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Kentucky Basketaball: What it takes to recruit the #1 class

Today, Percy Allen of the Seattle Times has an article that basically asks the question, "What does it take for the Washington Huskies to land five star recruits, not just compete for them?"

You might think this is a problem for the Washington Huskies, but I remember, ladies and gentlemen of the Big Blue Nation, when this question was just as appropriate to the Kentucky Wildcats.  If you will think back, Kentucky did not land any five star recruits in 2005 and 2006 despite competing for the likes of Tyler Hansbrough and Tasmin Mitchell in 2005 and Brandan Wright, Thaddeus Young, Kevin Durant and Stanley Robinson in 2006.  2006 was possibly Tubby Smith's most bitter year, as he worked very hard on Wright, Young and Robinson only to lose them to Roy Williams, Paul Hewitt and Jim Calhoun.

This was not the genesis of the then-growing outcry from Kentucky fans about Tubby Smith's high-profile recruiting failures, but it was the last straw for many.  Smith had great success in 2005, but the two lean years combined with other perceived failures galvanized many in opposition to his continuation as coach.

Those two lean years produced the national perception that coach Smith was under fire, and that is a major negative when trying to convince a young man to come to your school.  Even though Smith was not really embattled from the point of view of the administration, it was the national perception that damaged his ability to recruit successfully.  In my opinion, there is no question that factored into Smiths decision to leave.  It is ironic that the passion of Kentucky fans actually worked against the program by feeding that perception.

The point here, though, is that Kentucky has been where Washington is right now, if for different reasons -- seemingly unable to tempt any of the top 25 or so players to play for their team, despite winding up in the top choices for them every year.  Now, of course, Kentucky is on the other side of that problem.  It almost seems that the Wildcats can do no wrong, and even though UK may not be to the point where they can pick and chose players, they are easily landing their needs from among the nation's best.

We all know the reason for this -- the combination of the star power of Kentucky and Head Men's Basketball Coach John Calipari.  To be fair, it's hard to give too much credit to Kentucky, since Calipari was recruiting at this level at Memphis, and although Memphis has a strong basketball tradition, it isn't even in the same universe with that of the Wildcats.  But where the University itself was the big arrow in the quiver with former coach Gillsipie, it is just icing on the cake for Coach Cal.

Kentucky fans now find themselves in a barely-remembered place.  When both Rick Pitino and Tubby Smith were at Kentucky, there were always rumors of NBA teams trying to lure the UK coaches away.  Rick Pitino eventually succumbed, but the last few years of Smith's tenure might have caused some of us to forget that he, too, was often the subject of NBA rumors for several of his years with the Wildcats.

So what creates the scenario that Washington so desperately wants and Kentucky has?  Several things, really:

  1. Either the coach or the school, and preferably both, have to have recent NCAA tournament success.  It doesn't have to be championships, but it does have to be a team that is consistently in the tournament and makes frequent deep runs.

    Unsuccessful programs can sometimes land great players, but the lack of it is a significant detriment.  The same with a coach who seems to be going through a slump, or is nationally thought to be embattled.

  2. Determined salesmanship on the part of the head coach.  This was where Tubby Smith was weak, and Billy Gillispie was an epic failure.  Smith relied too much on his ability to convince young men face to face, and failed to keep himself, and his program, in the national news.  Often, summers would come and go with very few mentions of the UK head coach's name when Smith was in Lexington.

    Gillispie simply didn't get the value of marketing and salesmanship, and relied on hard work to land his players.  But that sort of obsessive effort and lack of life balance carried many negatives that became more and more apparent after Gillispie's first year, contributed to his firing, and arguably even to his subsequent arrest for driving under the influence.

  3. Getting in on every kid as early as possible, and assessing who the most influential person in their lives are.  Calipari famously figured out before anyone that the way to Derrick Rose went through his brother Reggie, not through his coach or remaining parent.

  4. Keeping the head coach in the news as being repeatedly successful is a good thing, too, but it often carries the dual edge of both controversy and excessive NBA rumors.  When NBA rumors get too believable, they can become a negative, just like rumors that the coach is embattled.  The one-and-done rule has mitigated this a lot, and players refusing to sign LOI's is also making persistent, credible NBA rumors less of a negative.

Washington should not be too down about their class, as it is a very good one and will mesh nicely with their returning players.  The Huskies have a history of relative irrelevance in the Pac-10 and is only recently emerging as a team to be reckoned with.  Washington's appearance in the Sweet Sixteen this year combined with Sweet Sixteen appearances in 2005 and 2006, and making the tournament five out of the last seven years show that this is a program on the rise, and Lorenzo Romar a serious recruiting force to be reckoned with.  Things should only get better for the Huskies in the foreseeable future.

How soon will this success translate to signing top 25 players?  Who can say?  But the combination of a successful coach, a desirable area, and a school making a name for itself in the perennially top-heavy Pac-10 augers well for an answer of sooner, rather than later.

In Kentucky's case, John Calipari has taken a great tradition and put it on the back of a peerless marketing and sales strategy to make Kentucky arguably the most desired college destination for top recruits in all of America.  Teams that formerly held this position, like Duke and North Carolina still do well, but there is no doubt where the buzz is among top recruits these days -- the University of Kentucky.

It's said what goes around, comes around, good and bad.  Well, it's coming around, and it's all good.  About time, too.