When Marlon Ruffin’s senior season began at Sun Prairie, he couldn’t help but notice Wisconsin’s basketball coaches in the stands. They were there to watch teammate Jalen Johnson, who already held a Badgers scholarship offer as one of the top 2020 prospects in the country.
But as the season progressed and Ruffin played such an instrumental role in Sun Prairie’s ascension toward a Wisconsin state tournament berth, he wondered whether Badgers coaches were beginning to watch him, too. After all, Ruffin was on his way to earning Big Eight Conference player of the year honors. And it had been a dream of his to play for Wisconsin.
“Next thing you know, we just really started clicking together,” Ruffin told Land of 10. “Our publicity as a team just started going up. I went to a Wisconsin game with Jalen, and they said they wanted me to come back as a recruit. After that, it was just like, ‘Man, I can actually do this.'”
Wisconsin’s coaches have considered adding Ruffin as a potential preferred walk-on in the 2018 class for a couple of months. He does not have an official walk-on offer yet. According to Ruffin and his father, Jerry, the school is waiting for his college admissions application to be accepted. However, assuming the paperwork goes through, the Ruffins say they expect a walk-on opportunity to be forthcoming.
“That’s my understanding,” Jerry said. “I could be wrong because I haven’t gotten that confirmed.”
Wisconsin recently accepted a preferred walk-on spot from point guard Carter Higginbottom of Chicago. Badgers fans have been wondering for months about where Marlon Ruffin, a 6-foot-3, 185-pound combo guard, stood when it came to a Wisconsin walk-on opportunity. Sun Prairie plays its games just 25 minutes from the Kohl Center, and Ruffin’s talent could make him a viable candidate to help the scout team.
“When I went there and talked with them, it seemed like starting off as a walk-on, but they feel very confident in my skill set and my abilities that I can soon become a scholarship player,” Ruffin said. “That’s my whole mindset coming into it. Even though I’m going to be a walk-on, I’m going to have that mindset of I’m trying to get a scholarship. I feel like that drive and that mentality would eventually lead me to become a scholarship player.
“They said they like my fire and they like my energy, they like my height and how I can dribble the ball. They feel like I can be a big asset coming to Wisconsin. Just my whole mentality when I play, it’s war when I play.”
Ruffin has one scholarship offer from Division II Minnesota-Crookston. He said he recently has drawn interest from Division I programs UC-Davis, UW-Milwaukee and Eastern Illinois. But the question Ruffin must consider is: What happens if he earns a D-I scholarship offer elsewhere?
“That’s the big question,” Ruffin said. “What do I do? Basically wherever I feel most comfortable with the coaches. When I went to Wisconsin, I was really comfortable with the coaches there. Coach Howard Moore, my dad actually knows him personally. They go way back to when he was here as a Badger, so he’s seen me growing up.
“It’ll be a difficult decision. If I do go to Wisconsin, I just feel I’ll be the most comfortable because I’ve grown up in Madison my whole life and know the ins and outs. That plays a big part in it.”
As a junior, Ruffin averaged 20.2 points, 3.5 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game and earned first-team all-league honors in the Big Eight. Ruffin averaged 17.3 points as a senior. His offensive numbers dipped slightly because of how well Johnson performed. Johnson increased his scoring average from 14.9 points per game as a freshman to 18.4 points in his sophomore season.
Marlon Ruffin’s senior-season highlights
Jerry Ruffin said he met Moore when Moore was a player at Wisconsin in the early-1990s and struck up a relationship with him then. He has remained in contact with Moore in recent weeks about Marlon’s admissions paperwork. Jerry said Marlon did not submit his college application before the initial window closed. His application has been flagged as a special case for a preferred walk-on.
Jerry noted Marlon has wanted to play for Wisconsin since he was a kid participating with the Little Badgers, who would perform ball-handling drills at halftime during games at the Kohl Center. Jerry has a picture of Marlon with his older brother posing alongside former Badgers coach Bo Ryan.
“I think he can come in there because he’s so athletic and really contribute with UW,” Jerry said. “I definitely would love for him to play for UW. I think he would love to play for UW. But you have to be a special player to be a walk-on. That’s the thought process. Will they be able to give him an opportunity?
“I think Marlon can be like a [Zak] Showalter. He’s athletic like Showalter was. I think he could really fit in. I would say that it’s just something he really has to understand. Marlon thinks that he can do it. He thinks he could be an exception to the rule.”
Ruffin and Johnson were a major reason Sun Prairie was able to reach its first state tournament in school history. Each was a unanimous first-team all-state selection by the Wisconsin Basketball Coaches Association. Ruffin was a tenacious defender and a solid passer, strong enough as a slasher to score at the rim and rise above players for dunks. But the fact he is more of a tweener and doesn’t fit prototypical point guard or off guard positions could play a role in his slow college recruitment.
He scored at least 25 points in five games this season, including a 30-point effort against Madison East to secure Sun Prairie’s state tournament appearance. Sun Prairie finished the season 25-2 and lost to Brookfield East in overtime at the state semifinals.
“When we won the sectional finals, I couldn’t do anything but cry,” Ruffin said. “Sun Prairie, we really didn’t do it just for us. We did it for all the guys before us. My older brother, they were a couple minutes from winning a sectional final years back. It was a very special moment for our community.”
While Ruffin doesn’t know exactly what he’ll decide if his Wisconsin admissions application clears and he does earn a walk-on opportunity, his timeframe is short. If he receives a scholarship offer from another program, the initial signing date for Division I basketball players is April 11. The final signing date is May 16.
Of course, Wisconsin could have more incentive to sway Ruffin to remain close to home. Johnson is the No. 1 player in the state for the 2020 class and ranks No. 8 nationally, according to 247Sports. He already has scholarship offers from Wisconsin, Marquette, Iowa, Purdue, Georgia Tech, UNLV and West Virginia. He also has drawn interest from Duke and North Carolina, among others.
Securing a commitment from Johnson is one of the Badgers coaching staff’s top priorities. And Ruffin’s addition to the team certainly couldn’t hurt in that regard.
“He’s like my brother,” Ruffin said. “Speaking with him, he’s saying if I go Wisconsin, that highly influences his decision to come to Wisconsin. Our combination together on the court in my opinion is really good.”