Recruiting rundown: San Diego St. adds to stockpile; Nerlens Noel, Shabazz Muhammad set visits

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There’s little doubt that the San Diego State men’s basketball program is running on all gears right now. They’ve been extremely successful in what was expected to be a down season, and have talent waiting in the wings for next year in the form of two high-major transfer forwards in J.J. O’Brien (Utah) and Dwayne Polee (St. John’s). The Aztecs have also struck gold on the recruiting trail, as they now have their third, and best, pledge for the 2012 class in 6-8 forward Winston Shepard of Findlay Prep (Nev.).

Shepard was previously one of only a handful of top-100 players left still on the table, and has steadily been working his way up the player rankings charts with his play for the national No. 2 ranked high school basketball team, Findlay Prep. He’s a Texas native who was well-known for his defensive prowess, slashing offensive game and overall energy as a sidekick to Shabazz Muhammad on the AAU circuit, playing for the loaded Dream Vision team that also featured players bound to Boston College, Colorado, Kansas State and UNLV. Among that cast of stars, Shepard stood out at times with his long frame and game-changing potential.

The skill and talent levels aren’t entirely comparable, but the fairest comparison to Shepard’s overall game in the college ranks could Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Kentucky’s touted freshman forward. Shepard, like Kidd-Gilchrist, lacks a reliable outside shot, but brings tremendous intangibles, and plays to win at all times. Both show defensive prowess that isn’t seen in every elite prospect.

Shepard’s recruitment looked in the summer like it would come down to current Mountain West rivals San Diego State, UNLV and New Mexico, but as of late, St. John’s, Connecticut and Oklahoma State were among the schools that jumped in the picture with scholarship offers. Still, San Diego State did a tremendous job in Shepard’s recruitment, and won out over some bigger “name” schools.

While Shepard is clearly a gem, the Aztecs previously signed two other excellent prospects from Southern California. Local wing forward Matt Shrigley should be a multi-year starter with his combination of bounce and skill, and many recruiting analysts are scratching their heads regarding the lack of Pac-12 offers to 6-9 center Skylar Spencer, who is expected to be a major factor down the road at San Diego State. Additionally, the Aztecs landed an under-the-radar transfer from Virginia, forward James Johnson, who could benefit with a year to develop following his change of colleges.

While the Big West isn’t the most lauded college basketball conference, there’s sure to be many schools taking their aim at San Diego State when the Aztecs become basketball members. With the talent that coach Steve Fisher and his staff have amassed, though, it’s easy to image a basketball dynasty in the making near the shores of the Pacific Ocean on San Diego State’s sunny campus, especially if they continue their recent recruiting successes.

Heads of the class take trips

The top dogs in the 2012 class, 6-6 wing Shabazz Muhammad of Bishop Gorman (Nev), and 6-10 Nerlens Noel of Tilton School (N.H.) are fitting in travel to their prospective college campuses, as their high school seasons wind down. Muhammad is expected to be at Kansas, as the Jayhawks prepare for what should be an epic tilt with Missouri this weekend, while Noel made his way to Syracuse and Kentucky in recent weeks.

Muhammad, the top prospect in the 2012 class until Noel recently reclassified, has taken official trips to Texas A&M and Kentucky, and is also expected to trek to Duke to be on scene for their tilt against North Carolina. Additionally, Muhammad is still considering, to various degrees UCLA, UNLV, USC and Arizona. He may not officially visit the schools nearest his Sin City home, as prospects are only allowed five official visits. He has been on those campuses, on unofficial visits.

Noel is not yet allowed, per NCAA regulations, to take any official visits, as his paperwork is not complete to be technically a member of the 2012 class, just yet. As a result, he is making unofficial trips on his own dime while he conducts his abbreviated recruitment. It’s no surprise that the Orange and Wildcats made up his first two visits, as those schools are expected to be the major players to land his unique, shot-blocking talent.

Still, Florida, North Carolina, Georgetown, Providence, UConn and others are attempting to make up lost ground for Noel, and work their way towards wresting him away from two elite programs in Syracuse and Kentucky.

The 2012 class is largely off the board, which puts the spotlight even brighter on Muhammad and Noel. Whichever school lands either prospect has an immediate starter for at least a year, and Kentucky fans have to be salivating as they remain on both lists. Along with 6-7 strong man forward Anthony Bennett of Findlay Prep (Nev.), only three legitimate impact players are left in the 2012 class, which makes their priority obvious for the schools in hot pursuit.

St. Mary’s recruit Cullen Neal spurns father’s school
Anyone who saw the New Mexico-based Danny Granger Hurricanes club basketball team over the summer saw two star players with deep ties to the New Mexico basketball program. Two standout 2013 guards, Bryce Alford and Cullen Neal, are the sons of Lobos coaches Steve Alford and Craig Neal. While Alford may still elect to play college at New Mexico, Neal committed last week to St. Mary’s. The move didn’t come as a shock though, as Neal was expected to blaze his own trail for college.

While he was recruited and offered scholarships to the Pac-12 level, Neal is an absolute steal and could star at St. Mary’s. He’s a rare recruit who will end up at a great fit, rather than the most prestigious sound opportunity.

Landing recruits like Neal is part of the reason for coach Randy Bennett and the Gaels continued success. At 6-3, the Eldorado (N.M.) star can play either guard slot, and sets up to be a scoring point guard in the WCC. While he won’t continue to average the 27 points per game he currently is against New Mexico high school competition, Neal could be an early and valued contributor at St. Mary’s.

Kellon Hassenstab runs Hoopniks.com. Follow him on Twitter @hoopniks.