Top Utah hoops target Payton Sandfort, like many 2021 recruits, stuck in a recruiting holding pattern

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah basketball coach Larry Krystkowiak speaks with the press during media day at the Ute basketball practice facility on Wed. Sept. 26, 2018.

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, there is AAU basketball being contested in various states across the country.

The Midwest is in business as far as AAU goes, so on July 24, Des Moines, Iowa-based Kingdom Hoops will head to Kansas City’s Hy-Vee Arena to take part in the Hardwood Classic.

Unaffiliated and independent from the Nike, Adidas and Under Armour circuits, Kingdom Hoops features Payton Sandfort, a three-star uncommitted wing out of Waukee High School. Sandfort, ranked 136th in the latest 247sports Top 150 for the class of 2021, has emerged as the University of Utah’s top 2021 target. Hometown Iowa is thought to be right there with the Utes, while Drake and Minnesota are in the mix.

Under normal, non-pandemic conditions, what would come next is a tale as old as time. Sandfort debuted in the 247sports rankings late last month, which indicates his stock is rising. He has a small handful of quality offers, but he could add more with strong showings during the April and July evaluation periods, in which college coaches can watch and evaluate the 6-foot-8 shooter live.

Under normal, non-pandemic conditions, July 24 would be in the middle of the final July evaluation period, which means Division I coaches would be allowed inside Hy-Vee Arena, free to roam the sprawling facility, free to line up around any of its 12 courts and watch a game. Coaches already recruiting Sandfort could check in. Coaches already intrigued or even seeing him for the first time could decide he is worthy of a scholarship offer.

None of that is going to happen. Thanks to the pandemic, the NCAA instituted a mandatory recruiting dead period in mid-March, which has since been extended four times. Currently, the dead period extends through Aug. 31, which means no face-to-face activity between coaches and recruits through that date. There has been a push in coaching and prep circles to create evaluation opportunities in September, but that remains to be seen.

“A lot of coaches, before they offer, they want to see you play in person, and I understand that,” Sandfort told The Salt Lake Tribune earlier this week via phone. “Even if a new school came in, the main thing, the big thing is seeing the campus, visiting with people behind the scenes, things like that.”

Coaches can still contact recruits electronically via Zoom, FaceTime, email and the like, and the better-run AAU tournaments are offering live streaming to help with recruiting, but Sandfort admits that his recruitment has slowed down because of the pandemic.

In theory, that could ultimately help Larry Krystkowiak and his staff. Sandfort has said publicly that Utah has been recruiting him the longest. The Salt Lake City campus is the only one Sandfort has taken an official visit to, although he has taken unofficial visits to Iowa, Drake, and Minnesota.

Sandfort and Kingdom Hoops boys program director Vance Mosley both say Stanford has been sniffing around lately, but it is unlikely to yield much unless the Cardinal can get a live look at him. That is not happening until at least September, if at all.

“The ones that are interested or have offered have been in contact,” Mosley said. “A lot of coaches would like to get him on campus, they want to see him play, but none of that is able to happen right now. The biggest thing for Payton is working to improve his game, which he has really tried to do. The schools that have been in contact and are showing interest will continue to do that.”

To Mosley’s point, Utah has continued to be in contact in a recruiting battle that, unless new schools offer, appears to have boiled down to the Utes and Iowa, whose Iowa City campus is roughly two hours east of Waukee. The fact the Utes got in on Sandfort early and have already had him to campus for an official visit is good, because the Utes are fighting several factors.

The pull of staying close to home, playing for the in-state school and being able to do so in front of a close-knit family and friends are things Sandfort and Mosley admit to being part of the equation. Sandfort stopped short of saying he is getting pressure to stay home, but that “subtle hints and jokes” have been the norm.

Iowa, though, appears well-stocked at wing, namely with the commitments of incoming 6-foot-8 freshman twins, Keegan and Kris Murray. Utah, by comparison, may provide a better chance for Sandfort to make an immediate impact.

The Utes currently have two scholarships open for the 2021-22 season, at which point the roster, on paper, will be devoid of a knockdown shooter.

“They made a great impression, the staff really has some great guys,” Mosley said. “Payton had the same comment. Those guys are nothing but gentlemen and building that relationship has been important for both sides.”