St. Augustine standout Craig Victor pledges to Arizona

Craig Victor milked the suspense for at least a minute before the now routine process of tugging on a hat indicating his collegiate destination.

After a minute of mulling which cap to don, the former St. Augustine forward and top-40 prospect lifted a navy Arizona lid from the table and slipped it on, leaving the purple one with lattered LSU in gold resting on a crisp tablecloth Saturday.

The Tigers made a concerted push to get back into the mix for the 6-7, 205-pound prospect, who is rated as the No. 31 player in the nation by Rivals, but ultimately couldn’t close ground on the prohibitive favorite in a revived Wildcats program.

“It was hell close,” said Victor, who picked Arizona over LSU and Oklahoma State. “I was looking at that hat, and I just want to go back to the fan support. People back home root for you the hardest.”

The decision came as Victor wanted to wind down his recruitment before his senior season begins, one where he will head west to Nevada to play for high school power Findlay Prep after a junior season where he posted 14.1 points and 11.3 rebounds per game.

If anything, Victor’s recent moves reflect a concerted goal: A fast track to the NBA ranks.

“His whole focus has really changed into, ‘I want to be better,” said Greg Holmes, who coached Victor for the New Orleans Elite AAU program. ‘ “I need to be better.’ By him being on the (grassroots) circuit and going to all these (elite) camps and stuff, he knows he can be just as good as those guys.

The same logic applied for Arizona, which has had six players drafted since 2008, including Derrick Williams in 2011, along with Solomon Hill and Grant Jerrett in June. And it coincides with the hiring of coach Sean Miller in 2009. Over the past three seasons, the Wildcats have reeled in three consecutive top-five signing classes, and seemed poised to do it again.

“The proof is in the pudding,” said Victor, who committed at an awards banquet for the Elite.

A local connection helped sway Victor to Arizona, too. Former UNO coach Joe Pasternack has been on Miller’s staff since 2011, and served as a prime conduit along with Miller and assistant coach Damon Stoudamire.

“He drove home the point of what Craig could become,” Elite coach Greg Holmes said of Pasternack. “It wasn’t a promise, but if he puts in the work that they expect, then he can be successful. Every kid’s goal is the NBA, but Craig feels Arizona can give him that.”

Yet LSU made a concerted push down the stretch to keep Victor in his home state.

It started in May, when LSU coach Johnny Jones brought former UCLA assistant coach Korey McCray aboard his staff to replace Robert Kirby, who left for Memphis. Importantly, McCray, who served as head of the vaunted Atlanta Celtics AAU program before landing in Westwood, had been the lead recruiter trying to woo Victor to the Bruins.

“When they went and got coach McCray, they were really trying to tell me something.,” Victor said. “I know he’s probably upset, but at the same time he’s like family to me. At the end of the day, he’ll understand when we talk about it later.”

Landing Victor’s services would have been an obvious boon for the Tigers, who used the similar commitment from current freshman Jarell Martin — a five-star prospect and McDonald’s All-American — as a cornerstone for a six-man signing class that landed in the nation’s top 10.

“I knew LSU was in the rebuilding stage, and they have some parts,” Holmes said. “But a lot of those parts were in his position. Until the last hour, he still had LSU on his mind.”

Ultimately, though, Victor took the long view, and it ends in Tuscon.