 12, LSU’s entire signing class has left, including five-star center Yohan Traore, who decommitted, and five-star forward Julian Phillips and four-star forward Devin Ree, who each received their release from LSU after signing with Wade.
“I want people who want to be here,” McMahon said. “I don’t know why you wouldn’t want to be here.”
Possible post-season ban and fewer teammates on scholarship are two reasons. But McMahon has a seven-year contract worth $20.3 million with a possible eighth added, depending on how serious the NCAA’s incoming sanctions on LSU end up being.
“No concerns there at all,” McMahon said. “I’m excited about this opportunity of a lifetime. I haven’t even looked that far down the road.”
He actually has looked to the past. When McMahon was 11 and growing up in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, his dad took him to see LSU play at Tennessee on Feb. 10, 1990, and Chris Jackson scored 49 for the Tigers in a 119-113 win.
“This is an unbelievable place,” he said. “Why wouldn’t you enjoy it? That’s how we’re going to build it.”