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A true recruiting coup

By Joe Henricksen

When basketball commitments start rolling in, the college program that nabbed the player always receives the proverbial recruiting “steal,” “coup” and “great get” from just about everyone who can type on a keyboard. Some are a little blown out of proportion, because if they were all recruiting “steals,” “coups” and “great gets” as they all seem to be, then no college coach would ever get fired.

But when the City/Suburban Hoops Report says the University of Chicago, a solid Division III program and one of the nation’s great academic institutions, has landed one of the biggest recruiting steals, take it to heart because this one is legit.

University of Chicago coach Mike McGrath received a pair of whopping commitments from the Whitney Young tandem of Jordan Smith and Nate Brooks. Academics, as much as anything, played a huge factor in the decision as the two players sport impressive ACT scores of 31 and 32, respectively, and there are few places in America where a degree is more valued than from the University of Chicago.

But from a basketball perspective, this Division III program on the South Side of Chicago will welcome a pair of players with Division I talent, size and athleticism. That’s a rare commodity at the Division III level, even if the quality of basketball in Division III is significantly better than the average basketball fan realizes.

Smith is a 6-3, big-bodied 2-guard who the Hoops Report has among the top 30 prospects in the senior class. He uses his strength and frame to get to the rim, while also possessing a jumper that extends out to the three-point line. Brooks, meanwhile, is an unpolished, undersized 4-man as a Division I prospect but a potential difference-maker in Division III hoops with his body and jaw-dropping hops. He’s agile, runs the floor, is extremely athletic and dunks just about everything when he’s at the rim.

“They fell in love with the University of Chicago and what it can do for them long term,” says Whitney Young coach Tyrone Slaughter, whose program has never had a non-qualifier in his time as head coach of the Dolphins. “There were other opportunities for them at the Division I level, but there is no better situation or set of circumstances for them than the University of Chicago. It’s right there in their back yard, and it’s a chance for them to play together for four more years.”

McGrath identified Brooks early. He started working and selling the academic/basketball combination and opportunity vigorously. He had Brooks’ ear. Soon it became apparent the University of Chicago had piqued the interest of Smith as well, so McGrath and assistant coach Drew Adams went to work on trying to land the tandem.

Mission accomplished. Now McGrath has a jumpstart at landing what could be a monumental Division III recruiting class for his program, which welcomed talented freshman guard Royce Muskeyvalley from state champion Rock Island and Deerfield product Ryan Davis, a 6-2 point guard, this season.

Division III recruiting typically doesn’t heat up until the winter and lingers into the spring as high school prospects wait … and wait … and wait … for the Division I scholarship offer that, many times, never materializes. With Smith and Brooks, it’s a completely different deal. The mindset and maturity for both Brooks and Smith is unique in comparison to the average, basketball-playing teenager. Their primary concern was finding a way to combine basketball and academics in the best way they could and take full advantage of what they call a “one-of-a-kind opportunity.”

“The University of Chicago provides an academic opportunity as a top 10 university in the world,” says Brooks. “I did have a couple of Division I offers, but I just felt I would be selling myself short if I didn’t take this opportunity. This is a chance to still play the game I love while getting a world-class education.”

When Smith hears anyone question his decision — choosing small college basketball over Division I basketball — he says he has just one word for them.

“Education,” Smith says with a laugh. “No one will match that education. Academics was obviously a big part of my decision, but when I visited the campus I liked the atmosphere, I liked the team and felt really comfortable. I’m not from the South Side, so that will be something new for me as well. I’m thrilled with my decision and being able to play with Nate and to spend my four years of college there.”

The two teammates, who will figure prominently for a Whitney Young team that will be among the top teams in the state again this season, were aware of what was out there for them — and the possibilities for them down the road if they played the season out. But unlike so many other players, these two took to heart the academic reputation of Chicago and the lifelong opportunities an elite education can bring over playing a lesser-known academic institution that just so happens to play Division I basketball.