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UCLA Basketball -- Recruiting Strategy: Analysis and Poll

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It looks like Steve Alford is pursuing a national recruting stategy. Is this the best path for Bruin Basketball?

I recently wrote two posts on recruiting, here and here, and they resulted in an interesting discussion on recruiting strategy; namely the six-year-old issue of local versus national recruiting. There were always exceptions going as far back as Alcindor in the Wooden era, but Jim Harrick and Ben Howland finally seemed to get it right with local heroes such as Don Mclean, Tracy Murray, Ed and Charles O'Bannon, Toby Bailey, J.R. Henderson, Arron Afflalo, Jordan Farmar, Darren Collison and Russell Westbrook.

Howland, after losing in three Final Fours, changed his recruiting strategy, and that ultimately led to his dismissal along with the personnel and management issues raised in the Sports Illustrated article.

Ironically, Howland was fired at the end of the season in which he brought in the top ranked recruiting class. While Shabazz Muhammad had family roots in Los Angeles and played high school basketball at Las Vegas Bishop Gorman, Kyle Anderson, Jordan Adams and Tony Parker were from New Jersey and Georgia.

Athletic Director Dan Guerrero, in firing Ben Howland, stated that local recruiting relationships had been damaged.

I have a theory. Alford, under pressure from Guerrero, is chasing a natty sooner rather than later, and the way to get there is to chase the top players wherever they are.

Yes, I acknowledge this theory is a stretch. It's hard to imagine that Alford and Guerrero have the ambition, finesse and cajones to contemplate such a goal and strategy. Still, I think, in practice, that's what we're seeing.

Steve Alford's first recruiting class included Kevin Looney from Milwaukee, Jonah Bolden from Australia, and Gyorgy Golomon from Hungary. His second class includes Prince Ali from Florida, and the number one target is Jaylen Brown from Georgia, the top-rated recruit in the nation. Before you remind me of Isaac Hamilton, Thomas Welsh, Aaron Holiday and Lonzo Ball, let me say that the recruiting strategy is nuanced, and there is a hook (a connection) for every player I just mentioned.

I'm not trying to backfill a rationale to Alford and Guerrero's actions. The alternatives are that there was no time to do anything else in the first year or that any moron with the UCLA brand and money behind him can run around the country looking for recruits. I just get a vibe that they want to swing for the fences.

Guerrero's world changed: he's drunk on TV money and Mora has football talking about a national championship this year. Even though he said he fired Howland because the local recruiting pipeline has soured, Howland's top-ranked last class was not an accident: Howland needed it to save his job, and it whet Guerrero's beak. Further, when Guerrero looks around, he sees, in reality, the NBA and its Players Association will control what happens to the top high school players after graduation for the foreseeable future and AAU changed recruiting. College basketball took a back seat to football due to TV money, but the money has a trickle-down effect to basketball, and the basketball crowd is fighting back.  Who is the basketball crowd?  It's the Big East which went back to being a basketball-only power conference, the basketball-only power schools like Duke, Kentucky and Kansas, and then there are hybrids like UCLA and Michigan that still have their large basketball constituencies. See here for my thoughts on the issues surrounding college basketball.

There are two key questions to answer for this discussion:  (1) What does UCLA really want to be in the national college basketball scene and (2) in this day and age, what is the difference between local and national recruiting?

I'm a realist; UCLA is fully engaged in the football and basketball arms race. If UCLA and other similar colleges declared a new Ivy League of the West Coast, I'd be all for it, but it won't happen any time soon.  For my son, I wouldn't doubt that big changes are coming. I think athletes will be paid more than the power conferences have been ruminating about recently, whether it's by the NBA, the advertisers or the colleges themselves, and the UCLA's of the world will either opt in or opt out of the system.

As for question two, the world as changed, even in the last few years. The coaches have to actually coach from October to April, and in between, the NCAA has strict rules of engagement between coaching staffs and high school players. Everyone, including the Southern California three-stars and up, play in national AAU tournaments like LeBron James Academy, Peach Jam, Pangos and Adidas Nations.  This is where the coaches spend all their time. Even new forms of communication like cheap text plans, Twitter, Instagram and paid recruiting web sites have dramatically changed the nature of the interaction between staffs and players, and even between the fans and the staffs and the fans and the players.

The difference between local and national recruiting has narrowed.

