JONES: Spring recruiting not a sure thing

Thanks to the entry of high school players and freshman/sophomores to the NBA Draft, the top college basketball programs in America are having to change the ways they recruit. At the top of the list of these changes is the need to fill roster holes left by early departures, and recruit players at a time when they once had their recruiting complete, early Spring.

It has come to my attention that many people determine the changing of the seasons by far too trivial and unreliable indicators. You will hear people argue that one knows it is summer when the public schools dismiss and lightning bugs illuminate the night time sky. However now with year-round public schools and the decrease in summer temperature, both of these sights are becoming more rare. Winter usually arrives with the first snowfall, but global warming has caused snow to become a possibility eight months of the year. Even the reliable indicator of a Tennessee football player being arrested signaling the onset of fall has been lost as our good friends from Knoxville are making interactions with the police a year-round affair. However one seasonal indicator remains consistent, and is the only one upon which I rely. If it is Spring, Tubby Smith and the Kentucky Wildcats are involved in a recruiting war.

The art of recruiting has been completely transformed three times in the history of college basketball. In the early days of our fair sport, recruiting meant locking up the best players within driving distance of your school. College dynasties became regional, with programs such as Kentucky and Kansas locking up a particular section of the country and ensuring that any players produced in that region would play for their juggernauts. This remained the status quo until the 1960s, when the first major change to recruiting flourished, the beginning of the national talent search. Led by John Wooden's pursuit of a young New Yorker named Lew Alcindor, coaches began to realize that the secret to success was not dominating a region, but rather searching the nation for top talent. All good programs became national and the sight of a young player's movement from one coast to another became commonplace.

The second major change in recruiting occurred soon after, when the late 1970s brought about the "big business" of college basketball. Universities began to realize that the sport could be a cash cow for the school, and thus market incentives (including the potential for cheating) took over, causing the formerly secondary game of recruiting, to become an industry in itself, spawning odd individuals who sole job in life was to look for the best high school talent. The concept of "recruiting rankings" took hold, with gurus, some of whom had little to no basketball experience, taking it upon themself to decide which players were better than others, and creating ranking system organized by talent, and obssessed over by fans whose trust in them was unwavering. Recruiting equalled big business and the race for top talent was often as eagerly anticipated by fans as the games themselves.

I submit that the last five years has showcased the third major change in the recruitment of high school basketball talent. Thanks to the entry of high school players (which may be ending soon) and freshman/sophomores (which will not end any time soon) to the NBA Draft, the top college basketball programs in America are having to change the ways they recruit. At the top of the list of these changes is the need to fill roster holes left by early departures, and recruit players at a time when they once had their recruiting complete, early Spring. Spring-time recruiting is becoming more prevalent in college basketball and its arrival has changed the calculus used by coaches in making personnel decisions.

Nowhere can this be seen more clearly than in the current recruitment of Uche Echefu. I want to make myself clear initially. Echefu is a fine basketball player. He is a good defensively, a decent rebounder, somewhat limited offensively, but he certainly has the makings of a good college player. However it would be a stretch to say that his skills are that of a true difference-maker. His recent performance in the Derby Classic, even considering all the caveats about judging based on all-star games, was, well at least a bit disappointing. Having said that, Echefu is being courted strongly by three of the true heavyweights in college basketball, Kentucky, North Carolina and Maryland. Why is that?

Well first, the obvious answer is that all three schools believe they truly need him. The Tar Heels desperation is most clear, highlighted with Coach Roy Williams's supposed plea that he needed Echefu "more than any player he has ever recruited." With the coming departure of four early-entry candidates from the Heels' national title team, it is clear that Echefu could be useful for North Carolina, but isn't his statement a bit of an exaggeration? Similarly, while Kentucky and Maryland have lost a set of surprising early-entry candidates in Kelenna Azubuike and John Gilchrist, it would seem that both teams, especially the Wildcats, have solid rosters and bright futures. So why is all the attention focused on getting a mid-level recruit that has uniformly failed to this point to get anyone's pulse racing?

The answer is simply one of supply and demand. What Eche Uchefu has learned, and future recruits will certainly take notice of, is that Spring is a time that major college programs must fill needs. In the summer and fall, the cream of the recruiting classes rise to the top, with the top programs fighting over the same handful of players, and the next tier of athletes being left to secondary schools. However as in musical chairs, when the recruiting music has stopped (usually in late fall), some of the top programs are left without a player. In addition, after solid performances during the season, many teams are left with the surprise news that players they just knew would return, are now gone, leaving a scholarship and playing time open.

Enter recruits like Echefu. While the first round of recruiting passed Echefu by, he has now become the hottest property in the college basketball world. Grown men like Roy Williams who have coached the BEST in basketball talent, are literally begging for his services. Why? Because there is no one else. Thus Echefu goes from the unwanted step-child player, to the must-have recruit for a new season.....all by simply holding out and waiting for teams to come to him. He holds the cards in his hand, and his recruitment will have a strong effect on a multitude of programs.

This is why Spring recruiting can be so dangerous. In past years, Tubby Smith has loaded up in the spring, including last season, when he signed Joe Crawford and Randolph Morris, two McDonald's All Americans during this time. However it is not always that easy. In years past, the number of teams that need talent in the Spring is relatively few. Thus a top program like Kentucky can load up on the best available talent. However this is changing. More teams are finding their top recruits bailing on the program and their best current players leaving for the greener pasture of the NBA. In that world, Kentucky is not the only top dog, and getting the best of Spring becomes harder.

Lets be clear. Kentucky's success next season, or the seasons to come, does not rely on the successful recruitment of Uche Echefu. However it would help to have him on next season's roster. If it does not happen, we can chalk it up to the dangers of Spring recruiting. When it is successful, such as with Crawford and Morris, the rewards can be immense. However when it fails, a team can end up with an overrated player buoyed by the dwindling recruiting market, or worse.....no player at all.

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