CINCINNATI — Wes Miller and his Cincinnati staff have put themselves in the midst of a high-stakes, heavyweight recruiting battle for five-star 2023 point guard Isaiah Collier, and the Bearcats’ coaches have the strength of their own talent evaluation to thank for it .
Collier — a 6-foot-4, 200-pound prospect from Wheeler High School outside of Atlanta — shot up to claim the No. 1 spot in 247Sports’ 2023 rankings just a few weeks ago. He’s No. 4 in the country according to the 247Sports Composite rating, in which he is also considered the top point guard in the 2023 class. With the latest recruiting contact period opening Sept. 9 and Collier still uncommitted, there has been significant interest in the direction and status of his recruitment, and the Bearcats are right in the thick of it. Cincinnati is a finalist for Collier, along with Michigan and USC, because of how Miller and his staff have prioritized the point guard for months.
“We have done a great job of building a relationship with him. Wes is a point guard, and one of his biggest attributes is the potential for Zay to be coached by a guy who played his position,” said Larry Thompson, the head coach at Wheeler. “The kid is too young to understand the history of Cincinnati basketball. That’s not a negative, but it just meant nothing to him until he started to learn some of the history. But what does mean something to him is the relationship he’s built with that staff.”
Collier took an official visit to Cincinnati in February, back when he was rated in the 20s by 247Sports. He was still a five-star prospect, and his trip to Clifton still generated considerable buzz among the UC fan base, but from a national perspective, he wasn’t held in the same lofty and coveted regard reserved for a top-rated prospect. That’s a credit to Miller’s talent evaluation and something Collier has appreciated from the beginning of his relationship with the Bearcats head coach.
“As far as I’m concerned, Cincinnati, their eye for recognizing talent was first,” said Darnell “Shep” Shepherd, Collier’s trainer and an assistant varsity coach at Wheeler. “There were a lot of other staffs who were looking at other point guards in Zay’s class, but Cincinnati’s staff very early on recognized that he was the best point guard in the country, and they weren’t quiet about it. At all. For us, that really stood out.”
On the court, it has been a strange, disjointed summer for Collier despite his steady climb up the recruiting rankings. After leading Wheeler to the 2022 state quarterfinals and coming just shy of a third straight Georgia state championship, Collier was diagnosed with a meniscus injury at the USA Basketball U18 workouts in late May.
“That was something he had been dealing with for a while, toward the latter part of our high school season,” Shepherd said. “He’s a big, strong kid and a hell of a competitor, so he was probably more hurt than he let on because he was trying to lead us to a state championship.”
It forced him to miss most of the highly scrutinized summer grassroots tournaments, where he had played for Atlanta-based The Skill Factory on the EYBL circuit. He was cleared to resume action in August just in time to participate in the Steph Curry Camp and Under Armor Elite 24, earning MVP honors at both events despite a shortened conditioning runway. That, combined with his performance in the early grassroots sessions and his overall body of work, was enough to continue elevating his recruiting status.
“He’s become a much better shooter of the basketball. He makes better decisions. His all-around game, his poise, his pace has gotten better, and it was already good,” Thompson said. “It’s at a truly, truly elite level now. Some of the things he’s able to do, a lot of his peers aren’t blessed with that ability yet, and it comes natural for him. I’m not saying it’s easy, but he has a great feel.”
As Collier’s stock has continued to rise, Miller has remained devoted to the five-star point guard as Cincinnati’s top 2023 target. The length and consistency of the relationship with Cincinnati, particularly with Miller and assistants Andre Morgan and Chad Dollar, has resonated with Collier and his family members, who hosted the Bearcats’ coaches for an in-home visit on Sept. 11.
“The staff has been awesome. Not overbearing but enough that you can’t forget about them and you know that Zay is a priority for them,” Shepherd said. “They’ve kept the recruiting about Cincinnati, haven’t negatively recruited. Coach Miller has done an amazing job of talking about himself and the future of the program and where it is right now, not being afraid to say that they will get better and he thinks Isaiah is a prime candidate to speed that process up.”
A similar approach has served Cincinnati well with Collier’s teammate, Arrinten Page, a 6-9, 220-pound center and four-star prospect who is rated 52nd overall in the 2023 class according to his 247Sports Composite grade.
“They made him a priority,” Thompson said. “It seems to me that is just what (the Cincinnati coaches) do. The building of relationships, I don’t think anybody has done a better job with either one of those kids about what is important to them as individuals.”
Page — who recently named Cincinnati as one of his four college finalists alongside USC, Indiana and Miami — was viewed by a number of programs early on as a package deal with Collier, which was understandable considering how well his game complemented Collier’s and how he benefited from playing with an elite point guard. But the Bearcats took a different tack.
“What was different about Cincy’s approach is that they had a specific plan outside of the other schools who were recruiting Zay and AP at the same time. Cincinnati quickly identified his skill set,” Shepherd said. “Mike Roberts did an amazing job of highlighting what the development process would look like for him. Once it became clear AP would forge his own path, other schools realized they needed to do the same thing and treat him as an individual.”
Miller and assistants had an in-home visit with Page on Sept. 9, and Page is expected on Cincinnati’s campus for an official visit this weekend. (Edgerrin “Jizzle” James Jr., a 2023 four-star point guard out of Florida is also planning to take an official visit this weekend.) Page, who previously visited UC in late May, visited Indiana in late July and will make another trip to USC after his second stop in Clifton.
“He’s going up to Cincinnati at the end of this month and will go out to USC after that,” Shepherd said. “You can probably look for his announcement to come out in early October.”
Collier, on the other hand, doesn’t plan to take any more visits, has no set timeline to announce his decision and — at least for the time being — has no intention of releasing one. There were suggestions earlier in the summer that USC was the favorite, but those close to Collier insist it was all outside noise and hearsay and that none of it was coming from inside Collier’s camp.
“I’m with the kid almost every day, and I couldn’t tell you. Because I don’t know,” Thompson said.
USC is absolutely a contender, but so are Michigan and Cincinnati, with UCLA still in the mix as well. Thompson and Shepherd both stressed that the choice will come down to what Collier feels is the best fit for him and the program he’s joining and will be made on his terms and schedule.
“He is not picking a school because of a name or tradition or the city it’s in. That’s not what he’s about. When he makes his decision, he’s making it based on who has the pieces in place to help him and the team be successful,” Thompson said. “His best attribute is how he shares, and he knows that, so he wants to make that decision based on who is on the roster. It’s a very mature decision that he’s going to make in terms of not caring as much about himself, but the whole totality of a program and team.”
That’s good news for Miller and Cincinnati, who are still deep in the running for a prospect who would be the Bearcats’ highest-rated recruit of the 247Sports era and a potentially program-altering player as they gear up for a move to the Big 12 .
“That coaching staff has done an amazing job of recruiting Isaiah and AP for that matter, and have done a good job of blocking out the noise,” Shepherd said. “I can’t say where Isaiah will or will not go, but if he doesn’t pick Cincinnati, he won’t be because they didn’t recruit him in the correct manner.”
(Top photo courtesy of Arielle Holloway / @scottookit)