Before I get to conclusions and the poll, here are some of the current recruiting models, by school, in college basketball:

  • Kentucky/Arizona: I talk about the Kentucky recruiting philosophy in-depth here, Kentucky looks for the top recruits who want to be one-and-done, east of the Mississippi, who are athletic, will play defense and buy into an uncomplicated system. Even though the campus is in the middle of nowhere, Calipari puts his players up in, for all intents and purposes, a luxury hotel for basketball player only, maintains low academic pressure, surrounds them with rabid fans, has an army of NBA scouts at every practice, and they get to play against the best in practice every day. Love or hate Calipari, the man deserves credit. Sean Miller seems to aspire to this same model, getting the best players west of Las Vegas.
  • Duke: Coach K's program is hard to read now. Before Elton Brand, he never had a player leave early. I believe he's totally embraced one-and-done recruiting, but he is still trying to maintain a Duke fit. Duke's an interesting place: a sort of Stanford of the South, except one-dimensional in sports, way more fratty, and doesn't seem to care about women very much. They're famous in popular culture for Tucker Max, Tom Wolfe's "I am Charlotte Simmons," and wild lacrosse players. I don't want to link to it, but Jalen Rose had a hard-edged criticism of Coach K and the archetype Duke player. I'm not sure about what Rose says, but Coach K typically looks for an intelligent player likely from the Chicago, New York and LA metro areas. He won a championship recently, but he's been hit or miss as he goes through a recruiting transition - last year's team had Jabari Parker, but in the end, the team didn't mesh well, had no center, and didn't play defense.
  • Florida and Connecticut: Recruit regionally, and if there is a big star in the region, make him a big priority. Develop long-term players in the program, and you will have the experience and maturity to challenge for a championship. Having a great coach, like Billy Donovan and Kevin Ollie, is a key. I admire these programs most, but there is a dangerous twist with Ollie. He went to Crenshaw High School, and is actively recruiting in Los Angeles: Daniel Hamilton is one example.
  • USC: I hate to add this one, but Enfield is all over the locals. He hired two assistants, Bland and Hart, that make me jealous, and they went out and got McLaughlin, Stewart and Boatwright.

Talent is king. There will always be exceptions. Wisconsin looks really good this year with their senior lineup, but year in, year out, the new blue bloods, defined loosely, will rule.

It's easy to say that UCLA, located where it is and with its other advantages, should build its local pipeline, get on the local players early, and use whatever hooks you have to get the top national recruits. I've advocated local recruiting before, here and here. But in recruiting world I described, where local is a gray concept, and UCLA lost ground to everyone including Arizona locally, it's easier said than done. That said, for $2.7 million a year plus, you have to do it all - fast.

Frankly, you still might not win with the best West Coast players.  Has Sean Miller been to a Final Four? What would happen over time, however, is that you build something sustainable.  A school in LA can be a Wisconsin on steroids - at least; they don't have our backyard. Positions one through eight have to be 3.5 to 5-stars. You try to fill out positions 9 through 13 with local three-stars, develop them in practice, and you might have something in three to four years.

Here my prescription.

  1. Define the West (our local) as the Seattle, Las Vegas, San Diego triangle targeting the major schools like St. John Bosco, Bishop Gorman and Bishop O'Dowd.
  2. Reorient/reboot the staff. David Grace is out there working hard, but he is not a Southern California ace as advertised - and he's actively campaigning to leave for a head coach's job. Schilling is an excellent X's and O's guy with a strong Adidas connection. However, he lost his own ex-high school player, Trevon Bluiett. Broussard is Alford's generalist and loyal soldier. I don't know that he adds anything to the recruiting mix. Recruiting assistants isn't too dissimilar to recruiting players: the best ones move on so you have to have the reputation to constantly bring in new ones with one phone call. UCLA Basketball needs at least one Adrien Klemm-level national recruiter, the best local recruiter available (I would have taken Bland, but won't touch him now that he's at USC), and an X's and O's guy who really has to do it all - they exist because these are the future high-major coaches.
  3. Spend time building the positions eight or nine to thirteen from our backyard. Keep the local pipeline happy. Of course, there has to be an incentive to sit on the bench at UCLA versus start for a low or mid-major. That's the segue to the final point.
  4. Build the UCLA brand. Vague - I know. Players want to visit Kentucky; they just want the offer - even if they don't want to go there. That's where our brand (not our recruiting style) needs to be. It will take a lot of winning, keeping up in the arms race with facilities, and a coach with K, Calipari, Stevens, or Donovan-level gravitas.

I have shifted a bit.  It's a West Coast plus strategy.  Take parts of what the others are doing, but work the local angle that they don't naturally have albeit "local" has a shrinking meaning.  At the very least, until Star Trek-like transporters are a reality, there will be many players who want to stay close to home.

On to the poll.

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