CHICAGO — If the Arizona Wildcats were operating in a recruiting vacuum, Josh Jackson’s decision would be a cinch.
“They made me feel like I’m a priority, like they really want me,” Jackson said of Arizona on Tuesday, at McDonald’s All American Game’s media day. “That it’s important to them that I end up at their school.”
Everybody feels that way.
Jackson is arguably the No. 1 player in the class of 2016 still yet to announce whether he’ll play for Michigan State, Kansas or Arizona next season. He’s a versatile, tough, fearless and athletic forward. He attends a rigorous academic high school and is the disciplined product of a mother with both a basketball and military background.
So, yes, of course Arizona wants him.
So does Kansas, which just missed out on making its umpteenth Final Four. And so does Michigan State, a team Jackson grew up watching in his home state, with a coach — Tom Izzo — whom Jackson has openly admired.
“I’ve seen them for many years now,” Jackson said of Izzo’s teams. “I’ve seen them win and lose games, but I’ve never seen them get out-toughed.”
Countless other programs didn’t even get nearly that far with Jackson.
But Arizona did, thanks in part to the fact that UA coach Sean Miller coached Jackson on USA Basketball’s U19 team in the FIBA U19 World Championships last summer.
In Greece, Jackson had a chance to see Miller as both a coach and a person, not just a recruiter, not just as a guy watching his travel-ball games or pitching the UA in his living room.
“Coach Miller is a really a great guy,” Jackson said. “He and I have a pretty good relationship. I’ve had the chance to play for him and just having that experience was really great.”
Here’s how advanced their relationship is: When Miller called Jackson two days after the Wildcats lost to Wichita State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, they didn’t talk about the game.
They talked about another popular topic that arose that day.
“What we talked about was his wet shirt,” Jackson said, referring to the infamously soaked white shirt Miller wore on the sidelines in that game. “He thought it was pretty funny.”
Miller has had a chance to get to know Texas guard Terrance Ferguson on a similar level. Ferguson, another McDonald’s All-American who reopened his recruitment earlier this month when he decommited from Alabama, also played for Miller on the U19 team last summer.
A slender but supremely athletic 6-5 shooter, Ferguson naturally drew a text message from Miller after that Wichita State game in which the UA coach said he would have loved to have had Ferguson in uniform that day.
Even though, once again, every college coach might say something similar to a guy like Ferguson, it made an impression.
“He’s one of the best coaches in college basketball, so just to hear him say that to me especially after a loss like that, I really appreciated it,” Ferguson said.
But, perhaps because Ferguson already knew what kind of coach he was, Miller showed him a different side during his official recruiting visit to Arizona last weekend.
They just hung out. Coaches and players. No ball, no talk about that loss, just life.
“It was a fun visit,” Ferguson said. “I had a good time hanging out with the players off the court. Everyone was having fun. Nothing too serious. It was great to see how coach Miller was off the floor, just relaxed and not being so nervous.”
With that, Ferguson laughed. Miller’s shirt was dry that day.
If they choose Arizona, Ferguson and Jackson know Miller well enough to know the reality.
The shirt won’t stay dry. The jacket will come off. There will be more passion, more sweat.
But in the hyper-competitive world of elite college basketball recruiting, that just might be Arizona’s real advantage in landing a guy like Jackson.
“I want to be around people I can trust,” Jackson said, “and people who are going to push me and make me better on and off the court.”