The July evaluation period began Wednesday, which means coaches from every program in the nation will spend the next three weekends crisscrossing the country to scout top prospects at the summer's most prestigious grassroots events.
July is a critical recruiting month for every program, but for a handful of schools this year there's more at stake than usual. Here's a look at the five programs with the most on the line this month as they try to assemble their 2014 recruiting classes:
1. UCLA: If the biggest criticism of former coach Ben Howland was his inability to land elite-level California prospects late in his tenure, then this is new coach Steve Alford's first chance to prove he'll be more successful. The Bruins have at least five vacant scholarships and no commitments thus far but Alford has UCLA involved with numerous high-level prospects. The biggest priority for Alford is point guard, a position that has been a major weakness for UCLA since the departure of Darren Collison in 2009. Alford's top targets are Josh Perkins (No. 28, Rivals 150) and Jordan McLaughlin (No. 43) and a commitment from either this summer could be the lynchpin to a big class. The Bruins also project to only have two returning big men on their 2014-15 roster, so expect to see Alford and his staff put in plenty of time recruiting the likes of 6-foot-11 Myles Turner (No. 6), 6-7 Reid Travis (No. 40) and 6-8 Zylan Cheatham (No. 76).
2. Michigan State: Even though Michigan State is well-positioned to make another Final Four run next season, the Spartans likely need to replenish their roster via recruiting to remain nationally viable the following year. Point guard Keith Appling and forward Adreian Payne will graduate, while guard Gary Harris is likely to turn pro and wing Branden Dawson may be an early-entry candidate as well. The good news for Michigan State is Tom Izzo has the Spartans in good position with a handful of the nation's top recruits. They're among the numerous elite programs trying to land potential package deal of center Jahlil Okafor (No. 1) and guard Tyus Jones (No. 2). They're one of the favorites to nab highly touted forward Cliff Alexander (No. 4) out of Chicago. And they're involved with a half dozen other Rivals 150 prospects including wing Devin Booker (No. 27), point guard Tyler Ulis (No. 49) and forward Josh Cunningham (No. 69).
3. Minnesota: Any new coach faces pressure to make a splash with his first recruiting class, but the stakes are especially high for Richard Pitino. Three of the top 50 recruits in the country -- guards Tyus Jones (No. 2) and Rashad Vaughn (No. 7) and forward Reid Travis (No. 40) -- are all from Minnesota, a rarity for a state that isn't known for regularly producing elite basketball talent. It's not going to be easy for Pitino to fend off out-of-state suitors for any of those players, especially Jones and Vaughn, but you can bet the Gophers staff will not be outworked. They've also reportedly spent a ton of time recruiting guard Isaiah Whitehead of Brooklyn (No. 17) and another in-state product, guard J.P. Macura of Lakeville, Minn. (No. 126). A commitment from an elite guard would be especially critical for Minnesota because the Gophers already lost Joe Coleman to a transfer and lose three more guards after the 2013-14 season including standout Austin Hollins.
4. Duke: Of all the teams trying to get in position to land the potential package deal of Okafor, Jones and perhaps even forward Justice Winslow (No. 17), recruiting analysts believe Duke is probably in the best position. Okafor and Jones have said for months they intend to play together in college and both said recently they're confident Winslow is interested in joining them. That gives Duke a leg up because the Blue Devils are one of only a few schools recruiting all three players and they're thought to be the favorite to get Jones. Getting those three players in addition to the already committed Grayson Allen (No. 34) would keep Duke in the title hunt in the 2014-15 season whether underclassmen Jabari Parker, Rasheed Sulaimon and Rodney Hood remain another year or not. The Blue Devils aren't putting all their eggs in that basket, however, as they have interest in the likes of center Myles Turner (No. 6) and forward Kevon Looney (No. 11), among others.
5. Butler: The July evaluation period represents the first chance for newly promoted Butler coach Brandon Miller to prove he can maintain the momentum the Bulldogs built under Brad Stevens. Miller has to address any concerns recruits have about the departure of Stevens and then close the deal on a couple of the prospects the staff had targeted the past few months. One of the top priorities for Butler has been forward Trevon Bluiett (No. 40), an Indianapolis product whom Stevens had recruited himself. Bluiett's dad told the Indianapolis Star his son will still consider Butler, but the Bulldogs probably aren't in as strong a position as they once were. Guard J.P. Macura of Minnesota (No. 126) is another Butler target who will be a priority for Miller this month. The potential is still there for Butler to secure a very strong class, but it will be up to Miller to sell recruits on coming even with Stevens no longer part of the picture.