UK Men's Basketball

UK basketball notebook: Recruiting process saps game's joy for some players

Kentucky forward Derek Willis said the hectic lifestyle of a top recruit may have weighed on him in high school. He fell from the top 30 in player rankings to out of the top 100 in his junior year.
Kentucky forward Derek Willis said the hectic lifestyle of a top recruit may have weighed on him in high school. He fell from the top 30 in player rankings to out of the top 100 in his junior year. Herald-Leader

Judging by the ever-increasing attention paid to recruiting, people love the endless series of camps, analysis, ratings and speculation about the who, what, when, where and why of high school players picking a college. With one possible exception: the prospects themselves.

Kentucky freshman Derek Willis noted the gerbil-on-a-treadmill lifestyle of recruits when asked about his own precipitous fall in the ratings (from top 30 to out of the top 100 in his junior year of high school).

"I was running from basketball to basketball," he said. "I didn't have a lot of time to hang out with my friends and just be a kid.

"It was always centered around basketball. I think it took a toll on me because for a moment it felt like I wasn't enjoying it."

Basketball became less a game and more a career path. Not having fun affected his play.

"It did," Willis said, "because you don't want to do something if you're not enjoying it."

The monster we're creating hit home last week with the rabid speculation of what school would get a commitment from James Blackmon Jr. One website listed predictions from more than 40 bloggers, tweeters and other self-appointed opinion-makers. Blackmon's commitment to Indiana had a Dewey-beats-Truman flavor since Kentucky had been the consensus choice earlier in the day.

When the player's father, also named James Blackmon and also a heralded prospect, committed to Kentucky 30 years ago, the Herald-Leader needed only a few paragraphs to record the moment.

On the night the younger Blackmon committed to Indiana, Kentucky got a commitment from Devin Booker, a highly regarded prospect in the Class of 2014. This sent joy through a Big Blue Nation that had yet to see the ballyhooed prospects of 2013 play a game against outside competition.

The difference between then and now startles.

"It was tiring," Willis said of his experience in the recruiting world. "Everywhere you go, you have to be 100 percent or somebody is going to be on their live blog writing about you. 'Oh, this kid is trash. He's doing horrible.'

"It's really tough. An 18-year-old kid shouldn't really have to worry about that. We should play basketball and go to class and just hang out with people."

Another UK freshman, Marcus Lee, sought refuge in volleyball as he got entangled in basketball recruiting.

"Basketball, it kind of stops being so much carefree and fun," he said. "It started being 'How do I get a scholarship? What if I don't play well? What if I don't get a scholarship?' You have all these things in the back of your mind while you're playing.

"When it came to volleyball, none of that really mattered. It gave me a place to not think of all that recruiting and me trying to get better. It kind of gave me time to relax and just have fun and play."

The fall signing period begins Nov. 13. Here's a five-star idea: Let it pass quietly.

Looking back

After reviewing this year's Big Blue Madness production, Senior Associate Athletic Director Jason Schlafer offered these thoughts:

■ The anticipation going into this season might be a bit more intense, but only a bit more. "There's never been a season where those of us (in UK Athletics) and the fans weren't anticipating a special season," he said. "I said that last year and I meant it." Comment: true.

■ Although the projection cloth and re-raising of the championship banners made 2012 Madness memorable, this year's Madness made its mark with much sound and fury. "Among the best shows we've put on." Oklahoma State used a projection cloth to dramatic effect at its Madness this year. Comment: Mommy, I miss my projection cloth.

■ After Michael Jackson, M.C. Hammer and now James Brown, UK women's coach Matthew Mitchell might be running out of singer/dancers to impersonate. "I think his wife would say so." Yet, Schlafer added, "I think people expect it." Comment: Mitchell can still do David Ruffin (I Wish It Would Rain) or Chubby Checker (The Twist).

■ In the state-of-the-program addresses, John Calipari acts as his own Ted Sorensen. He delivers what he has in mind to a captive audience of UK athletic department staffers. The staffers then polish the speech and return it to Calipari, who crafts the finished product. "He organizes it and acts as the final editor." Comment: The speech is delivered effectively, not read.

■ Twins Aaron and Andrew Harrison came up with the idea of being introduced in tandem. Comment: Two heads better than one.

Looking ahead

In its second and final pre-season exhibition game, Kentucky plays Montevallo on Monday.

There are at least two ties to Kentucky for Montevallo, a Division II school about a 45-minute drive south of Birmingham, Ala.

The more obvious one is DeWayne Peevy, UK's deputy director of athletics. He's a graduate of Montevallo.

The other involves Montevallo Coach Danny Young. He grew up in Arizona and played collegiately for Grand Canyon.

