The recruiting process for River Hill basketball star Charlie Thomas IV was like a jigsaw puzzle.
The important pieces were front and center — academics, the coach and scheme, campus life and a sense of family. Left for Thomas was finding the fit.
When the 6-foot-8 245-pound forward put it all together, he saw a sea of red and white. The college town of Madison, home of the Wisconsin Badgers, also felt like home to Thomas.
"When I first stepped on campus for my official visit it just felt like a great fit," Thomas said. "I mean the coaching staff, the players and just the environment of the campus, everything felt comfortable to me."
On Wednesday, the NCAA's early signing period for the National Letter of Intent program begins for basketball, lacrosse, baseball, softball and some other sports. Thomas and many of the area's top senior student athletes will make official where they intend to spend the next part of their lives.
After sifting through the 20-plus offers he received from various Division I programs, Thomas, who will turn 17 on Saturday, narrowed his choices down to DePaul, Rutgers and Wisconsin.
After orally committing to Wisconsin in October, he's happy and relieved to have the decision become official. Already River Hill's all-time leading scorer, rebounder and shot blocker, Thomas plans to share his college plans as part of River Hill's morning announcements on Friday.
"I got calls, mail at the school with all the coaches trying to persuade you to come to their school," Thomas said. "It's difficult trying to process it all and you just have to sift out what you want — the type of coach you want and the type of program you want. That's the difficult part — trying to process all the information and find the right fit."
River Hill coach Matt Graves, an avid college basketball fan, helped select Wisconsin as the right place for Thomas. River Hill and Wisconsin play similar schemes; their big players are expected to be tough on defense and versatile on offense. Thomas came to River Hill as a post player with his back to the basket, but worked hard to develop a perimeter game. He has racked up 1,137 points, 612 rebounds and 120 blocked shots in his first three seasons on varsity.
He made his biggest impression on Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan playing for his AAU team, D.C. Premier, at a tournament in Philadelphia last summer.
ESPN rates Thomas the 11th best player in Maryland's 2015 class.
"Charlie is a very tough player. He's a banger, he's a pusher and shover, but he also has that finesse game of shooting the 3-point shot which really blends in well with what Wisconsin does," Graves said. "It was great because he does a lot of things that Wisconsin players do. He rebounds real well, he can shoot the 3, he can defend, he can block shots. That's really what the Big 10 is all about and that's what Charlie has evolved himself into here at River Hill."
Howard County isn't a hotbed for major college basketball talent. Oakland Mills had a standout in Greg Whittington, a 2011 graduate who went on to play at Georgetown.
At River Hill, the Hawks are going to make sure to savor Thomas' senior season. The program won its only state championship in 2007 when senior Tommy Brenton led the way. Thomas hopes to make a similar impact.
"I'm really excited to see what this season has in store," he said. "I've already committed — it's off my shoulders now — and it's my senior year, so I'm looking to lead my team to [Xfinity Center]."