Welcome to the final installment of our 3-part series on the challenges of recruiting Virginia basketball. We've talked about what's happened, we've talked about why it's happening. The logical next step is discussing how to address it all. Today, in this final installment, we're going to make some broad, open-ended recommendations and talk about where all of this is heading as the 2018 cycle winds down and the 2019 cycle heats up this spring and summer.
Section 4: The Recommendations
I want to open by reiterating how I closed Part II, which is to say that there are a lot of factors that are affecting recruiting, and very few of them are things really up for debate. There's a reason I titled the first breakout of variables in Part II "non-negotiables." Those things aren't going to change. If you want them to, then you're rooting for the wrong program. We will always be a high character, high academic, right way school, and that's reflective of not only the coaches but the administrators, the alumni, and the students. If a kid wants an easy academic load, or he wants fringe benefits or a job for his AAU coach, or he wants a guaranteed feature role for the NBA evaluators, then write him off right away.
But frankly, given all the non-negotiables shrinking the recruit pool for the program, it only underlines the importance of maximizing our position with the remaining players. The margin of error for recruiting with Virginia is much more narrow than it is for many other programs, who have a much deeper pool of top 150 prospects they can recruit. It's not fair, of course - you'd like to think that the prestigious academic profile and the run of on-court success would be enough to give Virginia an edge in a ton of recruiting battles. But unfortunately for far too many kids, the primary drivers are (a) the promises (however empty) rival coaches will make about playing time, shot counts, and NBA draft position, and (b) the "benefits" that come to athletes at those schools, be they easy academics, cushy dorms, or illicit payments/gifts. So with the deck so stacked against Virginia in many respects, it means it's incredibly critical that we take a good hard look at each and every variable left under the school's control, to whatever degree, and ask what could be done to improve Virginia's recruiting standing that doesn't hurt the brand or the win-loss record elsewhere.
First and foremost, of course, is to protect the "selling points" under the new President and AD. I'm not actually worried about it, for what it's worth, they're all pretty ingrained into the fabric of either UVA or Tony's program. But it's worth mentioning. Tony is going to keep this program winning, and he's going to continue to cultivate a family atmosphere and be among the best in the business at developing underrated players. The school and VAF just need to keep the coaches happy, keep the facilities good, and keep the fans coming out for more.
So then where is the realistic room for improvement? What's within UVA's control, as opposed to what's largely up to external factors or chance?
Out of our control, we just have to be patient that a few things happen in the near-enough term for Bennett and UVA to capitalize. We have to keep our fingers crossed that this current crop of highly talented youngsters on our roster can put together a kind of mind-changing run, ending in at least a Final Four, and/or preferably catapulting one of the young men into the NBA Draft Lottery. So much of this is just lightning in a bottle, the right combination of chemistry, team health, a shooting hot streak, and a favorable NCAA Tournament draw, that just has to crystallize one of these years. All of a sudden we become a hot program again. Couple that with continued retirements of some of our rival coaches (K, Roy, Boeheim, Larranaga, Self, and Izzo all are at or near those AARP years, and maybe the FBI investigation ripples bring down Sean Miller or others), and quickly Coach Bennett becomes one of those elder statesman elite coaches that finally gets more respect around the high school circuits, much like Coach Brey has done.
But I hope the program isn't just waiting for those events to happen. There are still some factors in UVA's control that they need to be continually working to improve. So here's my 6-Step Plan:
1) Develop a recruit-oriented promotional strategy - This is one that Carla Williams' new administration may need to take the reins on. Coach Bennett has the feel of a guy who hates self-promotion; in a lot of ways it runs counter to the humility pillar. He'd rather just coach and develop relationships, and let national media narratives and recruiting trail whispers fade into white noise. But unfortunately, self promotion is an integral part of not only selling season tickets, but also selling the program to recruits and their families/coaches. College coaches have to continually evaluate how they deliver their message in recruiting, and in the 21st century that extends far beyond phone calls, in-homes, and campus visits. These kids are being exposed to college basketball media constantly, with their smart phone notifications ringing 24/7.
