When it comes to recruiting, it can be easy to overstate the sway a school has over its local territory.
But if you make an exception, it should be for Arkansas.
Since 2004, the Natural State has churned out 10 players that ranked in the top 50 of 247Sports’ composite index, impressive when you consider that the state’s population is 32nd nationally. Over the last two decades, four of those prospects. A pair — Archie Goodwin and Malik Monk — jumped the border for Kentucky. But until Kel’el Ware committed to Oregon in 2022, eight years had elapsed since the Razorbacks suffered a perimeter breach.
And unless you’ve spent any time in the state — I called Little Rock home for two years — it’s hard to understate the omnipresent sway at play.
This makes five-star prospect Annor Boateng’s pledge to Missouri on Friday all the more noteworthy.
Usually, my views on a player stop at evaluating their skill set and teasing out how that might fit what Mizzou’s trying to do. A pledge from Boateng, though, might test that scruple. The optics — and schadenfreude — are tantalizing.
There’s a reason why a blueblood and a program with Phil Knight as a benefactor have been the only ones to pull off similar wins.
By and large, the operation in Fayetteville is humming, fresh of a third straight foray into the second weekend of the NCAA tournament. Meanwhile, five players have heard their names called in the NBA draft since coach Eric Musselman arrived, including two in the lottery. And early prognostications have tabbed Arkansas as a top-15 outfit heading into next season.
Off the floor, Arkansas’ athletic department has been ahead of the curve in NIL. Meanwhile, its affluent boosters can chip into a consortium founded by the family behind J.B. Hunt trucking. Scoff at Muss’ antics all you want, but the situation in Fayetteville is objectively enticing.
Yet, the reaction to the south is interesting. Long before Boateng’s decision, a line emerged that Muss prioritized other prospects like Jalen Shelly and Isaiah Elohim ahead of the Little Rock Central product. That may be entirely accurate.
Yet it’s also true the Hogs rarely pass on local wares, blitzing Moses Moody, Nick Smith Jr., and Layden Blocker to stay home. And while Boateng’s jumper needs to become a bit more reliable and his handle a tad tighter, his game has many elements Muss values in a guard that can win one-on-one battles on the wing.
I don’t have a line into the Arkansas staff, but it would seem curious that it entirely punted on Boateng and benevolently allowed MU to snag his services.
Fending off a surge from Indiana shouldn’t be ignored, either. No, the Hoosiers haven’t been a colossus for a while. (IU sits at 24th in KenPom’s program rankings, which stretch back to 1997.) Yet the administration in Bloomington doesn’t spare expenses in resourcing the program, and fan interest never ebbs. That spending allowed coach Mike Woodson, an IU alum and former NBA coach, to build a staff that boasts connections to fertile territories in the DMV, Charlotte, Atlanta, and at prep power Montverde Academy.
This was a cycle where Woodson aimed to throw that weight around. The Hoosiers prioritized a trio of top-35 talents in big man Derik Queen (No. 12), swingman Liam McNeely (No. 15), and lead guard Boogie Land (No. 33). In April, the Hoosiers locked on to Boateng and rapidly escalated their pursuit, perhaps at the expense of other perimeter targets like Rakease Passmore (No. 44) and Austin Swartz (No. 50).
Once Boateng trimmed his list to eight schools in late July, the question was whether Woody and Co. could close the gap with MU, who had an eight-month edge. The Hoosiers were also set to be Boateng’s final visit, setting up a potential closing argument. Turns out, they never got the chance to make the pitch.
Ultimately, MU will have reached into a rival state and held off a pair of top-25 suitors. It’s hard to frame that as anything other than a win.
No doubt, Gates’ early returns on the recruiting trail have inspired nothing but confidence.
That said, here are the programs MU trumped to reel in commitments: Minnesota, Ole Miss, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, South Carolina, Stanford, and Tulsa. Collectively, those schools own a 0.426 winning percentage over the past two seasons, and half have gone through a coaching change.
That work also strikingly resembled his predecessor’s fast start on the trail.
Cuonzo Martin’s first six commitments owned an average composite rating (0.9582) practically identical to the half-dozen players (0.9576) that Gates has coaxed to Columbia. Both coaches showed an early knack for trawling the transfer portal. Martin’s funnel was initially wide enough to pivot when missing on a primary target, such as recovering to land Tray Jackson when E.J. Liddell picked Ohio State.
However, we all know what unfolded when skirmishes for talent became battles in a 2020 class featuring Caleb Love, Josh Christopher, and Cam’Ron Fletcher.
Securing a pledge from Boateng is critical proof of concept as Gates scales up MU’s ambitions on the recruiting trail and builds on earlier success in pulling wing Marcus Allen out of South Florida. Usually, Boateng is a proper capstone to a likely top-10 class. Yet Gates and Co. are thinking bigger – literally and figuratively: Jayden Quaintance.
Quaintance, a top-10 talent who moved into the ‘24 class, is fresh off an official visit, and at one juncture, the buzz was MU held a slight edge. Since then, though, the NBA G League Ignite upped its engagement, including hosting Quaintance’s family for a visit at its Las Vegas-based hub. Kentucky will also welcome the 6-foot-9, 210-pound prospect to its tipoff event in late October.
Adding Quaintance would shove MU’s class into the top five nationally and, in terms of average recruit ranking, would be its best group in at least a decade. At that point, it would be reasonable to envision recruiting success like we saw two decades ago during the early years of Quin Synder’s tenure, a stretch where MU landed three top-10 level classes in five seasons.
Such optimism might not be entirely naive, either.
MU’s administration, for now, seems to have attained a modicum of alignment. Athletic director Desiree Reed-Francois swiftly extended Gates’ contract, but she had already infused more money into his staff budget. That’s how you hire a proven hand like Charlton Young. Beyond that, the state’s recently signed NIL law – and moving those operations under the umbrella of the Tiger Scholarship Fund – is the kind of forward thinking that benefits a mostly middle-class athletic department.
See how quickly the ripple effects expand?
Ultimately, Boateng is just one recruit. Yet it would also be easy to take it as a sign – albeit an early one – that instability is being ushered out for competence.