In the 24 hours since Jon Severe announced Wednesday evening that he would be attend Fordham next fall, the state of New York's reigning Mr. Basketball has heard one question more than any other.
None of the friends, family members or reporters who have asked Severe that question mean to be disrespectful. They're just genuinely curious why the Christ the King High School standout would choose a struggling program that is 8-72 in the Atlantic 10 the past five years over the likes of Pittsburgh, West Virginia, Wake Forest and Rutgers.
"I think I can make a big impact at Fordham," Severe explained Thursday. "I think I can do a lot to help turn around that program.
"I get to stay home and I was comfortable with the coaches. They were just real cool. They recruited me, but they recruited me in a smart way. They weren't telling me, 'come, come, come.' They got to know me more."
Severe won't make Fordham an instant Atlantic 10 contender, but his decision to join the Rams could be a turning point for coach Tom Pecora in his attempt to revitalize a program that hasn't reached the NCAA tournament since 1992. Fordham has finished in the bottom two in the Atlantic 10 each of Pecora's three seasons at the school, though a total of six league wins the past two seasons represents modest improvement since the Rams lost 41 consecutive conference games from Jan. 2009 to March 2011.
What makes Severe the most coveted recruit Pecora has signed is his ability to hit from the perimeter or finish at the rim. The 6-foot-2 shooting guard averaged 21.6 points per game as a senior in leading Christ the King to to the diocesan, city and state Federation Class AA titles, cracking Rivals.com's top 150 for the first time in the process.
One factor that aided Fordham in its quest to land Severe is that high-profile out-of-state programs didn't find out how good he was until the Brooklyn native was a senior. Severe came off the bench much of his high school career, only blossoming into a coveted national recruit once he was no longer playing behind George Mason's Corey Edwards, Marist's T.J. Curry and UConn's Omar Calhoun.
Pecora and assistant coach David Duke began building a relationship with Severe early in his high school career, but they intensified their pursuit the past few months as it became clear he was a potential impact recruit who had real interest in Fordham. What the Rams lacked in gleaming facilities or national TV appearances they made up for with the ability to offer Severe a high-quality education, immediate playing time and the chance to play through mistakes early in his career.
"He knows he'll play a lot right away at Fordham, and those other schools I don't think that's clearly defined," Christ the King coach Joe Arbitello said. "If he came out there and he was great, those guys would have been like, 'Yeah, we knew all along.' But if he didn't live up to expectations, they'd just try to find a better guard next year. At Fordham, he's a priority. He has the ability to change that program."
Those close to Severe weren't terribly surprised he showed interest Fordham because this isn't the first time he has gone against the grain.
Whereas other elite New York-area players would have transferred because they weren't being showcased early in their high school careers, Severe showed loyalty to Christ the King and remained patient until his senior year. Whereas other prospects often sample the nightlife at their potential colleges when they go on official visits, Severe spent his evenings at the gym. And whereas other recruits are swayed by a program's pedigree or facilities, it was more important to Severe to stay close to his grandmother and the rest of his support system.
The one thing Severe's coaches wanted to make sure he understood before he chose to go to Fordham was how big a challenge it would be to lead a turnaround there. This is a Fordham program that has escaped last place in the Atlantic 10 only once since Severe was in seventh grade, meaning there is a good chance a kid who has known nothing but winning in high school will endure some losing early in his college career.
It was easy for Shandue McNeill to offer some advice because the director of the New York Lightning AAU program chose St. Bonaventure in the mid-1990s for the same reasons Severe was considering Fordham. McNeill liked the idea of reinvigorating an in-state school that had struggled, but he found it tougher than he expected, only experiencing one winning season in his four years with the Bonnies.
"I had the opportunity to go to higher-level schools too, so there were a lot of parallels," McNeill said. "What I told Jon that I regret is I didn't actively recruit my peers when I could have done it. I could have brought some help along with me. But my game was different than Jon's. Jon is a scorer. I wasn't a scorer. He needed to go somewhere where he could score, make some mistakes and still be on the floor. I needed other guys around, so I could help elevate their games."
Severe took the advice of his coaches and family members into account, but in the end it was him who made the final decision.
He felt comfortable with Duke and Pecora. He liked the idea of attending college in his hometown. And he's confident he can help Fordham improve enough right away that other top New York-area players will be interested in joining him at the school and helping him rejuvenate the program.
During Severe's visit to Fordham in mid-February, he attended the Rams' home game against Atlantic 10 contender Butler.
"Fordham lost by only a couple points," Severe said. "I was like, 'Imagine if I was there. I could have made an impact.'"
Next winter he'll have that chance.
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