Rival programs are capitalizing. Their official accounts are doing more than just recapping last night's game or promoting this week's Coach Call-In show. Take a look at this recent Tweet from the Notre Dame official basketball account:
"Freedom to Play - Even for a freshman." That is not geared towards the fans. That is geared 100% towards recruits and their inner circles. "Hey, future Irish, see what our high ranked freshmen get to do!"
I'm not saying Tony needs to get a Twitter account... frankly Buzz Williams' is a joke. But the official accounts for the program, on Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and whatever the next (or current... what do I know, I'm over 30!) platform is, all need to be run with a mind toward the 17 year old 4-stars reading them. Boomerang highlights. Throw shade on rivals. Cherry pick statistics and narratives and top plays to emphasize the message that Virginia is THE place to be. Find a bright intern from the student body with a passion for hoops and some killer social media game and turn them loose.
In this vein, find a way to transform the family-oriented Pepsi Blue-White Scrimmage into something a little sexier. I get that there's always a challenge within McCue to deconflict this event from football, and no one wants to undo the kid-friendly nature per se. But there are tweaks the program can make, be it scheduling or format or "sideshows" (UK can get Drake, can't we get Pharrell?!), to make the event more of a "must attend." We're a perennial Top 10 team, let's have a Midnight Madness event that we deserve.
2) Be mindful of roster construction and redshirts - Redshirts, as discussed in Part II, are a touchy subject with high school targets. I get why Bennett does it, and it's not as if I don't agree with it in most cases. The medical and transfer redshirts are undavoidable. The international redshirts are also readily explained. The perception problem lies in the redshirting of domestic Top 150 prospects like Devon Hall, Jay Huff, and De'Andre Hunter. Huff makes sense, and it was always part of the plan from the moment he committed, given how much his body needed to change. For Devon and Dre, it's not as much about the results. Nearing the end of his career it's safe to say Devon's was probably the right choice for his development. There's an argument that Hunter's however, was ill conceived, given how poorly Marial and Darius played in ACC competition last year. I know a lot of smart hoops people who thought Hunter could've broken into the rotation much as Kyle and Ty cracked the starting lineup late. It would've had the added benefit of having Hunter a little more game-ready this year as he steps into major minutes.
So really, it's about the optics. It scares off top prospects who simply do not want to sit as a freshman. Read Jeff White's recent VirginiaSports piece on Mamadi and you can hear him talk about his frustration redshirting and then playing inconsistent minutes as a freshman. He simply likes playing basketball, and watching other people play instead hurts.
At the end of the day, this is about depth, and Hunter was recruited behind a very deep returning backcourt, which certainly played a major role in the redshirt decision. This then means very careful roster curation, so that you're not inviting top ranked players into a crowded roster situation where you know you're going to give deference to experience over young talent. Of course it's as much art as science, because you're trying to predict attrition (NBA, transfer, etc) a year or more out. But given the danger in over-recruiting, I'm only asking that Tony be very careful about (a) first bringing in 4-star talent when you know there's a good chance they may sit their first year, and (b) placing a shirt on a player who has the talent to overtake the veterans that season should he prove worthy.
3) Further empower the assistants - Tony simply has to trust his assistants just a hair more to make offers when he cannot quickly become involved. Some recruitments move very fast, kids blow up over the course of a weekend, and sometimes the only coach well situated to make sure Virginia is a player is the assistant coach on the scene. Let the assistants have the latitude to make the initial scholarship offer and really start pushing kids to get on Grounds and commit. This goes double for the assistants who have spent years with Tony, who by this point share a mind on most program aspects. This isn't a silver bullet, of course, but it helps us stay agile and forward-leaning in very close recruiting battles.
4) Be decisive early in the recruiting cycle - This really isn't something that the staff doesn't already do, just something we really want to reinforce for future behavior. The secret of our 2016 class success was scoring the early commitments of Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy, when both of them were in the first semester of their junior years, and before either became major national recruiting targets. While the staff had certainly put out offers in the summer of 2016 for the 2018 class, there didn't seem to be a major sense of urgency to lock in one or two "cornerstone of the class" early commitments. This may have been because a few key targets really had the staff's attention, and maybe those players were giving our staff assurances that we should be patient and we'd be okay, so our staff were prepared to wait out those recruitments before pushing with them or others. We saw how that turned out.
