In April, Jay Wright, the men’s basketball coach at Villanova, worried the coronavirus pandemic would hurt his ability to recruit players from next year’s high school class.
Because coaches could not watch players in person or have them visit their campuses that month, Wright was not sure how he and his staff would be able to properly evaluate the athletes.
“If it affects us and hurts us a little bit, so what?” Wright said in April. “Suck it up. There’s a lot more important things going on in our world right now.”
Three months later, his fears seem almost quaint.
After two recent verbal commitments, Wright and his staff now have four rising seniors committed and thus the No. 1 recruiting class for 2021, according to the recruiting website 247Sports.com. They include players who could start in the future: point guard Angelo Brizzi of Virginia, shooting guard Jordan Longino of Pennsylvania, small forward Trey Patterson of New Jersey and the big man Nnanna Njoku of Delaware. Under Wright, Villanova has won two of the last four N.C.A.A. championships, and these players are eager to be a part of the growing tradition.
“We don’t have A.A.U. this year, and normally we would be traveling and focusing on games,” Patterson, out of Rutgers Preparatory School, said Tuesday in a phone interview. “But because of the pandemic, me and my family, we’ve had more time to talk to schools and evaluate programs, so I think that kind of expedited the process.”
In a normal summer, Patterson and many of the other top high school prospects would be out playing this month at the Nike Peach Jam in North Augusta, S.C., or at other events across the nation trying to impress coaches and attract scholarship offers.
Now, with tournaments largely canceled because of the virus and the N.C.A.A. imposing a dead period for recruiting through at least August, Patterson verbally committed on June 18 and plans to sign his letter of intent in the fall.
Several other schools are also benefiting. Baylor, Butler, Ohio State, Southern California, Louisville, Michigan and Florida State each had three players committed for 2021 as of Wednesday.
“What’s really pushed up the whole recruiting process is the pandemic because kids are uncertain as to whether they’re ever going to be able to make paid visits to these schools, so they’ve had these virtual visits,” Tom Konchalski, a longtime recruiting expert, said in a phone interview. “Obviously, that doesn’t give them as much of a feel for the team, the campus, the coach, the players and the whole culture of the school as if they took a visit when school was actually in session. But it’s better than nothing.”
Jeff Ngandu, a Canadian big man originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo, pledged to Seton Hall in May for the 2020-21 season without ever having visited the New Jersey school. Saquan Singleton similarly committed in April for 2020 to New Mexico out of Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College. Both stayed in touch with their future coaching staffs through videoconferencing and phone calls.
“Unfortunately, I couldn’t get to see the visit but I just felt the love and the connection,” Singleton said.
Jordan Riley, a rising senior guard at Brentwood High School on Long Island, committed on Friday to Georgetown after only a one-hour visit to the university this month with his father, Monty. They were not able to see any students or meet with the basketball team because the campus was closed. They did not even let Georgetown’s coach, Patrick Ewing, and his staff know they were on campus.
Yet the visit — along with Ewing’s recruiting message on a daily basis — was enough to make the 6-foot-4, 185-pound guard pledge to the Hoyas over Kansas, Florida State, Connecticut and St. John’s. He had visited St. John’s and UConn, but was unable to visit the other campuses.
“I saw the campus, I saw what I liked and I’m just ready to go there,” Riley said of Georgetown.
Monty Riley said he wanted to speed up the process because he was being overwhelmed with calls that he normally would not have received in a nonpandemic year.
“It was just too many phone calls,” Monty Riley said. “One day I got 30 phone calls. And I’m working. I made him shorten his list and made him go on from there.”
Rising seniors and incoming college freshmen aren’t the only ones committing during the pandemic.
Emoni Bates, the No. 1 prospect in the class of 2022 out of Michigan, verbally committed to Michigan State last month, more than two years before he will play his first college basketball game.
That could change if Bates reclassifies into the 2021 class. And if the N.B.A.’s one-and-done rule is collectively bargained away by 2022, Bates, who has been compared to a young Kevin Durant, could just enter the N.B.A. draft in 2022 and skip college altogether. He could also forgo college, and make money, by entering the G-League’s pro pathway program for elite prospects.
For now, though, his college decision has been made.
“The pandemic had no influence over the timing of our Michigan State decision,” Elgin Bates, Emoni’s father, said in a text message. “We just chose to let it be known what we’ve been thinking since seventh grade at this time. There was no point in waiting or wasting anyone’s time recruiting.”
Michigan State landed a second pledge in the junior class this week when center Enoch Boakye verbally pledged to Coach Tom Izzo’s team.
Some college coaches and others in the game believe there could be another downside to these early commitments besides players changing their minds before officially signing. They’re bracing for more transfers — an interesting prospect considering there are already more than 1,000 players in the N.C.A.A. transfer portal.
Patterson feels the early commitment will help Villanova and his future teammates in the long run, giving them more time to get to know one another and understand what they will expect from each other.
“It’s good that we’re almost done with our class now and we have the opportunity to build relationships with each other over this next year before we come in and build a relationship with the coaches even more as well,” he said. “So everybody’s pretty much on the same page.”