Ari Stewart can taste it. And the taste has stayed in his mouth since February. The 6-foot-7, 190-pound wing forward from Marietta (Ga.) Wheeler High School is ready for some basketball mouthwash this weekend as the season tips off for the five-star prospect.
Stewart and his Wheeler teammates saw last season end on a one-point loss to Norcross High School in what was one of the best games of high school basketball last season. The game was not the way Stewart wanted to end the season.
"It was a disgusting taste. We felt like we should have won the game. It just goes that way sometimes," he said. "It just makes us hungrier this year to go out and get them."
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In fact, the early dismissal may have fueled Stewart's sensational summer run, where he emerged as an elite level prospect full of potential. Stewart, the No. 15 ranked player in the class of 2009, and his Wheeler teammates officially tip the season off on Saturday. The Wildcats will take on cross-county foe McEachern High School, featuring Ohio State bound Trae Golden, Richmond bound big man Darius Garrett and rising junior prospect Kadeem Batts.
Games like Saturday's match-up should bring out the recruiters. Stewart will have plenty of on-lookers this year.
Stewart took four unofficial visits in the fall, making trips to Florida, Xavier, Auburn and Georgia before his junior campaign began.
"They have a new facility, it's real nice. They are rebuilding their program," Stewart said of Georgia. "They have a new practice facility, new weight room, new offices, new everything. It's nice. It's really nice. They have all of the tools to make somebody better."
The home school is pushing hard and Stewart said he's thought about staying in-state but it doesn't appear as if that is a factor.
"I've thought about staying home and playing for the home state school but that won't be the reason why I decide on a school," he said. "Distance isn't an issue for me. It isn't something that I'm worried about."
Xavier is sitting pretty, he says.
"I was real impressed when I went up there. I liked their arena that they have up there. It's real nice, the facilities are nice. I really like Xavier," Stewart said
Florida has turned up the heat early on and the athletic wing has taken notice.
"They are the two-time National Champions, what else can you say about them after that? They are Florida for a reason," Stewart said. "They are great guys. Billy Donovan is a great guy. Lewis Preston is a good guy. The coaches are all good guys. I like the campus and environment down there. It's all really nice."
Wake Forest, North Carolina, Georgia Tech and others are also interested. But time is on his side, Stewart said.
"I'm still open," Stewart said. "Still very open."