ST. LOUIS — Jim Crews stood front and center, a microphone in one hand and a fake gold medal in the other. Before he began passing out awards to the sweaty, waist-high kids who had just finished a Saint Louis University basketball summer camp, the coach made one last request.
“Raise your hand if you met someone new this week,” Crews said.
The children, seated in rows on a gym floor, threw their arms into the air.
“That’s awesome!” Crews responded, and everyone felt happy.
Earlier that afternoon, the coach had been in his office, discussing a subject that, while less warm and fuzzy, was pretty much the same. According to Crews, recruiting really boils down to relationships.
“It’s always about people,” Crews said when asked to describe what it has been like, being back in the business of procuring letters of intent from teenagers.
“Even if I wasn’t recruiting, you’re always dealing with people,” he continued. “It’s a great thing, an enjoyable thing, an interesting thing. You learn a lot from some of the young ones, some of the parents and grandpas. It’s fun.”
When SLU made the decision in April to move Crews from interim to full-time head coach, there were some concerns about how the assistant to late SLU coach Rick Majerus could and would acquire talent.
The 59-year-old had been a head coach before, at Evansville and Army. But he had never recruited for the Billikens. One thing was certain: He wasn’t going to be the coach swooning 17-year-olds by sending them 30 letters in one day. In fact, ask him about that tactic, and watch his face contort like you stepped on his toe.
“Everyone has different ways,” he says flatly. “And that’s fine.”
If Billiken fans needed Crews to deliver a load of five-star, one-and-done players immediately to calm their doubts about the future of SLU hoops, dream on. But taking into consideration where Crews and his staff are now compared to where they started, some of that initial worry can be washed away. Crews is operating the same way Majerus did. He’s locating the players he thinks fit the SLU system, and he’s plugging them in.
“Having an interim position, they’ve done a great job of going out and getting guys,” senior SLU forward Jake Barnett said. “We’ve got four guys who are legitimately good. Sometimes, you can’t always say that confidently. All four recruits we have are going to have a chance to make an impact.”
Crews wasn’t asked to recruit when he joined Majerus’ staff headed into the 2011-12 season. Then, when Majerus’ declining health required him to take a leave of absence last year, Crews circled the wagons as the interim. For at least six weeks, the Billikens shut recruiting down so the staff could focus solely on a team that finished with a school-record 28 wins, one victory short of the Sweet 16. When it finally came time to dive back in, Crews and his assistants were encouraging kids to join a team that had gone 54-15 the past two seasons, but was without an official head coach for 2013-14.
“Amazingly, the reception has been very, very positive throughout,” Crews said. “Even when they didn’t know who would be coaching.”
The SLU coaching staff — a group that includes Crews, tenured basketball veterans Jim Whitesell and Jim Platt, along with first-year assistant Tanner Bronson and new director of basketball operations Mike Lepore — has filled four scholarship spots so far.
“There’s a good mix,” senior forward Dwayne Evans said of SLU’s new combination of coaches. “You’ve got some older guys who have been around the game for God knows how long. And you’ve got some young talent in there, too. They do a really good job of mixing and matching, pitching from different angles.”
The three signed freshmen include Tanner Lancona, a 6-foot-8 forward from Las Flores, Calif., whom Evans called “Cody-esque” in reference to former Billiken Cody Ellis; Reggie Agbeko, a 6-8 power forward/center from Ghana who played at South Kent, a basketball-centered prep school in Connecticut; and Mike Crawford, a 6-5 guard/forward from Tipton, Ind., who committed before Crews earned the full-time title.
Also, Villanova transfer Achraf Yacoubou is on board. A 6-4 guard who logged an average of 12 minutes per game for the Wildcats last year, Yacoubou will sit out this season due to NCAA transfer rules.
And then there is the wild card. SLU has an open scholarship that may or not be used this year.
“One thing our staff has done a great job of is being very patient,” Crews said. “We haven’t gotten anxious, which is easy to do, probably. If something comes up that we think is going to be a good fit, that’s great. If it doesn’t, that’s fine, too.”
If there are more detailed plans for that remaining roster spot, they are being guarded as closely as Crews’ expectations for his first recruiting class at SLU.
“We won’t know until we get them, and see how they all fit in,” Crews said. “You never know. Some kids really explode when the get into college. Some kids struggle. Timing is different for each kid. But we are excited about them.”
When a team shuts down recruiting altogether, then starts it up again with a coach who only recently received confirmation of his job, a reason to be excited is saying something.
Follow Ben Frederickson on Twitter (@Ben_Fred), or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org