To be sure, there's a fine like to walk here. The earlier in a HS career you evaluate and offer, the bigger the risk in the player not panning out. For instance, maybe you're projecting some continued development or physical maturation that isn't guaranteed. Or maybe you're basing it off of performance against lesser competition, as opposed to waiting for them to hit the senior 17U AAU circuit and see how they fare against other high-major talent. So this really only goes for players the staff is really sold on. But when the staff is sold, like they were with Ty Jerome or Kyle Guy, then press and press hard to close out the recruitment before or during the players' Junior season. Given all the non-negotiables ruling out a large percentage of a recruiting class from the get go, and the stiff competition for the remaining players once they hit the primary AAU circuits before their senior years, getting in early on the right kids is an advantage we can't fail to leverage.
5) Recognize when time is better spent elsewhere - The flip side to the recommendation above, being decisive early, is knowing when to cut bait and move on from a recruitment that's stalled. The staff gets in on some kids early in the process, and because the kid is really talented, a great potential fit, and saying the right things, Bennett understandably hangs in there. But for whatever reason, there comes an expiration point in the recruitment, where if the player was going to commit, or going to visit, he would have. If over the course of months of hard recruitment, he just can't find a free weekend, or just "isn't ready" to pull a trigger, Bennett has to suck it up and move on to the next player on the list. I'm pressed to recall the last time we offered a player early in his junior year, only to see the recruitment stretch into his senior circuit summer and it end up in UVA's favor. When Tony offers a kid, he tends to commit within a couple months, or soon after a campus visit, or it doesn't happen at all. Maybe this is because the recruit has stars in his eyes and is waiting on that Blue Blood offer. Or maybe he has his mind set on being an early NBA entrant and is just never going to get over concerns that UVA's team balance or system/pace might not get him there. Or maybe there's a trusted member of the recruit's family or HS/AAU coaching staff that is just never going to be sold on Virginia for a multitude of reasons. Whatever the root, the staff has to continue to stay vigilant in knowing when to hold them and when to fold them.
6) Keep thinking offense - I'm not saying we can't, or won't, win with Sides, but as we covered in Part II, the national perception about our offensive System is hurting us on the trail, making a lot of kids and their coaches skeptical. Sides is a far more versatile offensive system than many give it credit for. A lot of us think back to a comment from the 2013-14 team (I think it was Joe Harris but I'm struggling to find the quote) about the offense playing on rails, where the system was flawless because the offense had rigid, predefined movements and the players didn't have to read/react as much as simply run the set plays. But it's not really accurate. It can be that way, sure, lots of systems can be. But while previous iterations of this team, especially when London Perrantes was orchestrating it, preferred to operate with primarily off-ball down screens and flares freeing up catch-and-shoots, the truth is our guards have the freedom to use ball screens, and feed our bigs for post ups, just like any other offense. Ditto the use of floor-spacing stretch-4s. Lastly, nothing about the system mandates a crawling pace either. So within the current system, the staff should continue to emphasize a variety of movements, a variety of scoring mechanisms, opportunistic shots earlier in the shot clock, not bleeding the shot clock on crossing the time line or initiating the motion, etc. Lots of small tweaks or added emphases within the current system will change the way fans and recruits see our system, and hopefully change the pace statistics just enough that they're not a constant drag on us.
And here's the bold part of this suggestion... the next time an assistant coach spot opens, think offense when making the hire.
If Nick Saban can hire Lane Kiffin, then Tony Bennett can find a place on the bench for a bright young offensive mind. I'm not going to use this space to delve into a full X's-and-O's of where I'd like to see the offense go, because Seattle Hoo has already done that in his Blitzkreig series. The offense this year is better than last year, if nothing else thanks to the guys who are playing in it. But at the end of the day it's the same system as it has been, with some cosmetic improvements to the style and pace. We have to acknowledge that Sides isn't changing under the coaching staff as constructed today.
So while I'm not recommending or even hoping that the current staff try to reinvent the offense today (remember November and December of 2013?), next time one of our assistants moves on, offensive philosophy (with proven results) should be a major consideration in picking the replacement.Tony should still be the GM and the defensive mastermind, of course, but within the framework those provide, there's no reason he can't find a young up-and-comer to oversee the installation of a more open, downhill offensive scheme. And for what it's worth, we are not advocating a run-and-gun; simply looking for an offensive tempo somewhat closer to the national average and a greater emphasis on decisive ball movement and improved floor spacing. [Ed. Note: Downhill offense with greater empahsis on decisive ball movement and improved floor spacing also improves chances of winning games today, given the current rules of NCAA basketball and how games are officiated.]
