Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak boarded a private jet Monday, a flight that landed on a chilly airstrip at Walla Walla Regional Airport.
His latest recruiting trip – about 48 hours before facing Pac-12 leader Washington in Seattle – was inside a small, dome-shaped arena at Walla Walla Community College, the scene of North Idaho College’s 100-69 throttling of the Warriors.
Krystkowiak wasn’t there to visit NIC guard Nate Pryor, the former West Seattle High star who said he’s still committed to Washington.
He also wasn’t there to steal away NIC big man and Utah State commit Alphonso Anderson, a product of Seattle’s Garfield High.
Krystkowiak apparently wanted more face time with gifted 6-foot-4 guard RayQuan Evans, the reigning Northwest Athletic Conference Most Valuable Player.
Evans, one of three Native American guards helping boost the top-ranked Cardinals (24-2, 13-0 East Region), recently decommitted from Utah State.
Utah and Colorado are among the biggest schools pursuing him, Evans said.
“Utah State is a good program with a great coaching staff,” said Evans, who led NIC to an NWAC title last year. “But I’ve come this far, so why not try and go farther?”
If NIC coach Corey Symons didn’t make a late push for Evans two years ago, Evans said he’d likely be living at home in Billings and playing at Rocky Mountain College.
He’s now one of the most coveted junior college players in the country, according to JucoRecruiting.com – a distinction often reserved for metropolitan and overseas talent.
Evans, a member of the Crow Tribe, is neither.
The son of ex-Montana guard Israel Evans, RayQuan spent a portion of his childhood on the Crow Indian Reservation near Hardin, about an hour east of Billings.
Years later at Skyview High in Billings, Evans was among the most electrifying players in Montana, but he was still relatively unknown outside the state.
“There was a recruiting trip in Montana where a coach comes up to our staff and says, ‘You guys are idiots for being in this gym. You need to be in Billings’ ” Symons said.
“We didn’t see him in any big AAU tournaments, so we didn’t know who he was.”
Montana was also interested, Evans said, but he was an academic nonqualifier who wasn’t interested in sitting out a year in Missoula.
He would have likely made an immediate impact at Rocky, but Symons offered what the NAIA member couldn’t – the ability to showcase his talent to bigger schools as he got acclimated to a college curriculum.
“Now a lot of schools have been after him,” Symons said. “He’s big, strong and athletic. He can defend and do a lot of things.”
NIC point guard Phillip Malatare (9 ppg, 3 apg) and sharpshooter Emmitt Taylor III (14.5 ppg) are two other under-the-radar gems with Native American heritage.
Both grew up in tiny, hoops-rich reservation towns – Malatare in Arlee, Montana, and Taylor in Lapwai, Idaho, – and helped lead their respective schools to state championships.
Malatare, a crafty 6-foot-1 freshman, was also an academic nonqualifier who, like Evans, was offered to sit out a year at Montana. He was also coveted by about every small college in the state.
He wanted an opportunity to play immediately but also wasn’t ready to give up on his dream of Division I basketball.
“You see a lot of kids on the reservation and that’s as far as many of them make it,” said Malatare, who was featured in a lengthy New York Times article last year about the tragedy and triumphs of his Flathead Indian Reservation’s high school basketball team.
NIC also has a pair of Arlee alums in reserve guard Tyler Tanner and assistant coach Zach Camel, who played at Montana.
“Some may go on, but not usually,” Malatare said. “I wanted to go on, develop and have a chance to do better academically.”
Taylor echoed Malatare.
“A lot of people want to go back (to the reservation) or don’t want to leave,” said Taylor, who has hit 95 3-pointers this season. “But (Evans and Malatare) have helped give me a home-like feeling.”
Taylor, the cousin of Idaho guard Trevon Allen, is one the purest shooters in NIC’s history, according to Symons, and is on Cal State Bakersfield and Texas-Martin’s recruiting radar.
“It’s cool for us coaches to see these guys live their heritage here,” Symons said. “These guys are proud of where they’re from.”
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