By now, just about everyone has heard about Zion Williamson, even if they don’t keep tabs on college basketball recruiting. The 6-foot-6 Spartanburg Day forward, a five-star regarded as the latest can’t-miss prospect, has wound up on SportsCenter for his dunks and gotten shout outs from the likes of Drake and LeBron James. And thanks to geography, the South Carolina Gamecocks are on the shortlist for his college destination, which he’ll announce tomorrow at 8 p.m.
It’s always a difficult situation for the in-state schools to navigate when bluechip basketball talent appears in South Carolina. It’s depressingly rare — for both USC and Clemson — to land the top players in their own backyard, as regional powerhouses like North Carolina, Kentucky, and Duke simply swoop in and pluck that talent away. It’s an unfortunate chicken-and-egg scenario: Neither USC nor Clemson have much basketball history to speak of, which is a big part of why recruits aren’t interested — but if some of those recruits started staying home, it would raise the prestige and ability of the programs to succeed.
In fairness, the Gamecocks haven’t been totally shut out: Sindarius Thornwell and P.J. Dozier, stars from last season’s Final Four run and prize recruits themselves, opted to stay local. There have also been other moderately hyped in-state prospects, like Damien Leonard, who just didn’t pan out. But the misses have been many, and given the high-profile nature of the recruits involved, hard to forget. There are plenty of Gamecock fans still smarting over Seventh Woods, for example.
In any case, I’m no recruitnik, but it doesn’t seem likely to me that South Carolina lands Williamson. Despite him making multiple visits to campus in 2017, the Gamecocks seemed to fall far behind after the summer, and most assumed he would end up out of state like so many before him — likely at Kentucky. But suddenly, even the blueblood programs were no longer the top suitors: Clemson emerged as the favorite to land Williamson’s services, and has remained out front. His stepfather played for the Tigers, and family ties are understandably a powerful motivator for recruits.
But with last week’s surprise signing of former five-star and Louisville commitment Brian Bowen, the Gamecocks injected a little more intrigue into Williamson’s recruitment after being all but left for dead. Bowen, who isn’t yet eligible to play but can practice and spend time with the team, has already reached out to Williamson about playing together. Williamson, the third-ranked recruit in the country, has previously said he’d like to play on a team that features other elite players. It may be too little too late for the Gamecocks, but at least Williamson has another angle to consider as his decision date draws near.
It goes without saying that it’ll be unfortunate if South Carolina misses out on Williamson, especially if it’s to Clemson and not a program like Kentucky. We’ve all long since become accustomed to basketball royalty cherry-picking the state, so even though it stings to watch the rich get richer, it would be uniquely awful to see Williamson staying in state only to wear orange. Regardless, the Gamecocks technically still have a chance. And if it doesn’t work out, well, the show must go on for South Carolina hoops as it always has.