Frankly, recruits understand that the current staff is wedded to Sides and the grinding offensive pace. Anything Tony says on the recruiting trail about opening up the offense is going to ring very hollow. But if all of a sudden he can point to his new offensive wunderkind, those reassurances suddenly have credence. Bonus points if this young coach is also someone that recruits and their coaches really connect with, and/or has some historical ties to fertile recruiting territories like Atlanta, Carolina, DC, or NY/NJ.
Bonus #1) Be introspective about our closing pitch. The previous 12 months have seen a strong group of recruits come to Charlottesville for a program visit, be blown away (by JPJ, by the team, by Tony, you name it), and leave town right on the edge of committing. But they didn't. They go home to think about it, and for whatever reason (many times the undermining voices of their advisors), they're encouraged to continue to take visits, or give another shot to a favored hometown program, and Virginia ultimately gets left in the cold. This hasn't always been a problem, but it was this past cylce, as the likes of Noah Dickerson, Aaron Wiggins, Luther Muhammed, and Jared Butler all had gang-busters campus visits and left on commitment watch, but failed to pull the trigger. I don't know what the answer here is, this is one of those incredibly close-hold discussion areas that we're not privy to, all we can see is the end results after hearing a lot of post-visit optimism from our sources. As such I won't make recommendations, only encourage it be an area the staff continues to self-evaluate.
Bonus #2) Let the NBPA Top 100 Camp Contract Expire. It's certainly not helping us, and in many instances it's probably hurting us. It's a nice honor to have it, and 10 years ago when we weren't swimming in the Top 100 pool anyways, it was probably no big deal. But those days are gone, and if a priority target is coming to Charlottesville, let's have it be for us, not for the Camp.
None of these are must-do's. Clearly I'm just a fan and a blogger, so I'm basing these thoughts only on my perspective. The solution may be all of these, some partial combination, or something else entirely. But I'm hoping to see the staff continue to be mindful of the things holding Virginia back on the recruiting trail, appreciate those that are within their sphere of influence, and continue to improve year over year.
Section 5: The Outlook
There's a reason I titled this series "the Crossroads," and that's because I think the level of recruiting success we have over the next 12 months is going to largely dictate the near future of the program, both in terms of setting the ceiling of the 2016 class (who need good depth behind them to potentially win it all as upperclassmen), and continuing this run of dominance as those 2016 recruits begin to graduate or leave for the pros.
The optimistic take is that there's still time. To be sure, there are some very immediate needs. That 50 mpg we talked about in Part I being needed for next season? Still arguably a problem. So let's recap the roster for the next few years, making some conservative predictions about player expectations. For what it's worth, I think the ideal rotation in any given year roughly breaks down to three guards, two wings, and four posts of ACC readiness, with maybe one more developmental freshman (think Marco Anthony) that can pick up minutes in a punch. Obviously there is a little bleed between the positions. And of course, you should always be hedging against attrition to some degree, so take that target 10 and build in an additional scholarship player of buffer.
Ty Jerome - Junior - Starter
Kyle Guy - Junior - Starter
Kihei Clark - Freshman - Redshirt / Low-Usage Reserve
DeAndre Hunter - RS Sophomore - Starter
Marco Anthony - Sophomore - Low/Mid-Usage Reserve
Kody Stattmann - Freshman - Redshirt / Low-Usage Reserve
Jack Salt - RS Senior - Starter
Mamadi Diakite - RS Junior - Starter
Jay Huff - RS Sophomore - Solid Reserve
Frankie Badocchi - RS Freshman - Low/Mid-Usage Reserve
Assessment: We actually feel pretty good about our returners next year. The starters are all plus ACC players, ranging from capable role players to stars. The debate will revolve around the bench. The very limited reports we hear on both Huff and Badocchi are encouraging, Huff is very close, maybe enough to contribute this year, but certainly to be the first big off the bench next season. Badocchi will play a very similar role to Wilkins' freshman year, where by ACC play he'd become a regular part of a 4-big rotation with Gill, Atkins, and Tobey, with an emphasis on athleticism and defense.
