Even for the most avowed Tubby Smith backer (and I would put myself in that category), following Kentucky recruiting in the last few years has been overwhelmingly frustrating. While Coach Smith has been able to reel a host of top recruits, Randolph Morris, Joe Crawford, Rajon Rondo, Jodie Meeks to name a few, there have also been a staggering number of misses, culminating in this past year when the Cats were turned down by every power forward from Brandon Wright to Geert Hammink. If one looks at the total Tubby Smith recruiting portfolio, it is clear that he is not a bad recruiter, but in recent years, the man who notched top recruits like Keith Bogans, Tayshaun Prince and Marvin Stone (don’t laugh) has seemed to have lost a bit of his mojo. The question was of course why.
Well in my opinion, there were two main reasons for the difficulties. One often overlooked reason was the loss from the staff of George Felton. Often forgotten by the fans, George Felton was the KING of the AAU Circuit and no one knew better than Felton that winning over the AAU coaches was a key ingredient in getting players. Many college decisions are made during AAU season and no one knew the AAU landscape like Felton. His loss hurt Kentucky in that respect and no one has really stepped up with knowledge of that scene to replace him.
But the second reason was much more crucial. For the past few seasons, the recruiting at Kentucky has been completely and totally disorganized. I cannot stress this point enough. Until this most recent class, the staff has been out in left field about discovering and identifying the best players in a class early enough to get involved and make waves. It used to be that recruiting began the summer before a player’s senior year and that before then, only a few players were known. Now the best players in the country are all identified before their junior years and that summer is the time to begin recruiting the best of the best. Kentucky simply has not been doing that.
The job of knowing, identifying and building relationships early is done by the top programs by assistant coaches. At Kentucky it simply was not getting done. Thus players like current Dayton commit Chris Wright, a lifelong UK fan, could get no interest from the University he loved and the Cats lost a player who they would now give anything to have.
But at some point last year, Tubby Smith realized that something was wrong and has decided to correct the ship. As anyone who has followed Kentucky recruiting in recent years can tell you, there is a different Tubby Smith on the recruiting trail. Tubby Smith has taken an individual interest in recruits that is now moving into territory that should often be done by assistants. He is making NUMEROUS personal visits to games, showing up every time his top target Patrick Patterson breathes and making his presence known for a number of players. Whether this is a reflection of the absence of production from assistants or a change in attitude, Tubby has changed the way Kentucky recruits and the status may soon pay dividends.
As we approach the 07 recruiting class, Kentucky’s needs are clear. They need MULTIPLE big players. In the past, Kentucky would identify a couple big targets, have a backup or two and assume they would get one of these players. When that happened (as with the Morris class), the results were great….when it didnt (as in their power forward search last year and with this season’s senior class) they were left searching for leftovers. Not this year. Kentucky is now in the top 5 of a HOST of big men, ranging from number 15-85 in the rankings. Over the next couple of days, I will update what is going on with these players but names such as Patrick Patterson, Anthony Randolph, JJ Hickson, Josh Southern, Marcus Morris, Markief Morris, AJ Steward, Julian Vaughn, Mike Scott, Chandler Parsons, and Ayodele Coker are all big men with STERLING credentials and all are very gettable UK recruits.
This means that for the first time in recent years, Kentucky not only has viable top targets, but they also have top notch backup plans. That is a huge change. And at the head of that change is Tubby who is taking a hands-on interest in these kids in ways never before seen. The Cats’ top target, Patrick Patterson, has received so much attention from Kentucky that if they lose him, there really will be nothing else they could have done…..that is a statement that I dont remember ever saying about UK recruiting before.
Will all this pay off? The numbers suggest yes. A class with 2 or 3 of the above names and point guard Jai Lucas could set Kentucky up wonderfully for the future. That is a top 5 class and one that combined with this year’s freshman, makes Kentucky a contender for the next 2-3 years. Maybe the Cats will strike out with all….that happens. But for the first time in recent years, the possibility of failure is lessened by a change in philosophy…..greater numbers of targets, earlier identification of those targets and the movement of much work from the assistants (who have overseen some difficulties) to the head coach. The summer has set up well for the Cats. We will see if they can finish.