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AP photo by AJ Mast / Oral Roberts forward Kevin Obanor drives to the basket ahead of Florida's Anthony Duruji during an NCAA tournament second-round game Sunday in Indianapolis. Obanor has helped the Golden Eagles advance to the Sweet 16 despite being seeded 15th in the South Region.

INDIANAPOLIS — One by one, college coaches filed into the sweltering gym on the campus of Whitney Young Magnet High School, dressed in their polos and windbreakers and sporting their school logos, all craning their necks to get a glimpse of one of the best boys' basketball players to come out of Chicago in years.

It was impossible to miss the 6-foot-11 frame of Jahlil Okafor, casually throwing down those dunks in the warmup line.

It was much easier to miss Lucas Williamson, his freshman teammate.

A few years later, Okafor has gone from can't-miss prospect to one-and-done star at Duke to the riches of the NBA, while Williamson has become one of the darlings of this year's NCAA Division I men's basketball tournament. The slender guard with the big game has become the do-everything star for Loyola University Chicago, which is once again making an inspired run through March.

That Williamson ended up at Loyola and the Ramblers are in the Sweet 16 is evidence of what some coaches have predicted for years: A once-yawning talent gap between haves and have-nots in the world of college hoops has narrowed to nothing.

The difference in a top-50 national recruit headed to Duke or Kentucky and an unranked prospect heading to Loyola might have felt like night and day 15 years ago. Now the difference is negligible — if it exists at all.

"There's just more good players," Ramlbers coach Porter Moser explained. "Thirty years ago, when I got into this in Texas, to now, you look at it — there's so many five-star players, but it's across the board. Kids are getting better. They're doing more improvement. Skill development. They're getting bigger and stronger. There's more of it."

That sheer volume of talent on high school and AAU teams is why a player like Williamson, who had every big name school in his gym to watch Okafor during his freshman year, could still get overlooked by just about everybody.

By the time he was a senior, Williamson had few scholarship offers and ultimately chose to join a team now led by All-America forward Cameron Krutwig, a three-star prospect out of high school in suburban Chicago whose only other offers were from Northern Illinois and American University in Washington, D.C.

Backcourt mate Braden Norris began his career at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan, before he arrived on Chicago's north side. Marquise Kennedy is perhaps the most coveted prospect Loyola has landed in years, but even he picked the Ramblers over the likes of Bradley, Hofstra and Northeastern.

The blue bloods of college basketball weren't beating down the doors for any of them.

Not that it bothers them these days. Kentucky and Duke didn't even make the 68-team bracket. Kansas and Illinois were sent packing the opening weekend. And the eighth-seeded Ramblers, the guys who ousted the top-seeded Fighting Illini, moved on to face Oregon State on Saturday in the opening matchup of this weekend's eight Sweet 16 games.

"The respect that teams give us before we play, that doesn't really concern us," Williamson said. "We're only focused on winning games and continuing this big run that we've been having."

Oregon State, a No. 12 seed, can relate. The Beavers' signing classes have ranked outside the top 50 nationally each of the past two years, according to recruiting site Rivals.com. Yet coach Wayne Tinkle's team ran roughshod through the Pac-12 tourney to earn an NCAA automatic bid, then beat fifth-seeded Tennessee and fourth-seeded Oklahoma State to reach the NCAA regional semifinals for the first time since 1982.

One of their leaders, sophomore guard Jarod Lucas, chose to play for the Beavers over Nevada and Fresno State.

"There's a bigger plan for all of us," he said. "Not a lot of us had the best looks or the high majors, other blue bloods, but we all had one coach, one university that believed in you. All of us at Oregon State have one coach that believed in us. And we all appreciate the belief Coach Tinkle has in us."

Recruiting rankings are heavily subjective, of course. Prospects grow and develop in college, some more than others, and it's nearly impossible to identify intrinsic qualities such as pride and work ethic that portend a future star.

Yet rankings do illustrate how evenly spread talent is across college basketball these days.

Five of the top 12 schools in Rivals.com's final recruiting rankings for 2020 failed to make this year's tourney, and the top four from the previous year failed to make it, too. That includes Kentucky, which had the No. 1 class last spring but went 9-16 this season, and Memphis, which was No. 1 in 2019 but had its bubble burst on NCAA Selection Sunday and had to settle for a spot in the National Invitation Tournament.

Meanwhile, nine of the 16 teams remaining in this NCAA bracket had recruiting classes last season that landed outside of the top 25. Creighton, Loyola, Syracuse and UCLA haven't had a top-40 class the past three seasons. Oral Roberts, the second No. 15 seed to ever reach this point in the tournament, hasn't had a class that ranked in the top 100.

The Golden Eagles are a prime example of unearthing overlooked and underappreciated talent. There isn't a team in the country that wouldn't love to have high-scoring guard Max Abmas or talented forward Kevin Obanor, who led Oral Roberts to wins over second-seeded Ohio State and seventh-seeded Florida and have their sights set on third-seeded Arkansas this weekend.

Obanor played at North Carolina prep school power Mount Zion Christian Academy, which produced the likes of NBA stars Tracy McGrady and Amar'e Stoudemire. Its campus is less than five miles from Cameron Indoor Stadium, yet Duke never came calling; 20 miles the other direction is North Carolina State, which showed only mild interest.

Think the Blue Devils and Wolfpack would like to be playing basketball this weekend?

"We put our shoes on just like they put their shoes on," said Obanor, who has a combined 58 points through the first two rounds. "We don't look at, 'OK, they are ranked No. 2 or they have higher standards, so they are better than us.' We come out with the mentality that, 'You feel like you're better than us? Just prove it.'"

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AP photo by Mark Humphrey / Loyola-Chicago men's basketball coach Porter Moser, left, walks off the court with Lucas Williamson after the eighth-seeded Ramblers beat top-seeded Illinois in the second round of the NCAA tournament Sunday in Indianapolis.

NCAA MEN’S TOURNAMENT

SWEET 16 SCHEDULE

At Indianapolis; all times Eastern

SATURDAY, MARCH 27

Midwest Region

At Bankers Life Fieldhouse

Loyola-Chicago vs. Oregon State 2:40 p.m.

At Hinkle Fieldhouse

Houston vs. Syracuse, 9:55 p.m.

South Region

At Hinkle Fieldhouse

Baylor vs. Villanova, 5:15 p.m.

At Bankers Life Fieldhouse

Arkansas vs. Oral Roberts, 7:25 p.m

SUNDAY, MARCH 28

West Region

At Hinkle Fieldhouse

Gonzaga vs. Creighton, 2:10 p.m.

At Bankers Life Fieldhouse

Southern Cal vs. Oregon, 9:45 p.m.

East Region

At Bankers Life Fieldhouse

Michigan vs. Florida State, 5 p.m.

At Hinkle Fieldhouse

Alabama vs. UCLA, 7:15 p.m.

 

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