The question marks will be in the backcourt, where behind the starting trio of Jerome, Guy, and Hunter, we'll be relying on an unproven Anthony and low-rated freshmen of questionable readiness. The importance for guard/wing depth is double if the hope is to continue the ability to slide Hunter to the 4-spot.
Needs: Assuming no attrition (we're considering this a minor risk right now, at least on the transfer front; injuries you never know), we see a major need for a ball-handling guard to let the staff bring Clark along or use him more situationally, and a moderate need for a wing. The need for a wing is diminished if Anthony proves ready for 15-20 minutes a night off the bench at the 2/3 spot (realistic chance), or the international Stattmann proves a pleasant surprise (long shot).
Scholarships Available: 3
Ty Jerome - Senior - Starter
Kyle Guy - Senior - Starter
Kihei Clark - Soph / RS Fresh - Low/Mid-Usage Reserve
DeAndre Hunter - RS Junior - Starter
Marco Anthony - Junior - Solid Reserve
Kody Stattmann - Soph / RS Fresh - Low/Mid-Usage Reserve
Mamadi Diakite - RS Senior - Starter
Jay Huff - RS Junior - Starter/Solid Reserve
Frankie Badocchi - RS Sophomore - Starter/Solid Reserve
Assessment: The starting lineup for 2019-20 is probably already on Grounds, assuming no attrition on early NBA defections (which we deem a low/moderate risk by this point). Jerome, Guy, and Hunter will return as the starting backcourt, with Mamadi starting alongside either Huff or Badocchi (for those unsure about Badocchi leap-frogging Huff, look at the 2015-16 season where defense-oriented athletic sophomore Wilkins started over offense-oriented senior 7-footer Tobey). The entire bench should return as well, all with an additional year of development.
Needs: We still project Clark's usage at this point in his career to be situational, so similar to the year before, there's a need for a point/combo guard to be ready to come off the bench. By this point the staff will have a good feeling of the potential for both Marco and Kody, and if one or both of them is struggling to achieve ACC-level readiness, we've got a real need for a wing here; there's also a growing possibility Hunter leverages a blowup 2018-19 season to head early to the NBA, again driving a potential wing need. Lastly, there's a definite need for another big man in the rotation, so a Day-1 ready big man should absolutely be part of the 2019 class.
Scholarships Available: 1 + any unused in 2018.
Kihei Clark - Junior / RS Sophomore
DeAndre Hunter - RS Senior - Starter
Marco Anthony - Senior
Kody Stattmann - Junior / RS Sophomore
Jay Huff - RS Senior - Starter
Frankie Badocchi - RS Junior
Assessment & Needs: I won't bother projecting too much this far out, other to accentuate that we stand to have lost a lot by the summer of 2020. This could be even worse if (a) Hunter and/or Huff, who each have very NBA-desired skill sets and physical makeups, do enough by then to get a 1st round grade, or (b) some of the lower-rated recruits don't pan out and transfer out. By this point, there are severe needs at every position, and the last thing the staff wants is for those needs to be filled by either freshmen or by newly-eligible transfers. There need to be experienced players ready to inherit starting roles, meaning they need to be on the roster and playing the previous year.
For the Spring 2018 recruiting period, the staff is going to be watching the coaching change market hard. There aren't any real uncommitted targets left on the board, and frankly looking across CBB we don't see any obvious pairings of Hot Seat coaches and likely rebound recruitments. But never say never. We may see the staff go the grad transfer route yet again to find a guard to bridge the backcourt depth until 2019. I think the staff rolls the dice on Marco being a solid reserve, and Clark filling that 10th man role, so just bringing in one more guard completes the team for the 2018-19 season.
I will say that when it comes to the 2018-2019 season, our prospects are largely based on bringing back the entire eligible roster. Given the lack of recruiting success in the 2018 cycle, the margin is incredibly thin here when it comes to sufficient ACC-level depth. After this past offseason where we saw three outbound transfers, and given the prolific transfer numbers across college basketball in general, it should not be wholly assumed that we'll be spared. Not projecting anything specific, but you always like to see a little insurance depth, and this year we simply don't have that.
