College basketball’s off-season is always slow, a time where we’re all grasping for any piece of relevant information or news we can use to help pass the time. Adding a quarantine, where we’re all sitting around and twittling our thumbs as is, certainly doesn’t help any.
Still, even a quarantine can’t hold John Calipari back. He’s got his “Coffee with Cal” series coming up here in the next few days, and also had a regular media availability the other day as well. There, Cal had a lot to say, but it was one quote on transfers that really caught my attention.
“Now, with recruiting going forward, now you’re looking at, okay, who’s transferring?” Calipari said. “Can we find another Nate (Sestina)? Another Reid (Travis)? Add to what we have.”
Now admittedly that might not sound like all that compelling a quote, especially by Calipari standards. Yet it kind of sort of addresses a big, elephant in the room to me. For weeks, I’ve seemingly had at least one Kentucky fan ask me every day “Why aren’t we more active in the grad transfer market?” I think this sort of answers the question.
How is that? Well as always with Calipari, you can’t read a quote and take it at the surface-level. You have to think, “What is Cal really trying to say?” And in this case, what I believe he is hinting at this: “Yes, we’re looking to add a transfer or two. But just like with the high school kids, it’s got to be the right fit for us.”
Now, before we move forward, I already know what you’re thinking: “Making sure a kid is ‘the right fit’ is like Recruiting 101. Everyone knows that.”
And that’s certainty true. Yet in talking with a bunch of coaches across the country in recent weeks, I think it’s extra important in this particular off-season, especially with transfers. It’s extra important in the grad transfer game – where you only have a short window to “get it right” and get the most out of the player – and it’s especially important right now, during the quarantine. Because with no face-to-face meetings and no visits to campus, it’s harder than ever to get a feel for a kid and how they will fit in your program. It’s also easier than ever to make a mistake. A mistake which may cost you cost you the entire next season if you’re not careful.
What do I mean by all this? Well, it’s simple really. Remember, just like every high school kid, grad transfers are all looking for something a little bit different in the school they choose. But really, most are all looking for the same thing. They only have one year of college basketball left, so they are looking to put themselves in the best possible position to maximize their game and exposure. It’s something that Matt Haarms said the other day, when he mentioned that he was looking for a place where he could show off his “NBA skill-set.” Ultimately that’s no knock on Haarms, but instead a reflection of how most grad transfers think.
That however, poses two issues for the colleges recruiting them. Issue No. 1 is, are these players coming to your school for themselves, or are they really going to buy into the team concept and being good teammates? Furthermore, are they realistic about how good they actually are, and what role they can actually play at their new school?
Again, it sounds simple, but I’ve heard some horror stories these last few weeks from coaches across the country who are dealing with these issues.
One Pac-12 assistant shared a story about calling a kid who averaged somewhere in the neighborhood of 17-18 points per game at a low major school last year, and was looking to transfer up. At first the kid said all the right things about wanting to play on a bigger stage, have a shot at the NCAA Tournament all that stuff. It was only later in the call that the kid said that he also expected to get the same number of shots that he’d had at the last school, average the same number of points (or more!) and essentially have the whole offense run through him. This program, which returns several starters next year and brings in a few high-profile recruits had to kindly say “Thank you, but no thank you” and move onto the next guy.
An ACC assistant shared a similar story with me the other day. They were recruiting a similar kid – big numbers at a small school – who wanted to transfer up but keep a similar role at the last school he played at. The coach added, “The kid’s team was terrible, won four or five games last season. I don’t care how many points you average, do you impact winning?” In the case of this kid the answer seemed no, and again the school passed.
It also doesn’t help that even when you think you have a fit, it’s hard to really know because right now there is no face-to-face contact between recruit and coach with no on-campus recruiting allowed. Sure, there are Zoom and FaceTime calls, but it’s not the same as getting the kid and his family on campus and really getting a feel for if they’re the right fit or not.
It also heightens just how spectacular the fits of Nate Sestina and Reid Travis were the last few years. Last year Sestina came in and never had any misconceptions about what his role would be. He wouldn’t be a star, he might not even start. He’d come off the bench, provide energy, toughness and the occasional three-point shot. Sometimes he’d take eight shots, a game, sometimes he’d take two. And he’d be happy with it. It was the same with Travis the year before – he had won a bunch of individual awards at Stanford but wanted to make a deep NCAA Tournament run. He got that, and was a few minutes away from returning to his hometown of Minneapolis for the Final Four.
So in the end, yes, I’m sure Kentucky will be active in the transfer market, especially the later this off-season goes and as they get better clarification on who will stay and who will leave school.
But be patient, because as the old saying goes “Kentucky isn’t for everyone.”
That isn’t just high school recruits, but college kids as well.