Everyone who follows college basketball knows that recruiting is an inexact science. Nowhere has this been both more evident and more frustrating than at the University of Kentucky over the past few years, but unsurprisingly, Kentucky is not the only school to miss out on some gems they likely could have had (Chris Lofton, Corey Brewer) and tried to pick up some late bloomers that never bloomed (Jared Carter [yet, at least], Shagari Allene). How about Virgina Tech holding off Stephen Curry, or Maryland not offering Joe Alexander of West Virginia? Think those schools might like to have a do-over on those calls?
At this point in time, Kentucky is in a transitional period between Smith's recruiting and Gillispie's. Gillispie clearly prefers long, athletic swing players who can handle the ball. He has one already on the team when Gillispie arrived in Derrick Jasper, and has recruited two more in Kevin Galloway and DeAndre Liggins. Virtually all of the big men he is currently recruiting have a face-up game, which seems to be another characteristic Gillispie prefers. So far, Gillispie has not recruited the ponderous big man that Tubby Smith seemed to covet, nor the slower-footed perimeter players that often wound up in blue under Coach Smith. What we are seeing out of Gillispie is pretty much what he told us to expect -- the biggest, fastest, best players he can find.
I will not specifically address the recruits at 2009 and beyond, since they tend to be more unknown than known at this point in their development, nor do I intend this to be some kind of comparison between Smith an Gillispie from a recruiting standpoint. After the summer AAU season, we can begin talking about 2009 with some cogency, but for now, we will let them enjoy the transition to their final year in high school, where most of their skills for college will be developed. I am also going to assume that all our recruits will be eligible to play, which may or may not be true. Liggins took a college entrance exam yesterday that will either put to bed the concerns over his grades, or raise the specter that we will lose him to JUCO. Smith is gone and at least half of his remaining recruits have been vital to Kentucky's success.
We have already looked at recruiting in this post, which defines most of what I consider to be the major players for Kentucky's one remaining scholarship, with the exception of one recent addition -- Juan Patillo, a junior college teammate of Kevin Galloway. Patillo is typical of the type of player Gillispie prefers -- a long, athletic wing. Patillo is 6'7" and 205#, said to be a good rebounder and a good wing scorer. We have also heard rumors of possible transfers opening up another scholarship, but at this point, I think it is safe to say that I have no faith at all in those rumors. That leaves some sort of sleight of hand to make any other scholarships available, and we have no idea how that will pan out.
Based on what Kentucky is doing in recruiting, I think we can make some projections about what kind of team Gillispie sees for next year. First of all, the players Gillispie is recruiting are very similar to the ones we are losing, with the general exceptions of being taller. Only one Kentucky recruit, Paul McCoy, is listed under 6'4". A second thing that we can speculate, assuming that Meeks and Patterson both recover well from their injuries, is that Kentucky will be much more athletic than at any time in recent history. Kentucky next year will likely have a very tall back court, both in the starting and backup rotations. This backcourt will have some difficulty guarding smaller, speedier opponent's drives to the rim, but will be able to force teams deep into the shot clock by denying late-clock perimeter shots. Shooting over Derrick Jasper and Jodie Meeks at 6'6" and 6'5" respectively will be a challenge, and their size means that they are interchangeable with the wing forward defensively. That gives Kentucky a lot of different players to guard the scoring positions in the backcourt and on the wing.
Offensively, this team is built for a higher-paced game than we saw last year. With Patterson and Stevenson in the lineup, you can still expect to see a lot of post entry passes, but I expect more of these to come earlier in the shot clock than last season. With Galloway, Liggins, and possibly another wing player backing up the three perimeter positions, Gillispie can definitely afford to run more. If we wind up with another front-court player who can run the floor, like Sutton or Harrellson, that would seem to be even more likely. The biggest question is where our front-court help is going to come from. Gillispie sang Carter's praises late in the season, but it seemed that every time he had a chance to enter the game, he missed a defensive assignment and was yanked almost immediately. Williams almost never got off the bench after the exhibition season, so we have to wonder if either of these guys are going to improve enough to contribute, and neither of these guys run the floor very well. Both have been the subject of transfer rumors, more likely wishful thinking than anything substantive, but I would bet that both of them will be back in blue next year.
What I see here is Gillispie trying to follow a path more similar to that of Ben Howland of UCLA than John Calipari or Bill Self. The team Gillispie is building is built for defense, not offense, although with Patrick Patterson and Jodie Meeks available, we should have sufficient go-to scoring. Hopefully, one or more of the freshmen/JUCO players will prove capable of scoring, and you never know about Ramon Harris. Harris began to develop some offensive confidence late in the season, and his fundamentals are pretty good. If he could ramp up his offensive aggression next season, especially in the open floor, we could have the makings of a good offensive team.
The bottom line is that next year, we should have sufficient depth at most positions to play a more up-tempo game. Another season under the tutelage of Gillispie, and perhaps Carter and Williams will develop to the point that they can come in and spell Patterson and Stevenson, altough I have been disappointed so often with Carter I am not holding my breath. If so, I expect we could see our pace in the low to mid 70's next year. It is fairly important that we get our pace numbers up a bit for recruiting purposes, as today's highly rated recruits want to play the kind of up-tempo game they are used to from AAU ball. Both a slower style and an up-tempo style can be equally successful, but the fact of the matter is, today's recruits want to run up and down the floor, and tend to matriculate to colleges that embrace that style, which is largely why Memphis, North Carolina and Kansas have been so successful recruiting recently. If we want to get those kind of guys, we can't continue to play basketball at the pace we played last year. But I am confident Coach Gillispie knows this.
So, is the recruiting Force with Coach Gillispie? Many people will point to last year as proof that it was, but I disagree -- Gillispie did convince Patterson to come, but I believe he would have come in any event, and Legion didn't stick. How coaches perform in the clutch, when the recruiting pool is thin, is just as important as getting out early on the big guys. Gillispie has done the latter very well, but this year will be the big test of the former. If his decisions don't pan out, next year could be another disappointment. If they do, the Cats could return triumphant to the top of the heap.
May the Force be with you, Coach Gillispie.
Update [2008-4-13 12:53:53 by Truzenzuzex]: There is word on the street that Jodie Meeks had surgery in the last couple of days for sports hernia. I can't confirm right now, but I think this is likely to be true. Confirmation is here.