Hoop Hogs Focus on Zhaire Smith for 2017 Class



After months of focusing their recruiting efforts on interior / frontline players to fill the final available scholarship in the 2017 class, Arkansas’ coaching staff has moved quickly in the past couple of weeks on a new prospect — a 6-foot-5 combo forward from Garland, TX.

Zhaire Smith, who has a 6-9 wing span and excels with plus-athleticism and length playing around the basket, played in his final game at Lakeview Centennial High School with Head Hog Mike Anderson and assistant coach Scotty Thurman in attendance a couple of weeks ago, then he took an unofficial visit to Fayetteville for Arkansas’ regular-season finale against Georgia on Saturday, and after remaining in town for a meeting with Anderson on Sunday morning, Smith emerged with an offer to become the Hogs’ final piece to their 2017 recruiting haul.

On top of that, Anderson and Thurman traveled to Garland on Tuesday to do an in-home visit with Smith, who said the visit “went great.”

“Glad they came, sat down, and had a good talk with my family,” Smith said.

Zhaire Smith, who also has offers from Georgia Tech, Kansas State, Memphis, Texas Tech, and Little Rock among others, took an unofficial visit to Texas the weekend prior to his stop in Fayetteville. He has already taken 2 of his NCAA-allotted 5 official visits, including an OV with the Little Rock Trojans. He said he plans to take one of those three remaining official visits to Texas on March 17, and that he’ll take an OV to Texas Tech sometime either before or after the Texas visit.

Smith said he’s not yet thought about “leaders” for his services on the college level. The spring signing period begins in mid-April, so logic suggests that will change soon.

“Right now, I don’t have a list of leaders,” Smith said of the teams that have offered or shown interest. “I’m going to take my 3 remaining (official) visits.”

Smith’s family has ties to Thurman, who is his lead recruiter.

“My Dad and uncle grew up with coach Thurman in Jonesboro, LA,” Smith said.

Smith, who is ranked composite national No. 137 / a 4-star, was impressed with his experience during his visit with the Hogs.

“It was great … loved the atmosphere & crowd,” he said. “The game was great. They (Hogs) came out like a championship team in the second half.”

Arkansas signed 3 in-state players for the 2017 class in the November early signing period — all 4-star recruits in Daniel Gafford of El Dorado, Khalil Garland of Little Rock Parkview, and Darious Hall of Little Rock Mills. Adding Smith would be another 4-star prospect in the haul.

Hogs take quick look at 2017 point-guard prospect: Another position of need is point guard, and another new name surfaced in recent weeks — Kaleb “KJ” Fitzgerald, a shifty 6-foot senior point guard at Cardinal Newman in West Palm Springs, FL.

Fitzgerald said he’d been in recent contact with “Coach TJ (Cleveland) and Coach (Scotty) Thurman … we have been in contact a few weeks.”

According to Fitzgerald, the Arkansas coaches became familiar with him during the spring/summer grassroots basketball circuit known as Nike EYBL. He played on the South Beach 17U EYBL team in 2016.

Cleveland traveled to West Palm Beach, FL, on Tuesday, Feb. 21, to watch Fitzgerald and his Cardinal Newman squad play in their regional tourney. The lefty point guard scored 30 points with Cleveland in attendance, but his team lost and ended their season.

Fitzgerald confirmed he has offers from Virginia Tech, TCU, Creighton, Middle Tennessee State, Chattanooga, and North Florida, with the Hogs, Kansas, and UNLV showing interest. He averaged 26 points, 7 assists, and 6 rebounds per game, with single-game season-highs of 38 points and 10 steals. Last season as a junior, Fitzgerald scored 50 points in a game.

Internet highlights of Fitzgerald reveal he is equally skilled using either his left of right hand.

“Natural lefty but ambidextrous,” he said. “I play with my left but I eat & write with my right … I know it’s weird. I can shoot, handle, and finish with either hand.”

He seemed amused that some Arkansas fans had already been interacting with him on Twitter, because he’s not sure how fans knew the Hogs were showing interest prior to first public reports that surfaced on Twitter late Sunday night, Feb. 19.

“I was just surprised when someone tweeted Woo Pig Sooiee,” he said. “I guess the fans know people.”

With only one scholarship to give for ’17 and the recent offer extended to Zhaire Smith, it seems the Hogs moved on fairly quickly from Fitzgerald.

Good news / bad news with upcoming Arkansas high school state championship games: The good news is the best possible match-ups emerged in the title games (all games played at the Bank of the Ozarks Arena in Hot Springs) — 5A with No. 2 Little Rock Parkview re-matching with No. 3 Little Rock Mills; 6A with No. 1 Jonesboro facing No. 4 El Dorado; and 7A with No. 5 North Little Rock taking on No. 7 Fort Smith Northside.

The bad news: The Arkansas Activities Association scheduled these 3 mega-games at fan-unfriendly times on fan-unfriendly days …

* Parkview-v-Mills will be played at 5:15 p.m. on Thursday, when most fans in Little Rock will be dealing with getting away from work and trying to get down to Garland County for such an early tip time.

* Jonesboro-v-El Dorado is worse, slated for 3:30 p.m. on Friday.

* North Little Rock-v-Northside at least is scheduled for Saturday, but tip is at 12:45 p.m. Fans will have to get up early to make that one.

