LAS VEGAS - In a critical push to fill their 2014 recruiting class with quality big men, the Arizona Wildcats have started at the top.
The top two ESPNU overall players in the class of 2014, center Jahlil Okafor and forward Cliff Alexander, both list Arizona among their potential college choices - and both said Thursday after playing for the Mac Irvin Fire that they plan to make official recruiting visits to Tucson this fall.
This despite the fact that both are from Chicago, with the ability to stay near home or go play, basically, wherever they please.
"I just love Arizona," Okafor said. "It's just an attractive school to me. With (former Wildcat) Derrick Williams, they said he wasn't even ranked when he got there, and he ended up being the No. 2 draft pick, so that tells you they can develop players. I definitely want to go somewhere I can be developed."
The 6-foot-10 Okafor, can also choose to do his developing at places such as Duke, Illinois, Kansas or Kentucky, and Alexander recently chose to schedule visits to Kansas, Louisville and Memphis. Unlike Okafor, Alexander has not visited UA before but says he knows the coaching staff well. He was also recruited by now-UA assistant coach Damon Stoudamire when Stoudamire was on the Memphis staff.
"The coaches are great," the 6-foot-9 Alexander said. "I have a good relationship with Coach Book (Richardson) and Coach (Sean) Miller."
For now, though, the focus for both players is not on recruiting. It's about winning their final travel-ball tournament, an accomplishment Alexander said the Fire should be able to pull off if the team stays focused.
No doubt Okafor will be focused. He has spent half his life with the Mac Irvin Fire.
"Lot of highs and lows," he said. "I can't believe it's almost over."
Okafor is so motivated to play for the Fire that he hardly minded joining the team right after helping USA Basketball's U19 team win a gold medal in the Czech Republic earlier this month.
"I came back, and the next day I was at Peach Jam," Okafor said, referring to the prominent travel-ball event in South Carolina. "I was little jet-lagged, and it took a while to adjust. … But it wasn't a letdown. These are my brothers, and it's always fun to play with them."
Okafor said playing with the Mac Irvin Fire is actually harder than the U19 World Championship experience was, especially since the USA team was so strong that opposing countries couldn't afford to double-team him.
In fact, the USA's team was so good that Okafor and UA freshman Aaron Gordon did not start - but were the team's top two scorers. Gordon averaged 12.6 points and 6.2 rebounds and was named the World Championship MVP, and Okafor averaged 10.8 points and 4.8 rebounds and was named to the all-tournament team.
"We both came off the bench, but it was a lot of fun," Okafor said. "He played with a lot of energy."
Together, Gordon and Okafor helped USA Basketball win gold after it had done so only once in the previous six U19 World Championships.
That fact was never lost on them.
"We haven't had that much success so Coach K (Duke's Mike Krzyzewski, the USA's senior team coach) stressed to us how important it was to get the job done, and so did pretty much all the people in USA Basketball," Okafor said. "There was a lot of pressure on us, and we were happy to win."
On StarNet: Keep up with the Cats during the offseason with Bruce Pascoe's blog at azstarnet.com/pascoe