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Gillispie vs. Smith: Contrasts In Recruiting

Danville Advocate-News and contributor Larry Vaught has been a UK favorite author for many years.  Yesterday, Larry penned this piece for Scout in which he asks the question, "Why has Billy Gillispie been able to do in three months what Tubby Smith had not been able to do?"  I have seen this question asked many times on UK message boards, and I think it is time we cogitated on the matter and posited an answer.  It may not be right, but then again ...

Since coming to Kentucky back on the first of April, Coach Gillispie has accomplished the following, recruiting-wise:

  1. Signed Patrick Patterson (5 *, 2007) to a NLOI.

  2. Received verbal commitments from Alex Legion (4 *, 2007), DeAndre Liggins (5 *,2008), GJ Villarino (3 *, 2009) and Dakotah Euton (5 *, 2010)

  3. Appears to be on the cusp of obtaining verbal commitments from: Leonard Washington (4 *, 2007?), Rotnei Clarke (4 *, 2008), K.C. Ross-Miller (5 *, 2010).Update [2007-7-1 17:40:57 by Truzenzuzex]:  Apparently, Ross-Miller has given UK a verbal commitment.

Larry Vaught makes this point about the Big Blue Nation's perception of recruiting under Coach Smith:

Kentucky seldom got early verbal commitments like the one it got from senior-to-be DeAndre Liggins of Chicago earlier this week.  An early commitment for Smith was October, or November.  More often than not, Kentucky was still chasing players when the spring signing period started.

Every Kentucky fan has wondered why Coach Smith always seemed to be behind other programs in recruiting, and many theories have been posited:

  1. Smith was lazy.

  2. Smith didn't like to recruit

  3. Smith put too much on his assistants

  4. People didn't want to play Smiths' style

  5. Smith got outworked by other coaching staffs

and probably a few others as well.

Now, what we will never know, most likely, is the complete explanation for Coach Smith's difficulties, real or perceived.   However, I think there is much more to it than the simplistic explanations offered above.

Most of these explanations seem easy to dismiss.  For example, I don't think anyone can reasonably suggest Coach Smith was lazy – hard work was his stock in trade.  Putting too much on his assistants?  More likely a symptom than the problem.  Coaching style?  Maybe, but not likely the major reason.  Outworked?  Possibly, but not demonstrably.

The most likely reason appears to be that Coach Smith didn't love to recruit.  I can't offer definitive proof of that, but there is some evidence out there that he actually doesn't like recruiting that much:

Evidence, but not really proof.  Still, I think we can conclude that there may be other things Coach Smith would rather do than recruiting, like say, coaching.  But we all know that in college basketball, one hand washes the other - there is no way to recruit indifferently and have a team that consistently challenges for the national championship.

Still another reason for the perception of Coach Smith's recruiting is the apparent reluctance he had for bringing in one-year players.  Smith clearly preferred to bring in talented players who were likely to stay in his system for more than a couple of years.  Obviously, when recruiting 4-year players, the top 25 every year were not good candidates - they tend to stay a year or two and enter the NBA draft, a la Rajon Rondo and Randolph Morris.

Why would Smith prefer to pass on uber-talent?  There was actually a method to this apparent madness, I think, and my earlier analysis of Coach Gillispie's offensive and defensive schemes may provide a clue.  As we all no doubt know, Tubby Smith famously employed the ball-line defense, a variant of the man-to-man where weak-side players run to the "ball line" -- the level of the basketball - and toward the mid-court line.  Of course, that is a very simplistic view of the defense, as many variations of it are available.  We also know that Smith liked to occasionally employ zones and even junk defenses to confuse the opposition and keep them off-balance.

Even one of Kentucky's quickest-ever defensive studies, Chuck Hayes, found Smith's byzantine defensive schemes to be very difficult to handle, saying in this Victoria Sun article in the Cincinnati Enquirer that it took him his entire freshman year to learn the ball-line alone.  We have seen how effective Smith's defensive schemes can be when implemented by veteran players, as the 2003 SuffoCats often emasculated teams with Smith's defense, sometimes leading to an ignominious first-half surrender.

But defense isn't the only thing Smith's recruits had to learn.  Tubby Smith ran a complex offense call the "Flex", which requires much screen setting and running to spots.  To effectively employ this type of offense, a player must set sharp screens, then move after the defender has been disadvantaged.  As we saw from last year's team, the best personnel at running Smith's offensive and defensive system were often the least talented players we had, which resulted in even more fan frustration when players like Perry Stevenson, who was slow to learn Smith's system, wound up playing little in spite of his superior athleticism and skill.

So what we wind up with, in the final analysis, is a study in contrasts. One coach employs a relatively simple offensive and defensive scheme that can be learned relatively quickly.  The other employs a complex offense and defense which takes years to learn well.  What can be concluded from this is that both coaches are recruiting to what they see as their strengths - Smith to his style, and Gillispie to his.

Now, I don't offer this as a be-all and end-all answer to Larry Vaught's question.  Very few questions in life can be answered as simply as this, and I would not be at all surprised to learn that Coach Smith's dislike of recruiting, if accurate, had a dramatic impact on his recruiting success at Kentucky.  Left unexamined is Smith's clear preference for developing a surrogate father relationship with his players, which unlike his alleged reluctance to recruit, was obvious to everyone.  Such relationships take a great deal of time to develop and nurture, and Patrick Patterson was the perfect case study in that process.

In contrast, Gillispie prefers to recruit in a much more traditional way.  He isn't trying to establish a surrogate father relationship with his recruits, or lure them with the promise of family and personal development.  His lure is the lure of victory, the siren's song of promised glory.  Both methods have things to recommend them, but one thing is certain - Kentucky fans have taken more to Gillispie's style than they ever did to that of Smith, and it seems a better fit for our state and for our fans.  Make no mistake, UK fans have never confused themselves with the elitists that prowl the campuses of Duke and Stanford, so sticking to simple, straightforward things like winning ball games will play well here.

So in summary, Coach Smith was a complex person in his interactions with his players, the media, the fans and the way he ran his basketball team.   Coach Gillispie, on the other hand, is much simpler - his obsessive attention to his profession, his straightforward talk and style, and his rather conventional approach to the game all speak of a man who believes that K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple, Stupid) are words to live by.