What’s the Matter with Kansas?

Posted on: November 17th, 2011 by jayhawktalk No Comments

Social and political science nerds may recognize that I stole the title of this post from the title of a Thomas Frank book wherein Frank tracked the rise of social conservatism in Kansas over the last few decades. Frank theorized that in Kansas, “hot button” social and cultural issues guide political discourse much stronger than economic equality issues, often to the detriment of the very people that should care most about economic policies.

So what the hell does this have to do with recruiting basketball players at the University of Kansas?  Damn fine question. Frank’s thesis is based on rational actors employing emotion over reason when making a policy decision, even if it is to the overall detriment of that actor. Perhaps an example to illustrate some similarities:

How about the recent recruitment snafu involving Kaleb Tarczewski: A 7-foot stud center that Kansas recruited longer and harder than any other school. More time and resources were put into Kaleb’s recruitment than any other recent recruit, except for maybe Perry Ellis, and that is even close. Every single person involved in his recruitment believes he is Kansas-bound (and by some accounts, he even told the current players and staff he planned to commit). Then, BAM. He’s off to Arizona on a whim, leaving behind him the all-star big man staff of Bill Self and Danny Manning who planned to build an offense around him and put him in the absolute best position to succeed and showcase his abilities for the NBA. I’m not going to necessarily say his decision was to his detriment. Time will tell. But what I will say is the rational decision was KU. Best big men coaches in college basketball. Most opportunity. Best track record for big men success. The emotional decision was Arizona, and he went with it.

I guess what I’m getting at is when recruiting 16-18 year old kids, you absolutely never know what you’re going to get. All you can do is put yourself in the best position you possibly can and hope that it’s enough. The thoughts that follow will illustrate what I believe Kansas can do to put themselves in a better position than we have of late.

 

Intro:

First off, I don’t think we’re in trouble here yet. I haven’t quite bought into the theory that Bill Self forgot how to recruit or has made a string of strategic errors. While I’m one of the biggest KU fans I know and might get confused for a “KU homer,” I tend to be pretty hard on my school and its athletics programs because I want the best from it.  In other words, I would be the first to admit if we had a problem. While I absolutely reserve the right to change this opinion if we miss in 2013, I think we are going to be fine. In 2013, there will be no more excuses for lack of playing time, opportunity for immediate impact, or worry about a potential NBA pick returning to school. Should we miss, then I’ll hit the panic button. Just not yet.

 

Recent Changes In Recruitment:

I have already expressed my view that Bill Self isn’t necessarily to blame for any recruiting issues, but I do have some concerns with how he has responded to the changing tide of college basketball recruiting. The “one-and-done” rule is a joke, and I am 100% confident that Self is probably the rule‘s biggest opponent. But it is what it is, and until a new NBA collective bargaining agreement is in place, that is what it will continue to be. I know many of you believe that Self should just ignore the one-and-done type player completely and concentrate more on the “program guys”that will stick around and buy in to the system. To be frank, such a strategy does not win championships.

 

When we recruited guys like Arthur and Rush, they were termed one-and-done talents. You think we would have won a championship without either one of them? Xavier Henry was the missing cog to a championship-caliber roster that fell short but was otherwise loaded. Without him, that team is incomplete.  Call it whatever you want, but the “Carmelo Effect” has taken the minds of every major college basketball coach, and it absolutely should. Sure makes coaching easier when you have NBA talent.

 

[Sidenote: I do think that you can go too far with this though. For instance, I really don't think Calipari will win a championship starting four freshmen, no matter how talented they are. You need experience and leadership from somewhere. But, frankly, he's the only coach that has this problem because he's the only coach that has proven to get this amount of talent in one class.]

 

The other issue is that a lot of these kids think they are much better than they actually are. Many come into school thinking there is a better than average chance they are one-and-done talent. Hell, even Micah Downs was talked about as a short-term college player (mostly by his dad, but still…). For Self to ignore these kids would mean dipping into a lower talent pool. While I trust Self’s coaching ability, we don’t pay him to bring in 2 and 3-star recruits. We pay him the big bucks to get STUDS on campus and eventually mold them into a team. He has proven over and over he can do it. That formula should and will not change.

