Men's Basketball, WVU Sports

DIAMONDS IN THE ROUGH: It was WVU’s gain to have Taz Sherman, Sean McNeil slip through the recruiting cracks

MORGANTOWN — The story is from a few years ago, WVU men’s basketball associate head coach Larry Harrison says, but it is still a good reflection on the Mountaineers’ recruiting style.

Harrison is walking into an AAU event and crosses paths with Florida State head coach Leonard Hamilton.

“Leonard said to me, ‘I’m just going to follow you around all day, because I want to get some of those guys you get,’ ” Harrison said. “It was a real complement coming from someone I’ve always respected.”

Now in his 14th season with WVU, Harrison has spent most of them scouring gymnasiums across the country looking for the so-called diamond in the rough.

“I think we all understand here at West Virginia that we’re not always going to be able to go after kids like O.J. Mayo or Zion Williamson,” Harrison said. “We’re basically looking for something else. We’re looking for the ones who want to compete and play hard, the ones who can still play at a high level, but also maybe need some time to develop.”

There have been many examples over the years, beginning with prospects like Jevon Carter, Daxter Miles and Sagaba Konate, who eventually turned into all-Big 12 caliber players.

Sophomore guard Deuce McBride may also fit into that same mold.

The stories of Taz Sherman and Sean McNeil are slightly different, more so than just the fact both players came to WVU out of junior college rather than high school.

Their stories are different in the fact they played in junior college to begin with.

“The best answer I can give is I don’t know. They both played AAU. They were both good players in high school.”

WVU associate head coach Larry Harrison on the lack of recruitment for Taz Sherman and Sean McNeil out of high school

They weren’t under-recruited coming out of high school like Carter or Konate.

Sherman and McNeil weren’t recruited at all by Division I schools.

Fast forward to the 2020-21 season, only Kansas’ Ochai Agbaji and Kansas State’s Mike McGuirl have made more 3-pointers in the Big 12 than McNeil, while Sherman is third on the team in scoring (13.0 ppg) and is third in the conference in free-throw shooting percentage.

“To think where they were coming out of high school to what they’re doing now, it’s very rare,” Harrison said. “Very rarely do you see guys who go under the radar develop into the types of players Sean and Taz have developed into. What they’ve done is remarkable.”

How did no one know?

It’s not like McNeil and Sherman grew up and played high school basketball in some remote part of Utah or Wyoming.

Sherman is from Missouri City, Texas, a suburb of Houston, one of the highest-recruited areas in a state that houses no less than 24 Division I basketball schools.

Only California (26) has more.

West Virginia guard Sean McNeil was recently named co-Big 12 Player of the Week after averaging 23.5 points per game in games against Texas Tech and Oklahoma. (WVU Athletics Coomunications)

McNeil is from Union, Ky., a state where religion and basketball are often associated as the same thing.

As a senior, he led Cooper High School to a runner-up finish in the state tournament.

The question is asked to Harrison: How did no one see these two kids coming out of high school?

“The best answer I can give is I don’t know,” Harrison said. “They both played AAU. They were both good players in high school.”

Among Sherman’s teammates at Thurgood Marshall High School was John Walker, who went on to be named the state’s Class 5A Player of the Year in 2017.

“Taz played with two other Division I recruits, so it’s not like anyone didn’t see him,” Harrison continued. “He averaged more than 15 points a game, so he was playing well. My guess was maybe he was a little skinny kid and other schools didn’t project him as someone who could bulk up.”

How did WVU grab them?

Sometimes recruiting can come down to something as simple as a phone call.

A high school or junior-college coach will call WVU head coach Bob Huggins and say, “Hey, you might want to take a look at this kid.”

That’s sort of how WVU first met McNeil.

Except the call didn’t come from McNeil’s junior-college coach at Sinclair (Ohio) Community College, rather it came from a coach who was getting ready to coach against Sinclair.

“It was a friend of Huggs who is coaching junior college in Ohio,” Harrison said. “He was telling us about this kid he was getting ready to go against who was lighting things up.”

WVU assistant Erik Martin was the first WVU coach to scout McNeil. His initial assessment caused the rest of the coaching staff to take their own turns in watching him.

“Sinclair is a lower level junior college, so there was always a question about the competition Sean was playing against,” Harrison said. “Sometimes, if you really like a kid, it doesn’t always matter about the competition level, and we really liked what we saw in Sean.”

Sherman’s recruitment also has a good story.

West Virginia guard Taz Sherman has hit 59 career 3-pointers in 51 games with the Mountaineers (William Wotring/The Dominion Post).

Harrison attended a junior-college jamboree event and came across the coach at Collin (Tex.) College, where Sherman attended out of high school.

“He said, ‘I’ve got a kid, I don’t know how good he is, but you should take a look,’ ” Harrison said. “Well, I sit down to watch his first game and there are only two or three other coaches there.”

One of them was former Texas State head coach Danny Kaspar, who was the only Division I school to offer Sherman after his first season at Collin College.

“He leans over to me and tells me he thinks he’s got a good shot to sign Taz,” Harrison said.

Well, Sherman scored 35 points that particular game.

“The second game I go watch him play, now there’s 10-15 coaches there,” Harrison said. “Taz went out and scored 25, or so, in that one. I looked over at the coach and said, ‘You’re not getting him.’ ”

Where neither player could get recruited by a Division I school out of high school, now Sherman and McNeil had a list of offers.

“With Taz, a lot of those Texas schools started showing interest late,” Harrison said. “Kansas showed some interest late. The school we were most worried about with Taz was Houston. That was home for him and that was the school we were most nervous about.

“Who knows, if Houston had pushed a little harder, maybe Taz would have ended up there. That’s just how funny recruiting can be sometimes.”

The search for the next diamond in the rough never ends for college coaches, although it’s been made a little more difficult with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Open evaluation periods have been shut down by the NCAA since last March. The shut down was extended on Wednesday through May 31.

“Back in the day, whenever you found a kid no one else was looking at, that used to be the talk among coaches,” Harrison said. “’We stole him,’ is what we used to say.

“It’s much harder to do that now, because you’ve got kids putting up their highlight tapes all over social media. It’s all out there now. It comes down to evaluations and then building relationships. It’s harder to do, but we’re always looking.”

TWEET @bigjax3211