On Friday, Bill Self became the best recruiter in the country.
I can already feel the blue blood boiling in Big Blue Nation. Call anyone but John Calipari the nation’s best recruiter and it feels like heresy. It’s almost become an article of faith in today’s college basketball world that if you’re a one-and-done talent looking for the best place to develop your game before heading to the NBA, you take your talents to Lexington, no questions asked.
But when Cliff Alexander — the No. 5 overall recruit for next season according to Scout.com, a Dwight Howard-like basketball talent who is the most athletic player in the 2014 class — sat at a table at Curie High School in Chicago and put a Jayhawks hat on his head, he very well might have helped shift the balance of power in the recruiting world.
Forget for a moment the immature pump-fake Alexander made when he pretended to pick up an Illinois cap, then went for the Kansas cap (You could hear the hearts shattering in Champaign-Urbana from hundreds of miles away).
When Alexander chose Kansas, the Andrew Wiggins effect showed how powerful it can be.
Bill Self has always been an impressive recruiter, but he’s yet to have that breakout NBA star come out of his system. He’s been incredible at developing talents like Thomas Robinson and Jeff Withey, who turn into NBA-caliber players by their junior or senior year, but one-and-dones haven’t been his signature. Wiggins, the presumptive No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 NBA draft, changed all that.
I spoke with Self for an interview on Fox Sports 1 this week, and I asked him how Andrew Wiggins’ commitment to Kansas changed the dynamic on the recruiting trail. Self told me Wiggins signing at Kansas upped the school’s cachet, adding a “cool factor” when the very best recruits are looking for a stopping ground before the NBA.
Yes, you can point at Self losing out on this recruiting class’s biggest prize — the package deal of No. 1 overall recruit Jahlil Okafor, a big man in the Tim Duncan mold, and the second-best point guard in the country, Tyus Jones, who reminds some scouts of a young Chris Paul — as an example of Self not being able to have his pick of the litter. As expected, those two chose Duke.
And you can point to Kentucky’s recruiting class for this season, which some people call a historically great class in this historically great year for freshmen, as an example of why Coach Cal is still the king of convincing talented teenagers to play basketball for him.
I wouldn’t argue too hard with someone who thinks Coach Cal is still at the top. Nor would I get in a huff if someone tried to tell me the Jones/Okafor package deal shows why Coach K is the best; you can’t argue with a coach who has successfully recruited players over four different decades, in vastly different recruiting eras.
For my money, though, I’m taking Self.
Look: I get that Coach Cal has six freshmen this season who are McDonald’s All-Americans. I get that Coach K successfully wooed Jabari Parker, who was the most impressive freshman at this week’s Champions Classic. And I get that Sean Miller has worked magic in his five seasons at Arizona.
But look at what Self has accomplished in just the past six months.
In May, Wiggins chose Lawrence over Lexington, giving Self the top recruit in the nation, the most hyped high school player since LeBron James. That gave Self the second-best recruiting class in the nation, just a notch behind Calipari’s. I would argue that a decade from now we might end up calling Self’s class the better one, since three players — Wiggins, big man Joel Embiid, and athletic wing Wayne Selden — are all possible lottery picks next year.
In June, Ben McLemore was the seventh pick in the NBA draft after one season playing for Kansas.
Then in October, top-10 overall recruit Kelly Oubre, a 6-foot-7 wing who was the most complete player I saw on the summer circuit, canceled his official visit to Kentucky and signed with Kansas. He apparently was so impressed while attending KU’s “Late Night in the Phog” midnight madness-style event that he’d seen all he needed to see.
That was followed by Alexander picking Kansas on Friday, virtually assuring Self of another top-10 recruiting class.
But the way Self has reinvented his and Kansas’ image — from one of the nation’s most historic, winning programs into a place that’s also getting the flashy one-and-done caliber recruits like Wiggins and Alexander — is remarkable. He’s done it through his personal charm, through his track record in developing players, and through hard work on the recruiting trail to build relationships with these teenage talents and their inner circles.
Even in a world with Coach Cal and Coach K, I’d still take Coach Self.