It wasn’t a celebratory mood, but Dane Kuiper or Mitch Lightfoot, two of Arizona’s top high school basketball players who also happen to be future Lobos, were still all smiles Tuesday after watching their future team get upset by their local team, Grand Canyon University.
Proudly decked out in Lobo gear at GCU Arena in Phoenix, both stuck around long after the game with their families to soak up any chance to be around the team they will be a part of down the road.
“Anytime I can see them play, it’s great,” said Kuiper, a 6-foot-7 senior guard at Tempe Corona Del Sol who has already signed his National Letter of Intent with the Lobos. “I didn’t think we played the best we could tonight, but GCU is getting better. Every game you lose, you can learn from. I love seeing them play and can’t wait to get to next year.”
Lightfoot, a 6-9 junior forward at Gilbert Christian, echoed the same sentiment. He said watching in person the team he has given a verbal commitment to play for in two years (players can not sign binding letters of intent until November of their senior season) only helps solidify his choice.
“It’s good to see the team and how they function together,” Lightfoot said. “Even though this was a tough loss, you learn more about yourselves in a loss than when you win. I just feel like this team is going to come together like they have in the past and come together and get stronger.”
Kuiper, ranked No. 1 in Arizona’s Class of 2015 by ESPN.com, and his Aztecs are 8-0 and considered the favorite to win a state title in their division. Lightfoot, ranked No. 2 in Arizona’s Class of 2016 by ESPN.com behind Mike Bibby, Jr., is currently awaiting a final decision on his eligibility for the season at Gilbert Christian, but for no matters that would affect future eligibility in college.
Lightfoot, who played last year at Tucson’s Ironwood Ridge High School, transferred to Gilbert Christian in May. His father’s job change required him to work four days a week in the Phoenix area and one in Tucson. Lightfoot and both of his younger brothers enrolled in Gilbert schools. Lightfoot even played at the beginning of the season before the Arizona Interscholastic Association began an inquiry into when Lightfoot started playing summer basketball with Arizona Power, the club team which involves Gilbert Christian coach Kurt Keener.
Because there is an association between Keener and Arizona Power, the AIA is trying to see if any recruiting violations occurred, though he was enrolled at the school before joining the club team. The AIA bylaw interpretation in question is whether both schools – Gilbert Christian and Ironwood Ridge – must sign off on the transfer before he played with Arizona Power over the summer. Contact with a coach before a transfer is finalized could mean Lighfoot is required to sit out a calendar year. Still, this is clearly more than a matter of a player transferring to a new school, considering his father changed jobs to a city an hour and 45 minutes northwest of Tucson and it also led to other siblings transferring schools.
“I’m just trying to do whatever it is I can to make my team better and focus on the future – on bigger and better things which is New Mexico,” Lighfoot said. “I realize this is just a bump in the path. … I’m saying my prayers.”
Both said the struggles of this season’s UNM team haven’t led to any doubts as each say they knew this was a season of transition with new players even before the injury bug hit.
“There’s been definitely a couple injuries that have really set us (the Lobos) back and we have guy redshirting,” Kuiper said. “I think that just makes the anticipation for me so much greater for next year knowing here are so many good players already there and we have three great freshmen coming in.”
Kuiper joins a highly-regarded Class of 2015 recruiting group of guard Anthony Mathis (Oregon) and Jordan Hunter (Texas), who have also already signed their letters of intent with UNM.