One evening earlier this month, Cabot High School coach Jerry Bridges’ phone buzzed with a text from senior forward Matt Stanley.
“He told me, ‘I’ve just been offered by Memphis,'” Bridges said. “I went, ‘Wow, really?'”
The late scholarship offer from such a prominent program was a surprise to Bridges because Stanley hadn’t received much interest from other Division I programs. Miami (Ohio), SIU Edwardsville and a handful of other small-conference schools had all kept tabs on the skilled 6-foot-8 stretch forward, but Stanley committed to Division II Ouachita Baptist earlier this year because none of the Division I programs pulled the trigger with a scholarship offer.
Bridges’ first inkling that Memphis might be interested in Stanley came via a voicemail that Memphis assistant Saul Smith left on his office phone the Friday before Cabot High’s spring break. The high school coach did not get that message until 10 days later and he said he played phone tag with Smith thereafter.
For a couple weeks, Stanley weighed the pros and cons of going to a little-known Division II school that had been recruiting him for years or a nationally renowned Division I program that only began showing interest out of desperation after six players transferred in the past month. In the end, Stanley made the mature and practical choice, signing with Ouachita Baptist on Wednesday afternoon.
— AFA (@arkansasfit) April 19, 2017
“Matt told me, ‘There’s so much uncertainty going on at Memphis, I just feel good about OBU,'” Bridges said. “I said, ‘Well heck, go to OBU. Don’t get caught up in D-I or D-II. Do what you feel is best. The bottom line is you’re the one who has to wake up the next day and live with the decision you just made.’ He knows what he’s getting going to Ouachita. I think that played a big role in it.”
Exactly how interested Memphis ever was in Stanley has since become a point of contention.
Embattled Memphis coach Tubby Smith and his staff faced ridicule via social media on Wednesday night for losing a recruit to a Division II program in Arkansas that went 14-14 last year. The Tigers appear to have responded by leaking to local media that they had never offered Stanley a scholarship in the first place.
I'm told Stanley was never offered a scholly by Memphis. Tubby never saw or talked to him; had no intentions to offer him – and I believe it
— L. Jason Smith (@JasonSmith929) April 20, 2017
On Stanley. His people say offered. Memphis people say wasn't. Both have reason to say that. Nobody denies Tigers fishing in Div. 2 waters.
— Geoff Calkins (@geoff_calkins) April 20, 2017
It’s difficult to fully ascertain the truth because there’s evidence on both sides.
On one hand, Memphis clearly didn’t put on a full-court press to land Stanley. He never visited campus and the Tigers staff doesn’t appear to have vehemently pursued him recently.
On the other hand, Stanley has no reason to lie about receiving a scholarship offer. He was happily committed to Ouachita Baptist then and he happily signed with the Tigers on Wednesday.
On April 5, Stanley tweeted that he had received a scholarship offer from Memphis. Two days later he described the offer as “a total shock” to the Memphis Commercial Appeal. And on Thursday, his father Jim confirmed to the Commercial Appeal that he had a scholarship offer from Memphis in writing.
Matt Stanley's father Jim emailed this morning to clarify: "Matt was offered a scholarship. We have it in writing. The timing was just bad."
— Mark Giannotto (@mgiannotto) April 20, 2017
Even if there was some confusion and Memphis either didn’t intend to offer Stanley a scholarship or retracted the offer soon afterward, the Tigers still badly mishandled this situation. They should have known how bad it would look when he signed with a Division II school and delicately sent out word to local reporters that an offer hadn’t actually been extended.
Whether Memphis got out-recruited by a Division II program or simply made another public relations blunder, this much is undeniably true. Tubby Smith and his staff are desperate enough for warm bodies after losing seven of their top nine players that they showed interest in and a player no other Division I program deemed worthy of a scholarship offer.
Bridges sincerely believes Stanley is a Division I-caliber prospect. After all, this is a kid who helped lead Cabot to an Arkansas state title as a junior, toppling Malik Monk-led Bentonville High in the championship game.
But even Bridges acknowledges Stanley isn’t ready to play in the American Athletic Conference right now. Stanley is young for his grade and needs a couple years to add muscle and further develop his game.
“He would be good enough to play at Memphis. It just wouldn’t be next year,” Bridges said. “He’s two days away from where he would be a senior next year, and boy do I wish his mother would have had 48 hours of extra labor. I’d love to have him back one more year.”
One thing Bridges is confident about is that Stanley is being truthful about Memphis extending a scholarship offer earlier this month.
“He is honest to goodness the best teammate of any player I’ve ever coached. He’s just a hell of a kid,” Bridges said. “Tubby Smith runs a good program and he’s been successful everywhere he’s been. I just think they were late on the draw to be honest. Matt was very comfortable with Ouachita Baptist already.”
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