In Brazdeikis, Florida sees what could have been

Friday, March 22, 2019 - 6:48pm

Ignas Brazdeikis was recruited by Florida before deciding to play basketball for Michigan.

Ignas Brazdeikis was recruited by Florida before deciding to play basketball for Michigan. Buy this photo
Katelyn Mulcahy/Daily

DES MOINES, Iowa — Ignas Brazdeikis was in ninth grade the first time DeAndre Haynes saw him on tape. Maybe 10th. As an assistant coach at Kent State, part of Haynes’ responsibility was to recruit Canada, and Brazdeikis jumped off the tape.

The physical ability. The maturity. The eurosteps. “He’s just been different,” Haynes said, and that was clear even then.

Back when he played with the Golden Flashes from 2002-2006, Haynes watched Antonio Gates dominate practice to the point of personal distraction. When he saw Brazdeikis, the All-American forward and legendary NFL tight end came to mind.

“Antonio was tough to guard. You couldn’t guard him,” Haynes said. “He was a lefty. He could shoot. He could take it off the dribble. Iggy’s the same way. They just approached the game (like) they can’t be stopped.”

When Haynes called his contact up north to ask about Brazdeikis, he was told he had no chance. Brazdeikis was going high-major. A school like Florida, or a school like Michigan — which brings us to Friday afternoon in those two respective locker rooms, where one coaching staff lamented a loss and the other gave knowing looks, well aware of what they won.

Though the Gators made his final three, the recruitment wasn’t all that close in the end. Brazdeikis canceled his official visit to Florida after going to Ann Arbor, never stepping foot in Gainesville as a recruit. That won’t stop anyone involved from thinking about what could have been as he lines up for the Wolverines against the Gators in the second round of the NCAA Tournament on Saturday.

“He had a big-time reputation as a scorer (in high school),” said Florida assistant coach Jordan Mincy. “Especially at his size, he has a very unique skill set. And so, you obviously see that he’s a mismatch problem for different teams. But he could really shoot it. He could really score. And then he also played at the highest level as far as being on the EYBL circuit.

“So, you know what, Michigan got a steal.”

The comparisons flow freely. For Haynes, it’s Gates. For reporters, it seems to be Moritz Wagner, but John Beilein challenged that premise and says Nik Stauskas makes more sense to him. For Mincy, it’s Collin Sexton.

The common thread: Brazdeikis makes plays, and does so with an unorthodox level of confidence. It’s always been like that.

“Something that you look for as a coach is a guy who has confidence,” Mincy said. “A guy who spreads energy, not just through his words, but through his actions. That’s very rare that you find guys like that.”

To hear Brazdeikis tell it, Florida’s pitch wasn’t all that different from Michigan’s. He’d get an opportunity to play in a good system, under a staff that, according to Mincy, would have tried to use him like the Wolverines do.

But Michigan could offer Brazdeikis proximity to home — no small matter — and Beilein told Brazdeikis he’d play, but only if he was ready. If not, he’d sit.

“He wasn’t scared to say that at all,” Brazdeikis said. “I love that about him. He was really truthful.”

Beilein took the lead on the recruitment after Jeff Meyer left Michigan’s staff in the summer of 2017. The Michigan coach had already built a strong relationship with Brazdeikis, so Meyer’s departure didn’t change things much.

When Brazdeikis called Mike White to cancel his visit and inform Florida’s coach of his commitment to Michigan, it didn’t come as much of a surprise to the Gators’ staff.

“We knew they were gonna be hard to beat,” Mincy said. “Especially with a player of his caliber, and definitely his skillset and also being that close to Canada. Obviously that would be a very attractive place for him to attend.”

Still, when Haynes got hired in August 2017 amid the Wolverines’ staff reshuffling, things weren’t signed and sealed quite yet. He saw the Wolverines were in hot pursuit of Brazdeikis. And again, he made some calls.

“Hey, we got a chance with him?” he asked.

This time, the answer came back a resounding yes.