Jarace Walker and March Madness: Title run coming for York County star, Houston Cougars
Jarace Walker will attempt to win his second national championship since leaving York County.
He will help lead the No. 1 Houston Cougars into the NCAA Tournament this week − his first and almost certainly only appearance in March Madness.
Walker is not only regarded as one of the top freshmen in the nation, he's expected to head to the NBA in June as a Top 10 lottery pick in the draft.
For now, the 6-foot-8, 240-pound forward is the most diverse talent on the team that's favored to win the national championship.
The Cougars (31-3) are the No. 1 seed in the Midwest Region − despite being upset by Memphis in Sunday's American Athletic Conference championship game. They begin play Thursday vs. No. 16 Northern Kentucky (22-12) in Birmingham, Alabama. It's the fifth straight NCAA appearance for the Cougars.
A likely victory will send them against the winner of Iowa-Auburn on Saturday. (Penn State, by the way, is a No. 10 seed in the Midwest Region).
The Final Four, coincidentally enough, will be held in Houston (March 31-April 3).
Walker grew up in New Freedom but left the Southern York County School District after the eighth grade (He did play one season for the Susquehannock freshman team). He attended the prestigious IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida − promptly helping the Ascenders win a national title as a freshman.
He was rated as the nation's top high school forward last year by ESPN, then chose to attend the University of Houston and learn under legendary coach Kelvin Sampson.
Why he's so good, so fast:How college life flies fast for Jarace Walker: Is the NBA calling in June?
He's been a regular starter for a team that's resided in the top five all season. He pulled down a dozen rebounds in his first college game, scored 23 points in his second and has gradually built his overall game since.
His numbers aren't flashy − averaging 11 points and 6.6 rebounds per game. But he is a deft passer, a good 3-point shooter (34.4 percent) and owns muti-position versatility. He recently was named AAC freshman of the year.
"He's a big dude doing a lot of guard-like things," junior point guard Jamal Shead told Chron.com. "He surprises me a lot every day."
Sampson recently told reporters he's long known how Walker intended to leave for the NBA after just one college season, "since the day I signed him."
What seems to impress NBA scouts most now? He owned the fifth-best defensive rating (86.3) in the NCAA, heading into the AAC tournament.
NBA analyst Christopher Kline wrote in a recent draft report for FanSided.com: "Walker has the strength and quickness to guard all five positions, and not just theoretically. He’s constantly toggling between different spots on the floor, mirroring guards move for move on the perimeter or stifling big men in the post. He takes immense pride in his ability to get stops. Walker could be one of the league’s top defenders sooner than later."
Walker has steadily moved up NBA draft projections and now seems likely to be chosen in the first five to seven picks on June 22 in New York City. 247Sports, for example, predicts him to be the fifth pick in the draft, going to the Orlando Magic.
He would be only the third NBA draft pick with strong ties to York County, following Red Land's Del Beshore in 1979 and Mark Hendrickson in 1996.
Walker has pushed Houston's most promising postseason run since future NBA hall of famers Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon led the Cougars to the cusp of a title 40 years ago.
Frank Bodani covers sports for the York Daily Record and USA Today Network. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @YDRPennState.