By Carter Chapley
St. Louis, MO
“Billiken Blessed” read the caption attached to Orlando native Markhi Strickland’s Instagram post, along with the line “100% committed”, and with that, the Bills can officially add one piece to their future puzzle. The commitment comes just three days after the 6’6” high school senior visited SLU and Chaifetz Arena, being in attendance for Billiken Madness Friday night.
After having misses with a handful of local recruits it was ultimately a different kind of close connection that got Travis Ford and his staff their guy. Markhi attended High School at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida before transferring to Victory Rock Prep just up the road in Sarasota. Victory Rock is a relatively new prep program to IMG, but it has deep ties to the national powerhouse. Loren Jackson, the founder and Head Coach of Victory Rock Prep was previously a coach at IMG before leaving to start his own program. Conveniently enough, newest Billiken assistant coach Ford Stuen, who attended IMG as a high schooler, was coached by Jackson while in Bradenton. That relationship was instrumental in the Billikens getting a commitment out of Strickland.
The Florida native comes from a family with a major basketball pedigree. His father, Mark Strickland, played in the NBA for nine seasons in addition to eight seasons of professional ball in Europe and Asia. Most recently, Mark Strickland was the head coach of the Oshawa Power of the National Basketball League of Canada, a team that eventually was converted to the Raptors 905 of the NBA G-League.
Markhi comes as a bit of a dark horse prospect, he isn’t featured in national recruiting profiles and there hasn’t been a ton written about him. That being said, the term “Late Bloomer” is an apt one here. A growth spurt and a solid showing early in 2019 lead to him making a major jump and getting attention from Division One schools. Due to the fact he wasn’t initially regarded as a top prospect, the attention that would normally come from the previously mentioned recruiting outlets simply never came. But, his list of eventual suitors speaks for just how coveted this under the radar player was. Georgia, LSU, Mississippi State, Arkansas, Loyola-Marymount, and New Mexico State all made themselves available to Markhi, but he ultimately chose SLU. That is excellent company to beat for Travis Ford and his staff.
On the court, Markhi is a fascinating prospect. A 6’6” wing player who can play and guard multiple positions due to his long and solid frame, as well as premier athletic ability. He can handle the ball well, has solid vision, and is quickly developing a solid to good shooting touch. The Billiken coaching staff also feels like he is still growing and can continue to improve his versatility due to that. What he does excellently is jump out of the gym and finish at the rim. Billiken fans can look forward to high flying offense next year when Markhi is added to a team who already feature above the rim marvels like Terrence Hargrove Jr and Hasahn French.
The one issue that stands out about his game is his motor. Strickland has a tendency to take plays or series off. This could be a problem in an up-tempo and highly demanding Travis Ford program. That being said, the coaching staff is excited about the upside Strickland brings and is confident he is worth the gamble.
After the commitment was announced, a source close to the program told me “Once he figures out how to get his motor going constantly, he could be a super talent. (Markhi) has every bit of potential to be a future A10 player of the year type of guy. Just has to play hard all of the time and the sky is the limit.” High praise for a player who is relatively unknown on the national recruiting stage. Though, once Strickland made a physical transformation Power 5 conference schools did come looking, so it is not as if he was completely overlooked. Clearly, that potential was seen by others and the commitment stands as a potential major steal for Travis Ford and the Billikens.
The Billikens have long sought a “bridge recruit”. A player who can help string together multiple classes of success to help develop the sustained success programs like Butler, Creighton, VCU, Dayton, and Wichita State have seen. To reach the heights these programs have; multiple consecutive NCAA tournament appearances and wins are a must. This is Travis Ford’s first opportunity to make that move and the staff feels like Markhi could be part of that bridge class that makes the leap.
As it stands right now, the Billikens are now left with just one scholarship remaining for the 2020 season. The plan for that final scholarship remains to be seen. The Billikens could opt to simply acquire the best player they can, they could try to nail down a specific position to fit their needs long term, or they could wait and hold on to that scholarship through the season and prioritize a Graduate Transfer to add to what would be a veteran roster in an effort to make a major national push. The best recruit available plan could see a player like Jayden Stone, an Australian native playing at Sunrise Christian in Wichita Kansas, who is an ESPN Top 100 player who has already visited SLU. The positional focus would surely come down to prioritizing a true Power Forward to supplement Hasahn French, who would be in his senior season, and the Grad Transfer market would be a mystery until March or later.
Inevitably one of those paths will make itself clear. But for now, Billiken fans can celebrate the addition of a player who, at the very least, is a solid piece to a developed roster. But if the coaching staff is to be believed, he could be the coveted bridge recruit that could help lead the next generation of Bills players into the future.
Only time will tell.