Late last October, at UC Irvine's basketball media day, Coach Bill Mulligan was asked to evaluate his recruiting season.
"There are a few guys I wish we would have gotten," he said. "Tommy Lewis is one of them. I think we could have found room for him."
Thursday, Mulligan officially began clearing space.
Lewis, the former Mater Dei High School standout who spent a turbulent freshman year at USC, announced Thursday that he is transferring to UC Irvine, one of the schools that lost out in a heated recruiting battle for him 13 months ago.
Lewis' announcement lacked some of the suspense and surprise of his decision to attend USC after a storied career at Mater Dei. UC Irvine has been considered the leader in Round 2 of the Lewis Derby since Lewis announced three weeks ago that USC Athletic Director Mike McGee had given him permission to transfer.
"I just felt that Orange County had been pretty good to me during my high school career, and I decided I wanted to stay here," Lewis said. "I really like Coach Mulligan. . . . He's been straightforward with me. And I'm close with a lot of the players there."
The list of other schools in the running for Lewis reads a little like a projected NCAA Final Four: Kentucky, Syracuse, Maryland and Wake Forest. Lewis said the University of Texas at El Paso, Pepperdine and Loyola Marymount--where former USC teammates Bo Kimble and Hank Gathers ransferred--also were considered.
Mulligan has made it a practice to keep a scholarship or two available for transfers, and has benefited from it in recent years. Four of the five starters for UCI's first game last season began their collegiate careers at other four-year schools. The four included Johnny Rogers, who led the Anteaters in scoring and rebounding. Lewis, like Rogers, will give Mulligan something he'd like more of: a high-profile player out of Orange County.
"To my knowledge, he's the best (prep) player ever to come out of Orange County," Mulligan said. "I'm convinced that good Orange County kids should go to school here. We get some of them, we just don't get them right away."
Barring a dramatic change of plans, Mulligan will have to wait a year to see Lewis take the court. There had been speculation that Lewis would appeal in an attempt to be eligible to play next season, instead of sitting out a year in accordance with the NCAA rule on transfers.
"That's not our intent at all," Mulligan said. "It'll be great for him to be a regular student for a year . . . to just practice and get some of the pressure off of him."
Lewis, a 6-7 forward, led USC in scoring last year, averaging 17.6 points a game. After the season, he and three USC teammates met with McGee to tell him they would consider transferring if Stan Morrison's successor as USC coach was not from the West Coast. Iowa Coach George Raveling was appointed to succeed Morrison on March 27.
Raveling said he gave the players until April 25 to decide whether they would return to USC next season. On April 28, Raveling informed Lewis, Kimble, Gathers that their scholarships would not be renewed next fall. Rich Grande, the fourth freshman, already had decided to stay at USC. Four days later, Lewis announced his intention to transfer.
"That whole situation and incident hurt me deeply," Lewis said. "I'm just trying to put that behind me and look forward. I liked everything about USC. It just didn't work out there."
Mulligan, who recently completed his sixth season at Irvine, is confident that UCI will work out for Lewis. He shrugged off the criticism of Lewis, and the flak he has received for trying to lure him to Irvine.
"If we don't take him, someone else will," Mulligan said. "Obviously, I'm not the only guy who's talked to Tom.
"I think he's a really nice kid. I'm delighted to have him."