Has Markus Howard become the canary in the coal mine?
The highly-prized recruit from Perry High School in Gilbert gave his verbal commitment last August to the Arizona State basketball program, but eight days ago notified head coach Herb Sendek that he has decided to de-commit to allow him to re-evaluate his options that have greatly increased after a sophomore season in which he averaged 32.4 points a game.
He has two more years left to make a college choice – and that could still come back around to ASU.
But, like the canary, you have to question whether his decision to step back away from the Sun Devil program will become a warning sign for others considering coming to Tempe. Did Howard pull his commitment because he was concerned about the viability of the basketball program?
The term “canary in a coal mine” refers to decades-old lore about miners bringing a caged canary into the coal mines with them since the birds were particularly sensitive to methane and carbon monoxide gases. As long as the bird kept singing, they knew they were safe. If the bird died, it was a signal that something terrible was happening and everybody would head for daylight.
Howard’s decision to de-commit might not lead to a bigger evacuation in the program, but it does cause concern. Not just because he is an elite-level athlete that could help the program down the road, but also because he is yet another local standout that may be heading out of state.
On a recent segment of the local radio talk show, Arizona Sports 98.7 FM, Arizona State’s new athletic director Ray Anderson emphasized the importance of attracting local athletes to the school’s sports programs. “You don’t want your best players – men and women – to be going to other institutions, and certainly not going out of state,” he said following questions about Sendek’s future.
He hit the nail on the head when he added, “And then, if you’re able to keep them from your own backyard, then people are more convinced that you’re a worthy place to come to.” And that’s the problem with a high-profile recruit like Howard deciding he made a mistake by committing to your program.
And it comes at a particularly bad time, since Howard is just one of three of the best prep players Arizona has seen in a long time, and they’re all in the process of picking a college. The other two also have time to consider their choices. Marvin Bagley III is a 6’11” freshman and Alex Barcello is a sophomore point guard, both playing for basketball powerhouse Corona del Sol High School, which just won its fourth straight Division I state championship.
Barcello averaged 20 points a game this season and was named the big-schools Player of the Year.
Bagley is already considered by numerous recruiting sites to be the No. 1 prospect in the 2018 class. And his grandfather is one of ASU’s biggest stars of the past, Jumpin’ Joe Caldwell, a 6’5″ guard/small forward who played his college career at ASU and then went on to 11 years in the NBA, selected twice as an All Star.
The question is, would grandpa Joe encourage his own flesh and blood to enroll at ASU?
It’s hard to tell, considering how inconsistent the program has been as Sendek has spent the last nine seasons trying unsuccessfully to build the program into a competitive force on a national level, a shortcoming that has been made even more glaring by the success of its rival to the south, the University of Arizona Wildcats. The Cats have pulled together top-10 recruiting classes each of the last five years, went to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament last year, and are in the Sweet 16 right now.
ASU, with a 17-15 record at the close of the regular season, got an invitation to play in the NIT and a No. 5 seeding. They lost yesterday in a second-round game with top-seeded Richmond, 76-70, in an overtime period that provided fans with a disappointing, albeit thrilling, end to the season.
But the fans have gone home now, the players are clearing out their lockers… and Ray Anderson is left with the lonely task of deciding whether his head coach is the guy that is going to be able to bring Howard back into the fold – and maybe even close the deal on the other two top local prospects.
Of course, while Anderson has to be the person to pull the trigger and make a tough decision, he has plenty of help. There is a growing contingent among the fan base that wants to see some major changes made in the direction of the program.
Howard has made it very clear that his decision to de-commit has nothing to do with the coaching staff, which he holds in high regard. He just felt it was too early to commit after his freshman season, when it based too much on emotion alone. He averaged 26.5 points a game that year, but Northern Arizona was the only other school giving him serious consideration. He says the Sun Devils will continue to be included in future considerations.
But the canary has already died. And, unfortunately, the other prospects considering ASU have noticed.
(Photo: ASU Athletics)