Mike Saunders Jr., Utah Utes basketball’s latest commit, is an important one. Here’s how Craig Smith got him.

Saunders Jr., a Wasatch Academy graduate, played his first two seasons at Cincinnati.

(Eric Christian Smith | The Associated Press) Cincinnati guard Mike Saunders (3) reacts after being called for a foul during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Houston, Sunday, Feb. 21, 2021, in Houston.

Craig Smith received a commitment out of the NCAA Transfer Portal late Saturday afternoon from University of Cincinnati point guard Mike Saunders Jr.

To help that recruiting process along last week, the University of Utah basketball coach had to stare down a deadline.

Smith and Utes assistant Tim Morris, a former Bearcats assistant who successfully recruited Saunders Jr. there in the class of 2020, had already gotten in deep with Saunders Jr. since he entered the portal on March 21. On Wednesday, Smith reached out to the Indianapolis native to inquire about potentially squeezing in a last-minute, out-of-nowhere evening visit at his home.

Taken aback by that request, Saunders Jr. agreed to it, so Smith hopped a flight from Salt Lake City later that day. By 9:30 p.m., Smith was at the Saunders home, meeting with Saunders Jr., his father, Michael, and his mother, Nicole. As Saunders Jr. remembers it, that meeting went about two hours, which means Smith was out of there before midnight.

The significance of that meeting ending before midnight traces to the NCAA’s Division I recruiting calendar. The 2021-22 docket states that March 31-April 7 is a dead period, which means it is impermissible for coaching staffs to make in-person contact with prospective student-athletes, whether it be on or off campus.

Utah was already in good position with Saunders Jr., but Smith deciding to make a play for an eleventh-hour face-to-face meeting put it over the top. Had Smith not reached out, had Saunders Jr., a popular figure in the transfer portal during his 2 1/2 week stay there, not agreed to meet, his recruitment may have worn on, potentially ending somewhere else. BYU, Miami, UNLV, Nevada, Loyola Marymount, and Wichita State offer just a sample of the programs that reached out during the process.

Instead, Smith on Saturday crossed off a major to-do item from his offseason checklist, upgrading his point guard spot.

“That was one of the best talks we ever had,” Saunders Jr. told The Salt Lake Tribune on Saturday evening. “It had been a couple of years since I’d actually seen him, so it was great to actually see him and have that conversation. We clicked, and I think he left that night feeling the same way, feeling good about everything. We’re on the same page. I have a vision, the vision he has for me, it aligns.

“I have no doubts that this is the right coach for me.”

As the business of recruiting continues to change with the advent of the transfer portal and the NCAA’s one-time transfer waiver, which allows immediate eligibility to any student-athlete transferring for the first time, the bedrock of recruiting remains building and cultivating relationships.

Morris and Saunders Jr. go back to at least 2016, when the former was an assistant at Northern Kentucky and the latter was an eighth-grader, still a season away from debuting at Indiana high school power Lawrence North. When John Brannen got the Cincinnati job in April 2019, he hired Morris as an assistant. Saunders Jr. committed to the Bearcats in June of that year.

In the middle of the Morris-Saunders Jr. dynamic, the 6-foot, three-star recruit spent his last two years of high school at budding national power Wasatch Academy in Mount Pleasant starting in 2018.

When Saunders Jr. began at Wasatch Academy, Smith was in his first season as the head coach at Utah State. As Wasatch Academy’s basketball program grew in notoriety, any number of Division I coaches made the trek there to check out the plethora of talent available, Smith among them.

“He recruited me when he was at Utah State and he liked my game then, but he said he always kept an eye on me since that time,” Saunders Jr. said. “I already know both of them (Smith and Morris). They genuinely care, they pay attention, they know my game. I trust them.”

Smith will be the third head coach for Saunders Jr. in as many seasons. He played for Brannen as a freshman. After he was fired following the 2020-21 season, Saunders Jr. entered the transfer portal, but eventually removed his name and opted to play for Wes Miller last season.

“If I’m being honest, if I’m doing my due diligence, they’ve paid attention and know my game more than anybody,” Saunders Jr. said. “The fact Coach Smith had that belief in me then, all the way up to now, I couldn’t pass that up. No other school can match that type of relationship with the head coach. I’m excited to play for him.”

There could be more portal departures from Smith’s roster in the coming weeks, but things have steadied after Lahat Thioune and Riley Battin both announced their respective transfers last month as expected.

With Saunders Jr. in the fold, Smith now has three open scholarships for 2022-23 at his disposal.

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