Jeremiah Francis was more than two years away from playing in his first high-school basketball game when college coaches began asking about him.

Jeremiah Francis was more than two years away from playing in his first high-school basketball game when college coaches began asking about him.

Some of them remembered him as a baby, given that they knew his father, former Ohio State standout Jerry Francis. But their interest hardly was token, in the same sense Francis' early success was not an aberration.

Now a 6-foot-2 sophomore point guard on the Pickerington Central boys team, Francis has worked his way into the thick of a group of talented underclassmen in central Ohio. Francis is the second-ranked sophomore in the state, according to 247sports.com, and currently has offers from Detroit Mercy, Ohio University, Purdue and West Virginia while weighing interest from other big-time programs, including Indiana and Ohio State.

Only Gahanna forward Jordan Mitchell is ranked higher among sophomores.

"I don't really pay attention to it. If I happen to get some attention, I let it go right by me," Francis said. "When coaches started asking about me, it gave me a confidence boost and a glimpse of what I can possibly be in the future. It is more of a confidence boost. At least at that age, it was. It provides a lot of motivation to keep grinding and see where the journey leads me."

Several coaches and other observers of central Ohio boys basketball agree the area might be seeing its best underclassmen in years.

Other highly touted sophomores include Westerville North guard Jeremiah Keene and Upper Arlington forward Max Martz.

UA forward Dane Goodwin leads a junior class that also includes Pickerington North forwards Jerome Hunter and Eli McNamara and Hilliard Bradley guards Braden Norris and Isaiah Speelman. All are drawing high Division I attention, but the only player in the group to have committed is Goodwin, who did so to Ohio State before his freshman season.

A deep freshman class includes Bradley guard Matt Allocco, Dublin Coffman point guard Dominiq Penn and Pickerington Central guard Josiah Fulcher.

Verbal commitments are non-binding. Players can sign national letters of intent no earlier than November of their senior year.

Mitchell, who was ranked 29th nationally among sophomores by ESPN as of Dec. 16, already has been offered by Florida, Iowa, Ohio State and Xavier and reportedly has interest from Indiana, Michigan and West Virginia.

Coffman coach Jamey Collins cited the area's continual population growth as one reason why central Ohio has such a bumper crop of talent.

"So many communities are continuing to grow, and there is a big emphasis on sports in a lot of areas," Collins said. "The thing with Dominiq is he's still 14 years old. He easily could be in the eighth grade. He still needs to grow up and mature like any other kid, and there's no need to speed up that process. He's mature enough to play well against guys two and three years older than him and he's handled the attention well, but he's still 14 years old."

According to Collins, Penn's only offer so far is from Stony Brook, whose coach is former Ohio State assistant Jeff Boals. Penn, whose father is former Buckeyes point guard Scoonie Penn, averaged 19 points through his first four games.

"One of the things we say is tune out the noise," said Westerville South coach Ed Calo, whose defending Division I state championship team is led by a Ohio State signee in center Kaleb Wesson, 247sports.com's second-ranked senior in the state. "Just focus in on getting better because you can't have a good tomorrow unless you take care of the moment and sometimes somebody might get lost in all the attention.

"That's their job, that's what they have to do. I understand it, but some kids lose their focus and as a result don't develop as well as they should. That's not going to change. People are going to continue to recruit young."

Underclassmen did not always get this kind of attention, however.

Calo recalled that Jermaine Guice, a 1990 South graduate who went on to play for Butler University and professionally for 14 seasons in minor leagues and overseas, was not recruited until his senior season.

Jerry Francis, who scored 1,486 points at Ohio State from 1985-89 and coached Pickerington Central to the Division I state championship in 2012, said his future partly was determined by a sports report on the nightly news during his senior year at Wehrle. Ranked third in the state among centers that season, Francis said his college decision hinged on the destinations of Cincinnati Withrow's Ricky Calloway and Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary's Jerome Lane.

Calloway chose Indiana and Francis heard on television that Lane committed to Pittsburgh.

"I saw that at 11:20 one night, and I got a call from a coach at OSU about 25 minutes later telling me I had until tomorrow morning to make a decision," Francis said. "I was crying all night. I had offers from (Ohio University) and UNC-Charlotte and my dad asked what was wrong. I told him what was wrong and he slapped me back in the head when he found out Ohio State was involved. I just didn't know if I had the skills to play there being from Division IV."

Jeremiah Francis said he does not plan to commit until the beginning of his junior year next fall, "just to get it done early and get it off my chest."

"It is all about a feeling; the right fit," Jerry Francis said. "It has to be the right fit academically and basketball-wise. Basketball is another blessing on top of that."

The 6-5 Goodwin committed to Ohio State on Dec. 1, 2014, four days before his first high-school game and five weeks after he was offered by Buckeyes coach Thad Matta. It was the earliest commitment to Matta's program since B.J. Mullins verbally committed as a freshman at Harvest Prep in 2004.

"It was a comfort thing," said Goodwin, who until Aug. 27 was the Buckeyes' only commit for the class of 2018. "I was not sure I really wanted to go through that recruiting process and handle every game knowing things could change if I didn't play too well this game or play well another game."

Goodwin now fills something of an advisory role for the 6-5 Martz, who already has been offered by Western Carolina and is drawing interest from Davidson, Nebraska, Northwestern and Ohio University, among others. Martz's father, Mike, played for Nebraska from 1984-87.

"I will have to show him the ropes and teach him how to be more of a scorer, more of a better teammate and the little things that go along with that," Goodwin said. "If he gets those things down, he will be a heck of a player."

Pickerington Central coach Eric Krueger said he and his staff generally focus on senior players' recruitment, largely because their commitment is more immediate.

"(An early commitment) is not a bad thing," Krueger said. "We encourage kids to take their time and evaluate all the schools who are really interested. Those scenarios are rare, but they do happen."

dpurpura@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekDave