PADUCAH — That Carlton Bragg wants a scholarship offer to play basketball for the University of Kentucky could not be more clear. But it's not going to make or break his recruitment, and the people around him are making sure it's not going to define his season.
Bragg — a top-10 national prospect in the Class of 2015 — had his first opportunity to play a high school game in front of UK Coach John Calipari earlier this month in a showcase in West Virginia. By all accounts, it wasn't his best showing.
His Villa Angela St. Joseph squad lost to Bishop Gorman (Nev.), which features 7-footer Stephen Zimmerman, one of the seven Class of 2015 prospects who does already have a UK scholarship offer.
Bragg had nine points, 14 rebounds, six assists and four blocks. His shot wasn't falling, but it wasn't necessarily a bad game. Still, he went back home without the UK scholarship offer he was hoping to get that weekend.
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That's not what it's all about, said VASJ Coach Babe Kwasniak.
"I think we learned our lesson last week — not just Carlton, but all of our guys," Kwasniak said. "If you're playing just to get recruited; if you're playing just so Calipari or whoever is watching you, you're going to struggle. And this is coming from a military guy, but if you play for each other and you play to win a state championship, those things kind of have a way of working themselves out in the end."
The Cleveland high school is no stranger to state championships or superstar athletes. Its list of famous alumni includes Clark Kellogg, Desmond Howard, Mike Golic and London Fletcher — all players who went on to successful college and pro careers. And they've all shared their wisdom with Bragg, who's hoping to become the next big name on that list.
Achieving that ultimate goal starts with a successful high school career, not a high-profile college recruitment.
Kwasniak — a West Point graduate and former VASJ basketball standout himself — preaches a "team-first, me-second" philosophy. The Vikings have put together a tough schedule — including games this weekend in Kentucky against nationally ranked teams featuring Cliff Alexander and Trey Lyles — in hopes of coming together as a team and ultimately defending their state championship in March.
To deal with Bragg's recruitment, Kwasniak enlisted Michael Graves, his former high school teammate and a former assistant coach at the school.
Graves, who has known Bragg since eighth grade, is the one who takes the calls from coaches and guides his young player through the recruiting process.
"Mike has just done an incredible job," Kwasniak said. "He's just done an unbelievable job of teaching him life skills. Not just being a basketball player, but how to look people in the eye. ... You talked about the distractions — there's just so many for these young guys. We're not sheltering him from it. We're just trying to put what's first first. And the priority is — if he doesn't learn how to interact with people and he doesn't get his books right — being recruited by Calipari or Thad Matta or John Groce is irrelevant.
"We're trying to prioritize. Teach the young man how to be a man and how to take care of himself. And Coach Graves deserves all of the credit."
Graves said Bragg had a somewhat difficult adjustment from the Cleveland Public Schools system to the private-school atmosphere of Villa Angela St. Joseph. Though his grades early on weren't "a problem," they weren't great either.
Over the last two quarters, Bragg has had grade-point averages of 3.7 and 3.4.
"He had to really buckle down with his books and his approach to the schoolwork," Graves said. "And it's showing right now."
Graves' advice has been pretty straightforward: Enjoy the moment, work hard and good things will happen.
"You only get one shot at this, so go out there and give them a real good effort," he said. "Just let the recruiting handle itself. You can't control who comes to your games. Just go out there and take care of your business."
Bragg has enjoyed himself over the past couple of days in Kentucky, wearing a UK sweatshirt to his team's practice Friday, getting recognized by UK fans at the local Pizza Hut later that day and flashing his "big Kool-Aid smile" — as Graves calls it — just about everywhere he goes.
Saturday night was another opportunity to make an impression on Calipari, who was due in to watch Lyles — a UK signee — take on Bragg in one of the late games.
Bragg already has offers from Arizona, Kansas, Ohio State, Louisville, UCLA and a host of others. He made it clear that Kentucky is the one scholarship offer that he doesn't have but covets most.
Calipari and assistant coach John Robic have already seen him multiple times in the past few months, and Graves noted that UK was one of the schools that calls the most often. He said that Bragg is "waiting patiently" for the offer.
"I'm playing my butt off," Bragg said. "I don't know what else to do. They keep saying they're worried about 2014 (class), so I'll just keep playing hard."
Bragg is aware that UK has offered others in the junior class, but he says it doesn't bother him. "Not at all," he said.
He knows that the only thing he can do is continue to compete and continue to smile. And good things will happen.
"You have to have that personality," he said. "You just have to keep smiling. Play hard. Have fun."