His father, a native of Kentucky, gave him a UK-themed Christmas present a few years ago. He gave him two lithographs featuring Rupp's Runts. They are on display in his office.

Coincidentally, Rupp Runt Larry Conley will work the telecast of the UK-Montevallo game as a color analyst.

Conley, who worked the exhibition against Transy, finds the enduring fame of the Runts difficult to explain.

"I'm still surprised by it," he said. "The only people who still remember are over 60."

Are you experienced?

A group of largely inexperienced players this season makes Transylvania Coach Brian Lane think of his first team. He recalled gathering those players he inherited from his father, Don Lane, and asked, "How many of you averaged five minutes a game last season?"

One player raised his hand and asked, "JV or varsity?"

Thinking back to his question, Lane said with a smile, "I knew the answer, but not that answer."

So how did that season turn out?

"4-20," Lane said of the record. "And we were coming off a No. 1 ranking. We had had the National Player of the Year in Collier Mills and the National Coach of the Year in Don Lane.

"We probably practiced too much."

Lane said this season's team could be good by the second half of the conference schedule.

Blue Mist revisited

Last week's note about the Blue Mist brought a reaction from UK fans.

Former Georgia Coach Hugh Durham, who coined the term, said the Blue Mist is confined to Rupp Arena and Kentucky. John Calipari suggested at Madness that the Mist practically covers the world.

"Just thought I'd mention that there's blue mist out here in Missouri," UK fan Michael Gatrost wrote in an email. "I don't know how many Cat fans there are out here in the Kansas City area, but I would venture to say the 'Blue Mist' extends wherever you find someone who grew up in Kentucky. It's part of our heritage. ...

"Durham doesn't seem to understand the heart and soul of Kentucky basketball which is year-round with fans following everything that is written about the team, recruits and Coach Calipari."

Durham idolized the Fabulous Five as a boy growing up in Louisville. Arguably his greatest recruit, Dave Cowens, was a native of Newport, so safe to say Durham knows the program's deep connection with fans. He suggested other states have sporting interests other than UK basketball.

"Other states — with the possible exception of Indiana — simply do not follow basketball with any fervor or excitement," Gatrost wrote.

Gatrost, 69, is an attorney in the Kansas City area. He grew up in Vine Grove.

Gatrost also volunteered advice on how a reporter should cover UK basketball. Objectivity should be avoided.

"Don't you have a passion for Kentucky basketball?" he asked in the email. "If you do, let your writing reflect it. Objectivity in journalism is negative to the average Cat fan."

Jealous of UK?

UK fan Rick Music offered a reason Hugh Durham would say that John Calipari wildly exaggerated the influence of the Blue Mist outside Rupp Arena.

"Considering the number of times that UK kicked Durham's butt over the years, it is of little surprise that it is still a bit raw when it comes to the BBN," Music wrote in an email. "Jealousy always brings out the worst in people, and Durham's backhanded snarks aimed at Cal and the Cats are a perfect example.

"When it comes to the boundaries of the Blue Mist, I defy him to name one other D-I team whose fan base suffocates the venue, no matter the geographic location, like that of the Cats!"

Certainly, the Blue Mist is present at the SEC Tournament. A semifinal game against Arkansas in 2001 comes immediately to mind. The UK fans who filled Nashville's Gaylord Entertainment Center screamed bloody murder as Arkansas led by as much as 15 points before taking a 42-32 halftime lead. The Hogs' signature "40 minutes of hell" style — or as Calipari might say, the grabbing and holding and clawing and biting — swallowed up UK.

John Guthrie, then the SEC's supervisor of officials, looked stricken as he walked with purpose off the court at halftime. Did the Blue Mist descend on the court in the second half? Coincidentally or not, the game was called much tighter after halftime. Twenty of Arkansas' 30 fouls came in the second half. An 87-78 victory left UK fans happy.

Music, 60, was born in Paintsville. He's a retired executive with Ashland Inc.

Get well wish

Van Florence, the longtime aide-de-camp for several UK basketball coaches, is scheduled to have major stomach surgery this week at the Cleveland Clinic. At age 67, he's already had 25 major surgeries and twice recovered from broken necks.

"Things didn't bother me at 37," he said. "At 67, you realize you're mortal."

Happy birthday

To former UK forward Chuck Verderber. He turns 54 today. ... To Dale Brown. The former LSU coach turned 78 on Halloween. ... To Gale Catlett. The former UK assistant and later head coach at West Virginia turned 73 on Halloween. ... To Roy Kramer. The former SEC commissioner turned 84 on Wednesday.

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader