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Justin Pierce playing for William & Mary.

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Looking for one year in the bigs

Justin Pierce couldn’t help but think and wonder as he watched Matt Mooney emerge as a March Madness hero in helping Texas Tech to the Final Four last month.

“Absolutely,” says Pierce of keeping tabs on Mooney’s magical ride in March, where he starred in the national semifinal and led the Red Raiders to a NCAA Tournament championship game appearance. “I absolutely followed him and what he did –– not only during the March Madness run but throughout the year.”

Like Mooney one year ago, Pierce, the former Glenbard West prep basketball star, is currently one of the coveted graduate transfers college coaches salivate over.

The grad transfer process has become college basketball’s version of free agency. They are critical roster acquisitions for contending teams and a chance to add an experienced player rather than depending on an unproven freshman.

A college player who completes his undergraduate degree with a year of athletic eligibility remaining has the option to begin his graduate degree at another university and play right away. Pierce will graduate from William & Mary, a prestigious academic institution in Virginia, in just three years, laying the groundwork for an opportunity to play at a high-major program with his final season of eligibility.

“Matt Mooney did a great job of finding the right fit, where he could make an impact and play a lot,” says Pierce of Mooney. “I want to find that.”

Mooney, who starred at Niles Notre Dame in high school, played collegiately at Air Force and South Dakota before transferring to Texas Tech as a graduate student for his final season. He went on to start this past season, playing 31 minutes a game and averaging 11.3 points and 3.3 assists a game.

Pierce was cognizant of the road Mooney took and can’t help but see the similarities. He saw the local Chicago area kid who worked himself up from a lower level of Division I to playing at the highest level. He saw the player who also had never played in the NCAA Tournament and went on and found that and more in his one season in Lubbock.

Pierce will graduate next month after putting together an impressive three-year run for the Tribe. The long, athletic and versatile Pierce scored 980 points and pulled down 576 rebounds in just three seasons. He averaged 14.9 points, 8.9 rebounds and 4.1 assists a game this past season.

“He’s the definition of versatility,” says Jonathan Holmes, an assistant coach at William & Mary all three years Pierce played there.

Those productive numbers, coupled with the fact he will be immediately eligible to play next season, is why Pierce was contacted by more than two dozen high-major programs across the country when his name entered the transfer portal last month. In a recent ESPN.com ranking, Pierce was ranked as the fifth best immediately eligible transfer in the country.

“When you combine his competitive drive and work ethic with his talent and versatility, I’m not surprised at all that he’s in the position he’s now in with these great options,” added Holmes. “Justin deserves all the credit because of all the time and work he’s put in. Whatever he does, it’s done at a high level, both on and off the court.”

And it’s why Pierce can dream a little after watching Mooney’s rise and team success at Texas Tech.

After spending three years at William & Mary and playing in the Colonial Athletic Association, he can now start to envision playing in a Power Five Conference. He can visualize playing in front of 14,000 fans on a regular basis with games on ESPN. He can foresee being in the position to experience Selection Sunday and play in the NCAA Tournament.

He was immediately contacted by 20-plus high-major coaches, including the likes of Michigan’s John Beilein, Ohio State’s Chris Holtmann, North Carolina’s Roy Williams, Notre Dame’s Mike Grey and others.

“I would be lying to you if I didn’t say it was pretty surreal to be talking with these coaches and thinking about being a part of their programs,” Pierce said of the recruiting pitches he’s heard from the biggest names in college basketball coaching.

A basketball junkie with a sharp basketball mind, Pierce says he has found it “pretty cool” to have these coaches coming into Williamsburg, Va., to sit down and visit with him, to talk basketball and together share some visions of what the coming year could look like.

There was so much to sort out in the past few weeks with a plethora of high-major programs and coaching staffs in pursuit and graduate schools to examine. He was forced to eliminate some pretty high-profile programs in the process and has whittled it down to just a few.

There is added maturity and different circumstances for Pierce in his decision-making, especially now in comparison to what he went through while in high school and finding the right school.

“This is a one-year deal and not a four-year deal,” Pierce points out. “Immediate playing time was not a big priority for me coming out of high school. Now I’m looking for holes in a position of these teams where I can see playing time and opportunity.”

After taking a visit to Notre Dame last weekend, Pierce is currently visiting Michigan this weekend and will visit North Carolina at the end of the month. Those are his final three. With schools that play in the ACC and Big Ten, the two best conferences in college basketball –– and schools who all have stellar academic reputations –– it’s a far cry from the recruitment Pierce went through while in high school.

“This process has been completely different,” says Pierce of the graduate transfer process. “The coaches don’t call and offer you. They call and see if you’re interested. It seems it’s the player who has a lot more say and power in this position.”

Coming out of high school Pierce was a much more coveted college prospect than Mooney, who had just one offer from Air Force after starring at Niles Notre Dame. Nonetheless, Pierce’s recruitment was void of any Blue Bloods, Big Ten or ACC powers.

There were a boatload of mid-major options for the late-blooming Pierce, who entered Glenbard West as a 5-8 freshman and sprouted 10 inches in four years. He opened eyes on the spring and summer club circuit while playing with Mercury Elite prior to his senior season, ultimately choosing William & Mary over 14 other low-major and mid-major offers.

At that time Pierce, who had a 31 ACT and 5.0-plus grade-point average, was looking for a combination of basketball and academics.

Following his breakout summer in 2015, Pierce’s rise continued as he played out his senior season at Glenbard West. And by the time his senior season had wrapped up it was apparent that William & Mary had a recruiting steal.

Pierce, who was among the City/Suburban Hoops Report’s top 10 prospects in Illinois in the Class of 2016, put together a monster senior campaign averaging 23.8 points, 11 rebounds and 2.1 assists a game for a team that finished 25-4. Pierce, who led the program to its first conference title in 43 years, left Glenbard West as the school’s all-time leading scorer with 1,440 points.

Now, for one season, Pierce has an opportunity to play at the highest level, potentially for a top 25 program in one of the nation’s best conferences. It’s an opportunity –– and decision –– Pierce isn’t taking lightly.

“It’s been overwhelming and a little stressful at times,” Pierce admits. “But I remind myself that it’s a good stress. It’s a blessing to be in this position, and with the options that are out there I really can’t go wrong.”

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