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Target shoppers beware

Much has been made, especially by dispirited UK fans and national columnists with only a passing look at the program, of Tubby Smith's recent recruiting struggles. Specifically, they have harped on Smith's troubles getting 5-star frontcourt players.

At first glance, the announced commitment of 6'10" senior Julian Vaughn to Florida State looked like another in an increasingly long line of recruiting whiffs for the Big Blue. While I disagree with this assessment, a more interesting look at Vaughn's comments tells a lot about (a) why Smith may struggle with some of the top-20 kids and (b) why fans have to stop stressing out so much when a hyped big recruit commits elsewhere.

Of his decision to end his recruitment before heading to prep powerhouse Oak Hill, Vaughn said:

"I felt like Florida State could be my home away from home. The coaching staff is real nice and the facilities are really good, too. A lot of the Assault coaches (of his AAU club) said good things about coach (Leonard) Hamilton. They all say he is a good coach and I feel like I can get better when I get there." [Emphasis mine]

So where this kid wanted to spend his future basketball years, and get his "edumacation" was at least in principle largely based on his AAU coaches' relationship with FSU coach Leonard Hamilton.

Why is this significant? Because it's a window into the strangled world of high stakes recruiting, where the traditional measures of weight -- especially those most often cited by dedicated fans, such as tradition, playing time, the coach's record and the fans themselves -- mean less than a head coach's wooing of often questionable AAU chiefs.

Am I implying improprieties? Not at all. To me, the folks who automatically assume FSU or anyone else is paying players or bribing them or giving their families jobs are just speaking from sour grapes.

But think about this recruiting situation and others. Florida State has won 20 games in a season only once in the last five years, Hamilton's record at FSU is a robust 45-48, with no NCAA appearances. And yet in the last three-plus years, Hamilton has added top 50 recruits Jason Rich, Alexander Johnson, Isaiah Swann, Al Thornton, Casaan Breeden, Von Wafer and Uche Echefu.

Some of this can be chalked up to Florida sun, the tone on campus and some good ESPN marketing. But how much? And how to explain this trail of strong recruiting despite no results and no basketball tradition or real energetic fan base?

It's simple: AAU connections.

It's a subject Tubby Smith has had trouble with before, and you can count on one hand the number of AAU darlings Tubby has inked in the last five years. Most of the UK recruits over this period have been notable for not playing AAU ball, including Cliff Hawkins, Gerald Fitch and Bobby Perry to name just the few off the top of my head. Tubby is a traditionalist, both in strategy and in recruiting, and this has not paid dividends on the recruiting trail.

One can argue, of course, the merits of selling one's soul to the AAU system. Ask Quinn Snyder, late of Missouri, who's stream of high-risk, low-reward top 25 recruits spent less time on campus than they did in the newspaper, or John Calipari, whose run last year at Memphis (Elite Eight) is his first such daliance with NCAA success since his days at UMASS. He has signed a slew of AAU champions, including Dejuan Wagner, Amare Stoudemire, Kendrick Perkins, Darius Washington and Shawne Williams.

So while it is true that Tubby has not nailed thee door shut on a few high profile kids, it's also true that the nebulous nature of relationships between AAU coaches looking for a leg up themselves and head coaches desperate for the next big thing is a major part of modern recruiting.

And lest ye think I am absolving Tubby or excusing his programs' recent recruiting struggles, I am not. However, be careful what you wish for, Big Blue Nation, because the line between success and failure is much less clear when it comes to ethics than it is when it comes to basketball games.