 

The one thing I would like to see changed, however, is to spend more time on back-up plans. Over-recruit and over-offer. Find three guys at the power forward position you’d love to have on campus, and tell them that the first to commit gets the position. I think spreading the love and playing a little more hardball might prevent some of these Fall misses and Spring scrambles we’ve grown accustomed to the last few years.

 

AAU vs. High School Ball:

What I think might need a change is how we go about our recruiting. The great high school coaching relationships our assistant coaches have assembled over the years (Dooley in the East and Townsend in the West) don’t mean as much as they used to. Just in the last few years, AAU basketball has more than eclipsed the high school game as far as relevance in recruiting. And I think it is becoming somewhat obvious we don’t have quite the connections there right now.

 

It can be argued the “decline” in blue chip recruits started around the time the ticket scandal was going on. Reports surfaced that the ever-present Pump Brothers may have had some involvement in the scandal and since that time they have disappeared. It’s hard to say what kind of effect they had in recruiting circles, but they certainly couldn’t have hurt. You look at guys like World Wide Wes at Kentucky and wonder how this kind of thing goes completely unregulated by the NCAA. But that’s the world we live in, so you might as well play the game.

 

It may only be a recent trend, but it seems that KU has somewhat of a bad rap among some AAU programs. I am quite comfortable in saying that most of it revolves around the mythical excuse of Self’s “system” not being conducive to freshmen (more on that later). The other reason is straight up negative recruiting. We go against the same four or five coaches for a lot of our recruits, and for right or wrong, they have a lot of ammunition against us right now. It started with Xavier (which I still don’t understand to this day…he had a great one year), and has blown up with Selby.

 

It doesn’t matter that Selby was injured. It doesn’t matter that Selby was ineligible to start the season. The only thing that matters is when you show a 5-star guard the tape of Josh sitting on the bench while Brady freaking Morningstar plays starter’s minutes. I personally think Brady deserved it and Selby was a liability. I’m sure you all do too. But the perception is that Self didn’t let Selby play. Not only that but the #1 rated Rivals player fell to the 49th pick of the NBA draft under Self. That kind of stuff hits home when someone like Scott Drew, John Calipari, Josh Pastner, Sean Miller, or Jim Calhoun says it. Of course this will fade with time, but right now it’s a knock. And it’s real.

 

I think we should focus our energy on fostering more AAU relationships, and it needs to start it in our own backyard. I’m talking Missouri, Texas, Chicago, Oklahoma, Iowa, and any other midwest state pumping out blue chip recruits. Let the coast guys come along when they do, but we should own flyover country.

 

Last, I hate to say it, but being an Adidas school does nothing for you in recruiting. Kids want Nike. It’s as simple as that. Doesn’t even matter if their AAU jersey has three stripes on it. Tarczewski’s did. Hell, his AAU coach who received money from Adidas funneled his kid to a Nike school! They want Nike. I hope like hell when our contract comes due, we look long and hard at the swoosh.

 

Recruiting Coach:

You’re also seeing the influx of “Recruiting Coaches” over “Assistant Coaches.” Think guys like Dalonte Hill, who made nearly a half million bucks to sit on his ass during K-State practices. As long as he brought in the goods (*cough* DC ASSAULT *cough*), they didn’t care. Some have argued that it would be nice for Self to hire a young and charismatic recruiting-minded coach to infuse some new blood into the staff. Someone with ties to the AAU circuit. I think I agree with this sentiment, but not at the expense of hurting our staff’s mojo. NCAA rules dictate the amount of assistant coaches you can have on staff, and we have done a hell of a lot of winning with these guys.

 

I think Townsend would be the easiest to part with. He started out as a recruiting guru for us, bringing in guys like CJ Giles (even if it was a bit of a packaged deal) and Julian Wright (without ever stepping foot on campus), but he has since stalled a little bit. He is also the biggest liability. Dooley may be the first to get a head coaching job, which would obviously necessitate a move. It would be interesting to see how Self would handle a replacement, but I personally hope he goes the route of young charismatic recruiter guy.

 

Playing the recruiting game is messy in the environment we currently live in. Bag men, handlers, AAU coaches, agents, shoe representatives, misguided parents, money, perquisites… they’re all there. Don’t think for a minute that KU hasn’t played this game in recruiting. However, every coach, program, and athletics director has a line that they will not cross. Makes you wonder if other programs (some coaches mentioned above, for instance) have more liberal stances on where the lines are drawn. Just something to think about. How Baylor has pulled in some of these classes…just absolutely begs for Yahoo to get some investigative reporters on campus, doesn’t it? I digress.

