For the last few months, Kentucky recruitniks -- many quite clearly fed up with what they see as subpar efforts and results from the current coaching staff -- have been eagerly following the Wildcats' wooing of Hargrave Military Academy prep senior Tyler Smith.
Smith, a 6'7" wingman, has been alternately described as the next Ron Mercer or the next Bobby Perry, depending on whether he was thought to be coming (Mercer) or not coming (Perry) to the bluegrass. Such kneejerk labels are hardly uncommon for the Big Blue Nation, who sees itself as a capable talent evaluator, not to mention a better coach than whomever is currently doing the job.
Various internet "sources" through the past few weeks have had Smith committed, verballed or signed to all of his top four choices (PItt, UK, Iowa, Cincinnati) at some time, further deepening both the mystery of the truth and Kentucky fans' bitterness about what they often see as a slipping of national prestige. In other words, the Tyler Smith recruitment has moved beyond the merits of one player and have become -- especially with the struggles of the 2006 Cats -- no less than a referendum on Tubby Smith and his staff.
Well, one can imagine then how excited fans were to learn Wednesday that Tyler Smith has reportedly chosen to attend Iowa, no doubt swayed by that first-round upset tradition and third-place Big Ten annual finish. Truth be told, Smith the player's job was to pick the school that seemed like the best fit, not the one that has the most titles or the one with the biggest reputation.
If this is all in fact true -- and with the screwy world of recruiting, it's not that hard to feel uneasy -- less plugged-in fans can fully expect the din of whining to only grow over the summer, as hurt egos among the fanbase ravage the team, its players and coaches on chat boards and sports talk radio. It's become a tradition for Kentucky fans to crow when they win and eat their young when they don't. It's their right I suppose, however infantile and unproductive it may be.
None of this is to say, however, that the issue of losing Tyler Smith as a player to an Iowa or Cincinnati isn't problematic, or more accurately emblematic of the Kentucky hoops program's recent troubles with convincing top talent to sign on the dotted line. Recruiting has always been an inexact science, some mixture of one part lying, one part honesty and two parts relying on the decision-making of a 17-year-old basketball star. It's little wonder, then, that Tubby Smith, whose clear disdain for jumping through someone else's hoops, hasn't exactly bowled the world over with his recent classes.
Much of the frustration with Tubby's recruiting (and subsequently that of his staff) stems from the fact that the Kentucky job would seem to hold inherent advantages when it comes to recruiting. In addition to 7 national titles and the mantle of winningest program in history, Lexington has a nice campus, good facilities and a comfortable, bucolic feel, something many parents would seemingly want for their teenagers. Add to that the fact that by all accounts Tubby is a genuinely warm man, a father figure sort, and an African-American (and for those who believe this isn't a factor, however big or small, you're flat out wrong), and the pieces would seem to add up in UK's favor.
But results have said quite plainly otherwise. Recent blue-chippers have passed on the chance to be Wildcats, a fact so galling to some fans that it actually seems to hurt their self-esteem. For several years, Tubby was able to overcome these whiffs via a knack for talent evaluation. Low profile recruits like Gerald Fitch, a Georgia Mr. Basketball, and Erik Daniels, a late bloomer from nearby Cincinnati, blossomed into All-SEC performers, and hid some of the program's flaws in athleticism and sheer talent.
But recent attempts to bypass the traditional meat-market that is AAU/McDonald's All-American recruiting have borne far less fruit. The senior class-to-be of Perry, Sheray Thomas, Lukasz Obrzut and Shagari Alleyne has provided very little in the way of honest Final Four ability, and more closely resembles an amalgamation of talent more befitting the level of the schools those players spurned to join Kentucky: Fordham (Woo), Rutgers (Alleyne), and Virginia (Thomas). Perry committed early, and, interestingly, seems the player most likely to shed a perception of not belonging.
I have been as forgiving as anyone of Tubby's recruiting struggles. I often see the results (until this year) saying more about teamwork and potential than not. Duke has had its pick of the nation's top-10 recruits, yet has been to fewer Elite Eights than Kentucky over the last five years, for instance.
But with Florida winning the NCAA title, and LSU reeling in a bevy of top recruits to add to its Final Four talent, and Tennessee pulling in a lot of hype and a top 5 class, the red flags are starting to rise for even us apologists. Recruiting is, after all, not about the short term, but about the future. And while getting an already good player may not always beat getting a potentially great player, the real frustration comes at landing neither.
This is not to say that incoming freshmen Jodie Meeks, Derrick Jasper, Perry Stevenson (pictured, right) and Michael Porter aren't (a) good players now or (b) potentially great players. But far too often -- for a school with the aforementioned gifts to offer -- it seems the Cats are scrambling to find the diamonds in the rough for fear of being left with just the rough.
To my mind, Tyler Smith wasn't the be all, end all recruit. Talented wing players are a key part of every team, but Smith wasn't a top-10 NBA-bound talent in the way Thad Young or Brandan Wright are -- two players who shunned the Cats late in the recruiting game this past year.
But it's time for Tubby to start fresh and really nail a class or two, if only to allow himself the freedom to coach again unfettered by complaints about talent and by players incapable of reaching the level of excellence he so clearly demands.
There will be many other recruiting battles to fight -- some for players potentially much more impact than Tyler Smith -- so it's Tubby's job to figure out a solution to what has been, even to the eyes of some of his biggest supporters, an uneven job of recruiting at best; a miserable job, at worst.