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Mount St. Mary’s basketball recruiting strategy: Own the Washington, D.C. area

Jesse Dougherty
The Washington Post

The O’Connell senior guard watched Mount St. Mary’s, the school he officially signed with two weeks ago, take on Georgetown at Capital One Arena last Wednesday night. He watched the Mountaineers wrestle with their third high-major opponent in as many games, a rare out-of-the-gate schedule for a Northeast Conference team. And he watched six freshmen from the D.C.-Maryland-Virginia area — known in basketball circles, and otherwise, as the DMV — cycle on and off the court, crack into the box score and cheer from the sideline.

recruiting-strategy-dc-area-jamion-christian.jpg“You see all these kids from the area, all these kids you know, and you think, if those guys can play there, and if they can be successful, I think I can be, too,” Becht said. “It was just really weird how they are all from this area. Like, a good weird. There are so many DMV guys on the team and more coming.”

Becht, upon signing his letter of intent, is now part of a trend. No, call it a wave. Mount St. Mary’s has three DMV players signed to its 2018 class, with Becht being joined by Bullis point guard Vado Morse and St. Alban’s forward Chidozie “Collin” Nnamene. The three of them will then join the six DMV freshmen on the team this season: guard Donald Carey (Douglass), forward Omar Habwe (St. James School), guard James West IV (Freedom), forward Nana Opoku (Potomac in Virginia), forward Ace Stallings (Sidwell Friends) and forward Ross Young (also Sidwell Friends).

Mountaineers Coach Jamion Christian, a Virginia native, has canvassed the DMV for talent throughout his six seasons with the program. But his recent success is a major uptick, shows the depth of the area’s talent and promises even more growth at the small college in Emmitsburg, Md.

“I think it’s the best area for basketball in the country, so we’re just going to keep trying to protect it,” Christian said last week. “When we did research a few years back on the Northeast Conference and who wins the championship, they always had a guy from the DMV. So I just said, we’re going to make sure we do a great job keeping guys from going to other schools around our league. Our whole recruiting strategy is keeping guys right here.”

Emmitsburg is tucked just inside the Maryland-Pennsylvania border and is only an hour and a half away from Washington. It is convenient for the Mountaineers’ staff, on a recruiting budget that can’t compete with those of power-conference schools, to drill D.C., Maryland, Virginia and nearby Baltimore for kids. It is also very smart.

Last season, Mount St. Mary’s finished with 20 wins for the first time since 1995-96. The Mountaineers received three votes in an Associated Press poll last week. Mount St. Mary’s (2-3), despite a 102-68 loss last Wednesday that dropped it to 0-3, started this year with three consecutive televised games against Marquette, Notre Dame and Georgetown.

“I just think he’s a brilliant mind with all of this,” said Potomac Coach Keith Honore, who coached Opoku in high school, of Christian. “The out-of-conference schedule attracts kids, his style of play is attractive, and he is smart to just really pound the streets in the DMV. That’s a testament to that staff’s hard work that they put in, and they are reaping the benefits of it.”

This recruiting surge has a lot of layers. Christian pinpointed the team’s recent success on the court. Local high school and AAU coaches nodded to Christian’s ability to build relationships — he was the lead recruiter for Becht and Nnamene, a role usually assumed by an assistant coach — and the whole staff’s constant presence at events throughout the winter, spring and summer. The local players are drawn to the Mountaineers’ style of play: Christian wants his team to attempt 35 three-pointers a game, and then immediately jump into a relentless full-court press to frazzle opposing guards.

They also like the idea of playing with guys they’ve faced or teamed up with in high school or on the AAU circuit. Becht remembered seeing Carey, who now starts for Mount St. Mary’s as a freshman, fill up stat sheets at AAU events. When Becht verbally committed in July, he immediately told Nnamene, his AAU teammate with Team Takeover, to join him.

Nnamene’s eventual commitment gave the Mountaineers nine DMV players in their last two recruiting classes, and a little bit of everything in their 2018 group. Morse is a speedy point guard who can stretch out defenses and knife through them. Becht is a dead-eye shooter. Nnamene, at 6-foot-9, can work in the pick and roll and protect the rim. And Brayden Inger, a 6-foot-8 wing from New Zealand and the class’ final piece, thrives in transition.

“Matt and Collin, they saw guys from the area who they knew and I know that helped persuade them to choose Mount St. Mary’s,” said Darryl Prue, who coached Becht and Nnamene with Team Takeover this past spring and summer. “Now, the next kids are going to see Matt and see Collin, and it will just continue like that. There’s definitely a ripple effect when you recruit a specific area hard.”

With 15:55 left in the second half Wednesday, Becht waited for a break in the action before walking up the steps in Section 121. He went to get Nnamene, who was stuck in rush-hour traffic but still made it for some of the game. Right after the two of them sat down together, Mount St. Mary’s went on a run that cut Georgetown’s lead to 14 points. Becht and Nnamene’s heads swung back and forth, as if they were watching a tennis match instead of a college basketball game. The Mountaineers pushed the tempo. They canned threes. Christian paced along the sideline, smacked his hands together and yelled high-pitch directions that reached deep into the scattered crowd. For a short stretch, before the Hoyas built the deficit back up, Mount St. Mary’s loudly announced itself at the center of the country’s most fertile high school basketball hotbed.

But really, the Mountaineers have been here for some time.

Jesse Dougherty
The Washington Post