 

Recruiting to KU:

We all know what we can offer here. Unmatched tradition. Pure basketball history. An experience on gameday unlike any other in sports. A building that should be on every sports fan’s bucket list. Grade A facilities. And a fan base that puts its players on a pedestal that Justin Bieber would be impressed with. So why in the world would anyone not come here?

 

In short, that’s not the motivation for most kids. Sure, it’s a bonus. But the motivation for many (and it goes back to all the people whispering in their ear), is go somewhere that lets you be you. Somewhere that will let you showcase your ability, start from day one, play a ton of minutes and get to the league as soon as you can. Self, for better or worse, does not make promises to kids. He may be one of 3 or 4 guys in the universe of college basketball coaches that does not make promises, but he just doesn’t do it. I like it. I am sure most of you do too. But if Calipari is saying that you’ll start from Day 1 and Self says come here and compete for a spot, you can’t blame a kid for taking the easy route. Likewise, you can sure respect a kid that wants to work.

 

It’s also “flyover country” here in Kansas. Playing on the coasts is more sexy. That’s why it’s so vital to get these kids to campus to see we don’t live on farms and have cows outside our stadium (although our neighbors down I-70 West do…). Once on campus, guys can see that we have a beautiful college, a great bar scene, and tons of beautiful women. Still…not quite the same as Tucson, L.A., or ESPN’s back yard, but it’s still pretty nice.

 

Self’s Style:

Self’s “style” also gets a lot of play among recruits and recruiting talking heads. First, allow me to get this out of the way: it’s a bunch of bullshit. The style that people try to say KU runs (modified high-low motion half-court offense) is a style that only plays through the bigs. The perception is also that the bigs play with their back to the basket on every play. This is completely overstated. First of all, I will admit that the system is designed to get easy looks for the bigs. Which is why KU should never ever ever ever ever miss on a big guy. Even a big guy that supposedly wants to play facing the basket (Oh, silly David Padgett).  The reality is that guards have a lot of flexibility in this offense, assuming they learn it. It is designed to set up easy shots inside and open shots outside. Ball screens are mixed in to allow for dribble penetration and either a kick pass to the wing or a shot. Ask Sherron if guards can score in it. And for a team that is supposed to be a grinder, we sure seem to be in the top 10 in points scored every year.

 

The perception, though unfair, is a real one. And until we can get a great freshman guard to come in and dominate from day one, it may stay there too. Selby was supposed to be that guy. Perhaps the stars will align and Shabazz could do it. Not holding my breath. Until that time, we may have to be content with 3 and 4 star guards that develop. Guys like Tharpe, for instance.

 

 

Final Suggestions:

  1. Kill it in 2013 so I don’t have to write these kinds of posts.
  2. Don’t stop recruiting the one-and-done player, but spread the love around. Make multiple offers and take the first willing to commit. Don’t worry about stepping on toes or hurting feelings. They’re smart enough to know how it works.
  3. Foster better AAU relationships. Whatever it takes.
  4. Focus more on the midwest. Find a new staff member that knows Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Iowa, and Chicago. We should own these areas.
  5. Change to the Swoosh!
  6. Consider looking into a more recruiting-minded coach. New blood may be exactly what we need.
  7. Keep spreading the KU brand. Make it more difficult for coaches to negatively recruit against us.
  8. Bill should still maintain his hard fist, but perhaps be more honest and frank with a kid’s ability to come in and start right away. Looking to 2013, he would not be lying if he said starting minutes are readily available for the taking.
  9. Keep winning games. It takes care of a lot. More nationally televised games, even ones where we might lose occasionally, do nothing but help recruiting.
  10. Keep putting guys in the league. We have had no problem at all doing this in the past few years. But we must keep it up. Hard to negatively recruit against a team funneling players to big paychecks.
  11. Lobby the shit out of the NBA to drop the stupid one-and-done rule and instead require at least two or three years on campus if you don’t go straight to the league from high school.

 

In closing, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with Kansas. It’s pretty difficult to throw stones at our recruiting efforts when the wins keep piling up. But I understand the reasons for concern. 2013 will be the real test. Until then, enjoy watching this team grow throughout the year. I still predict an 8th ring for Coach Self.

 

Cheers and Rock Chalk!

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