When it comes to recruiting 2019 targets (or transfers coming eligible in 2019), it is critical that the staff brings in at a minimum 3 top players. These need to be freshman-ready talents to not only play meaningful rotation player minutes in the 2019-20 season, where there's currently a projected need for both a versatile guard and a big man to play significant roles (more if there's attrition), but to then promptly become starters and leaders as sophomores, much as we've seen Ty and Kyle do this year.
So then tying all this back in to the bigger picture in this series... how do we feel about the staff's ability to bring in the needed talent?
We can still be okay. Yes it would've been great to stack next year's team with 4- and 5-star freshmen reserves to round out our 9-deep. The only position where I think we'll truly be hurting next year, due to the 2018 class recruiting struggles, is at the point/combo guard spot. There's a reason that down the stretch last summer/fall, coach Bennett was hard at work trying to find a combo guard to play behind Kyle and Ty for two years. The high probability of being on the bench behind those two for two years was understandably a tough hurdle for Tony to overcome, even if that player would still see starter-level minutes most every night over those two years. But maybe that's not as high a hurdle for a grad transfer who is more post-season focused, or again for a 2019 PG who's only looking at one year coming off the bench.
So there's no denying that the 2019 group is a make-or-break recruiting class if we want to expect the team to be reloading come 2020 instead of rebuilding. We need players at all three position groups. The staff is out pushing hard, having identified some early priorities, getting a lot of those players in for games, and going to see them during down times in the season. The knock on the staff's quieter approach to recruiting in-season appears to have been addressed to a large degree already this year. We'll see how well the staff can find one or two cornerstone recruits and get verbal commitments before Memorial Day. The staff is in excellent position with a few key targets already, and should they be able to close those out, the remainder of the class can be built over the summer. Just my humble opinion, I think the wing position isn't addressed with any real emphasis until after Stattmann gets on Grounds and the staff can work him out with the team, really understand what his development curve and timeline looks like, and base wing needs on that.
That means the early priorities are going to be guard and big man. For the back court, keep an eye on names like PGs Casey Morsell (who just visited for the NC State game) and Justin Moore, and CGs Maceo Austin (visited for Monmouth) and Drake London of California (planning to visit this spring). In the front court, the staff is putting an early push on for the likes of Oscar Tshiebwe (visited for Monmouth), DJ Burns, and Eric Dixon (visited for UNC). There are plenty of additional targets who we could see get hot in the coming months, so we encourage our readers to keep track of our Big Board for the latest names and status.
I'm going to have Memorial Day down as a key milestone. The staff absolutely needs to have at least 1, preferably 2 good commitments in place by then. If any of the names above have not committed, it should tell the staff it's time to move on. I'll count any top 2018s or D-1 transfers the staff snags on the rebound off a coaching change elsewhere. Not counting grad transfers here since that's a 1-year bandaid, not a long term depth solution, which is the concern. After Memorial Day, the staff's historical success rate plummets. Yes we have Wilkins, Malcolm, and Hunter as late-in-the-cycle finds, but the bulk of our best players have committed before entering their 17U summer.
Thanks for hanging with me through this sometimes rambling exercise. I know it was long; I know it was complex. When I set out to put proverbial pen to paper on the topic of our difficult 2018 recruiting cycle, I didn't realize how wide a web I'd eventually weave. But as an engineer in my day job, I'm inclined to go the extra mile to really break a problem down into its foundational elements, try to organize them logically, and then work through those elements steadily.
As I've said a couple places in this piece, this process has truly helped me appreciate the depth of the difficulties our staff faces in recruiting. And I also appreciate just how hard our staff is working, and how deeply they're invested, in doing whatever they have to do to win now as much as win tomorrow.
This will be a very exciting spring and summer on the recruiting front, for better or worse, and one we at Hoos Place will be covering for you as it unfolds. No one is hoping more than we are that this all ends well, and the stage gets set for this golden era of Virginia basketball to stretch for years to come. And no one is more thrilled than I am that Tony Bennett and his staff are the ones at the helm putting all these pieces together.
Wahoowa, and let's get this squad to San Antonio!