Look, all 28 title-game teams representing the 7 classifications for both boys and girls have earned their moments in the spotlight, but it is impossible to understand how the 3 best games — Boys’ 5A, 6A, and 7A — ALL managed to NOT get scheduled for prime-time on Friday or Saturday.

Southwest Christian Academy of Little Rock wins NACA national title: The Southwest Christian Academy (Little Rock) Lions, who have players from all over the world, finished the season 34-3, punctuated by winning the National Association of Christian Athletes national championship in Dayton, TN, last week (Feb. 22-24).

SCA defeated Potters House (FL) in the quarterfinals and Riverdale Baptist (MD) in the semifinals before topping Mount Mission (VA), 54-44, in the title game.

“The stress leading up to the final buzzer is what I remember most” SCA head coach Charles Baker said of the title game. “We came in as the No. 2 seed, so everyone expected us to win, especially after (No. 1 seed) Hamilton Heights lost in the semifinals against Mount Mission.

“To be able to win that (national title), I can’t explain it, but it’s a huge euphoria. These kids I brought in here (to SCA), I told them this was our goal from the beginning. There are probably 15-20 teams around the country who might feel like they have the best team, but in a tournament format where everybody is trying to win, we came out with the title and the trophy to show for it.”

Mount Mission reached the finals by defeating nationally renowned Hamilton Heights (TN) in the other semifinals game. Hamilton Heights, led by 2017 Kentucky signee Shai Alexander, had beaten SCA, 84-72, back in January.

“We didn’t play a perfect game, or even one of our better games” Baker said of his team’s title-game victory over Mount Mission. “We had a stretch where we missed six free throws in a row, and next thing you know we’re in a close game at halftime.

“We went into the 4th quarter with a 34-33 lead, then we started to move the ball better and got some easy scoring opportunities. We ended up scoring 20 points in that 4th quarter.”

2017 Arkansas Razorbacks recruit and power forward Mladen Armus was named tournament MVP for SCA, and 2018 point guard Shakur Daniel joined Armus on the all-tournament team.

Baker has been pleased with Armus’s development and progression this season.

“(Armus) was used to playing against big kids (in Serbia), but there are not as many athletes over there that you have over here, so pace of the game was a big adjustment,” Baker said. “The last 10 games or so, he got about as automatic as you can be. When he got the ball down low, defenders were at his mercy. All those double-doubles he was getting, he got them in 3, sometimes only 2 quarter because was sitting down in the 4th quarter, sometimes both the 3rd and 4th quarters (due to blowouts by SCA).”

Baker also raved about Daniel.

“More so than anybody on the team, when he comes out of the game, I can just see the level of play drop,” Baker said. “When he’s on the floor, we know our team is going to get into our offense.

“He he can make any pass going full speed, he finds the open man. He could lead us in scoring, but he’s more interested in leading the team and winning games. He could have easily been named the MVP of the tournament, that’s how well he was playing.”

Three of the NACA national tourney teams have been ranked in MaxPreps’ Independent Schools Top 10, and by virtue of winning the NACA national title, SCA has re-entered that poll No. 10.

The Lions finished 10-1 to win the Texas Christian Athletic League (TCAL) regular-season conference title.

“We’ve got 12 kids from 6 different countries, so bringing them all together and getting them to play together takes time,” Baker said. “But by the end of the year these guys were playing together like they’ve been doing it for years.”

Downtown Tip Off Club wraps up its 2017 season: The final luncheon was held on Monday, Feb. 27, at the Wyndham Hotel in North Little Rock, with Mississippi State women’s basketball head coach Vic Schaefer as the featured guest-speaker. And Southwest Christian Academy senior Avery Benson was named Boys’ Outstanding Player.

Each week the Downtown Tip Off club gave its members a great event with relevant featured guest-speakers while also honoring the best boys’ and girls’ high school basketball players in the state. The Downtown Tip Off Club is presented and managed by the folks at North Little Rock Parks and Recreation, who did an outstanding job.

The boys’ high school players who were honored this season were: Daniel Gafford of El Dorado; Khalil Garland of Little Rock Parkview; Darious Hall of Little Rock Mills; Kris Bankston of Little Rock Fair; Exavion Christon of Hot Springs; Cam Johnson of Little Rock Central; Javon Franklin of Little Rock Parkview; and Avery Benson of Southwest Christian Academy.

Among the featured guest-speakers were: Arkansas men’s basketball head coach Mike Anderson, former Hog greats Todd Day and U.S. Reed; Little Rock Trojans head coach Wes Flanigan; Arkansas baseball head coach Dave Van Horn; former Arkansas women’s basketball head coach Jimmy Dykes; and Little Rock Trojans women’s basketball head coach Joe Foley.

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Kevin McPherson is a former sportswriter and editor at both the Arkansas Gazette and Arkansas Democrat, as well as a former contributor to newspapers in Northwest Arkansas — covering Arkansas Razorbacks basketball, high school football and basketball, and basketball recruiting. He’s entering his 13th year as a mortgage banker with Bank of England, but he still covers Razorback basketball and recruiting as well as high school sports. You can join him live every Monday and Thursday at 1:30 CST on The Hog Call, KREB 1190 The Fan in Northwest Arkansas by clicking here: http://1190thefan.com/listen-live/ You can also follow him live on Twitter @ARHoopScoop.

Zhaire Smith


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