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Unsigned high school senior basketball players hope to find college homes

In early March, Georgetown men’s basketball coach Patrick Ewing found a seat high in a corner of Poly’s gym. He was there to get a look at Engineers star forward Brandon Murray during a playoff win for the home team.

Averaging 22 points per game, Murray was primed for putting his final stamp on a sensational senior season as Poly was two wins away from a fourth straight Class 3A state championship. In the process, he had racked up 14 scholarship offers from Division I schools, including Georgetown, with plenty others showing interest.

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More college coaches would have been on hand to watch him play in the state tournament at Maryland’s Xfinity Center later in March and then Murray had visits scheduled to his top five college choices for the following weekends.

But due to the coronavirus pandemic, his plans — along with many of the other area’s top unsigned senior basketball players — were wiped out.

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With colleges closed, there are no visits. The Amateur Athletic Union basketball showcases that provide players a chance to further display their skills in front of college coaches have been cancelled. And other factors, such as college programs opting to hand out scholarships through the transfer portal, have kept unsigned high school seniors in limbo.

Last week, Murray announced he’s enrolling at a post-grad prep school, IMG Academy in Florida, next school year instead of making his four-year college commitment.

“I felt it was the best decision for me with this pandemic and everything going on,” he said. “I felt any decision I was going to make with any of the colleges that were in my top five would be rushed and I didn’t feel comfortable. So I thought: why not just push it back a year so I can actually enjoy my process and see what college I really want to go to — make a real comfortable decision after going on visits, stepping onto campuses and seeing how it feels?”

Baltimore City College Black Knights guard Dominick Carrington (3) passes while stumbling at the feet of Edmondson-Westside Red Storm's Eontae Nelson (0) during a key matchup of unbeaten teams Fri., Jan. 3, 2020. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun Staff)
Baltimore City College Black Knights guard Dominick Carrington (3) passes while stumbling at the feet of Edmondson-Westside Red Storm's Eontae Nelson (0) during a key matchup of unbeaten teams Fri., Jan. 3, 2020. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun Staff) (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

Of the 21 players that were selected to The Sun’s 2019-20 All-Metro boys basketball team, 16 were seniors and 10 were unsigned at the start of the pandemic.

Since then, Poly senior point guard Rahim Ali committed to Howard, Mervo forward Will Thomas decided on Morgan State and Murray will spend next year at IMG.

The remaining seven, along with a number of other area seniors who aspire to play college ball, are trying to find their paths with no idea where they will be in the fall.

With help from their high school and AAU coaches, seniors are getting game film out to college coaches and communication between them is mostly consisting of phone calls and text messages.

“We are in an unprecedented time. It caught us by surprise and both the coaches and student athletes don’t know what to do. They’re scrambling,” said Tom Strickler, a Maryland-based scout for the National Recruiting Report, a coaches-only service that evaluates high school talent. “And the problem is, the coaches probably didn’t get enough looks at kids they are now recruiting to make a good decision. What they’re doing is they’re looking at film and hoping it will give them an opportunity to make a judgement.”

Towson University coach Pat Skerry is banking on it, having no other choice at the moment.

Via text, he wrote: “As a staff, we are watching more film than ever and on the phones trying to evaluate prospects that are a good fit for us here at Towson. Certainly different than we are used to, but obviously necessary at this time.”

Lake Clifton’s Zaccheus Blackwell and City’s Dominick Carrington were matched up against each other in Baltimore City League play this season, but the All-Metro guards planned to join forces playing AAU ball this spring for Team Thrill as they tried to secure their college landing spots.

Guided by longtime AAU coach Donnell “Mookie” Dobbins, Team Thrill was set to travel to Dallas on April 17 for the first live evaluation period that extended through the 19th and then a showcase in Kansas City the following weekend.

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“This spring, I wanted to play AAU on the circuit with Thrill and kind of get my recruitment back up on point, so with all this going on, it’s a major setback,” said Blackwell, who is mostly being looked at by Division III schools and might decide to go the prep school route next season. “I’m just working on my craft every day and just trying to make a decision to figure out what I want to do for college next year.”

Before the high school season, City coach Omarr Smith told Carrington he thought he was a mid-major D-I to high D-II prospect if he put in the work.

Carrington did just that in earning All-Metro first team honors. He emerged as one of the area’s finest sharpshooters, averaging 24 points per game to lead the Knights to a 22-3 season.

Both Canisius and Wagner have shown strong interest, but Carrington’s scheduled visits to both schools were nixed along with the chance at the further exposure playing AAU ball. Bowie State and Catawba also are interested.

“For him, the work he put in and everything that sort of went his way this year as far as us having a good season and him getting some personal accolades, I’d just like to see him rewarded with an opportunity that I think is earned. And that’s not only for him, but a lot of guys in this situation,” Smith said.

Dobbins is more of a pitchman these days than coach, trying to sell his players to college coaches. He sends out videos, keeps coaches updated on the players’ academics and how they are currently spending their time to be ready for an opportunity.

But with college staffs unable to evaluate live — the chance might come later in the summer portion off AAU ball — Dobbins says the unsigned seniors have a difficult hurdle to overcome.

Furthermore, an increase in transfers has taken away scholarship opportunities.

“The transfer portal has been a hindrance to incoming freshman because of the ability to evaluate college kids who have already been in college a year,” Dobbins said. “Coaches are more willing to take that chance on a scholarship on those kids knowing they already know what it entails and routine and things of that nature as opposed to waiting for a freshman to adjust to college life.”

On March 12, Northeast senior star Jaylin Albury woke up ready to savor the biggest day of his basketball career. The All-Metro guard had led the Eagles to their first state tournament appearance since 1983 and they were seconds away from getting on the bus to head to College Park to take on Poly in the semifinals.

Instead, they were called back to the school and told the game had been postponed.

“It was devastating for us,” he said. “State tournament, playing on the Maryland floor — I was sure hoping there would be some eyes on me.”

With a mix of D-II and D-III schools interested, he had some visits cancelled and just keeps in contact with coaches and waits.

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“I still have school work and stuff left, so I’m keeping up with that,” he said. "And then outside of that, I’m dribbling the ball and finding whatever court I can to play on, go shoot around and keep myself active. I’m just looking forward.”

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