If most elite basketball prospects were Polish Americans, would college coaches suddenly start talking about how much they liked polka music? Get Drake out of here and find me an accordion!
It’s called salesmanship. Keep the customer satisfied. Or, in this hypothetical case, make the program as appealing as possible to the next Mike Gminski or Carol Blazejowski or Bobby Hurley (thanks to his mother, the former Duke point guard is in the National Polish American Sports Hall of Fame).
This thought came to mind recently after hearing Kentucky Coach John Calipari and Western Kentucky Coach Rick Stansbury promote their basketball programs. Their plugs reflected the different places UK and WKU are in the college basketball pecking order. To borrow from a pop music standard of yesteryear, each accentuated the positive and eliminated the negative.
Kentucky is synonymous with rosters bursting with one-and-done players (Calipari’s more uplifting succeed-and-proceed label just didn’t catch on). No surprise when Calipari said that prospects should embrace competing against elite players.
“If you walk in a gym, and you’re the most talented guy, you’re in the wrong gym,” Calipari said. “If you walk in a gym and you look at the talent and say, ‘Oh, my goodness,’ that’s the right gym for you.
“And that’s us.”
Stansbury’s first marquee recruit for Western Kentucky — five-star prospect Mitchell Robinson, who is in the class of 2017 — might be that most talented Hilltopper from day one. But Stansbury doesn’t think Robinson will be in the wrong gym.
Stansbury summed up why with one word.
“Opportunity,” he said.
“To play,” Stansbury said. “To go somewhere where you can play, showcase who you are and play through mistakes.”
The mind drifted to Calipari quickly recoiling after UK used a much-ballyhooed platoon system of substitution in 2014-15. Presumably, rival recruiters told prospects that Kentucky’s abundant talent would continue to limit playing time.
Without mentioning UK specifically, Stansbury contended that Western Kentucky offers more opportunity than some higher profile programs.
“More here than splitting time and publicity somewhere else,” he said.
As for making NBA dreams come true, Stansbury said that Western Kentucky can do that, too. He pointed out that NBA Most Valuable Player Steph Curry played collegiately for Davidson and all-star Damian Lillard played for Weber State.
“And Western Kentucky has a whole lot more tradition than all those places,” Stansbury said. “I don’t know if there’s any place in America that just puts guys in the NBA. If a guy is good enough, he can go anywhere and get to the NBA.”
Of course, if they traded jobs, it’s easy to imagine Calipari and Stansbury echoing each other’s recruiting pitch.
A sportswriter being escorted around Diddle Arena and WKU recently felt like he was a prospect on a recruiting visit even though his eligibility expired with the 1973 intramural season at Marshall. Perhaps Stansbury was practicing for the in-home visit period, which begins Friday.
The reporter learned that Western Kentucky’s Diddle Arena has 16 sky boxes and a player lounge (the latter something Stansbury said he did not have when he was the Mississippi State coach). There’s also a fully stocked snack bar and refrigerator available to players night and day.
Lunch was at a food court in the student center across the street from Diddle Arena.
“Only campus with a Steak ’n Shake,” Stansbury said.
Earlier this year, the SEC introduced a scheduling guideline. For the 2016-17 season, the league would like each program’s non-conference opponents to have a cumulative Ratings Percentage Index average of 175 or better.
Beginning the following season, the desired cumulative RPI for non-conference opponents will improve to 150.
Of course, the idea is that more victories against tougher competition will lead to more bids to the NCAA Tournament. An embarrassing three bids went to SEC teams in three of the last four years.
In other words, winning a lot of games against inferior competition will not result in an NCAA Tournament bid. Winning games against good competition is the ticket. But at the very least, playing good competition makes getting into the Selection Sunday conversation more of a possibility.
The final RPI standings from last season are not how the SEC wants to measure non-conference schedules. The targets of 175 in 2016-17 and 150 thereafter will be based on the opponents’ average RPI on Selection Sunday the previous three years.
But the final RPI numbers from last season give an indication of the relative strength of 2016-17 non-conference schedules. So here’s how SEC non-conference schedules for 2016-17 rank (the numbers are squishy because several teams are playing in tournaments where an opponent or two depends on game results):
South Carolina 136.9.
Texas A&M 170.8.
Mississippi State 195.4.
SEC schedule notes
1. How does Kentucky’s non-conference strength of schedule (opponents averaged a 97.7 RPI at the end of last season) compare to its peers nationally? North Carolina’s opponents averaged 91.3 (that does not count Chaminade, an NAIA team the Tar Heels will play in this year’s Maui Invitational). Kansas opponents averaged 101.5 (that number would improve to 96.4 if the Jayhawks play George Washington in their second game of the CBE Hall of Fame Classic). Duke opponents averaged 124.3 (that number would improve to 108.9 if the Blue Devils play Cincinnati in their second game of the Basketball Hall of Fame Tip-Off event).
2. Florida would have a more difficult non-conference schedule than Kentucky if the Gators play Gonzaga in the second round of a tournament in Orlando. Gonzaga (No. 37) would improve the cumulative RPI number of Florida’s non-conference opponents to 94.0.
Elsewhere in the non-conference portion of the schedule, Florida plays at Oklahoma (No. 6), against Duke (No. 15) and Seton Hall (No. 23).
3. Other non-conference games of note involving SEC teams are Auburn-Oklahoma in Uncasville, Conn., Alabama-Texas, Alabama-Oregon and South Carolina-Syracuse.
Of course, when it comes to scheduling, Kentucky annually personifies exceptionalism. UK’s opponents in 2016-17 include Michigan State, North Carolina, Kansas, UCLA and Arizona State.
4. In a return game, Connecticut will play at Auburn in the 2017-18 season. Getting marquee opponents to come to SEC arenas is seen as a plus in raising the league’s basketball profile.
5. Missouri remains deep in a rebuilding phase, so it’s understood why the Tigers’ schedule fails to meet the 175 guideline. Five opponents had a final RPI of 270 or worse last season: Lipscomb (270), Eastern Illinois (271), North Carolina Central (315), Alabama A&M (331) and Northwestern State (344).
6. No scheduling system is perfect. South Carolina failed to get an NCAA Tournament bid last season despite a 25-9 record and tie for third place in the SEC. An insufficient non-conference schedule was cited. But the Gamecocks believed that DePaul and St. John’s would give the 2015-16 schedule some heft. That seemed reasonable considering how DePaul and St. John’s are fixtures on the college basketball map.
But both programs struggled. DePaul had a record of 9-22 and final RPI of 201. St. John’s was even worse: 8-24 record and RPI of 245.
7. Among Mississippi State’s non-conference opponents, the top three final RPIs from last season belong to Oregon State (48), East Tennessee State (83) and Morehead State (100).
Before the Celebrity Softball Classic last weekend, Karl-Anthony Towns broke into a big smile when asked about “Karlito,” the imaginary alter ego he used at UK to process tough-love coaching.
Towns spoke of Karlito’s continuing renown as a testament to the Big Blue Nation.
“Shows you how great the fan base is,” he said. “An imaginary friend is so special ESPN is reporting about it.”
During a pre-softball game appearance with Lexington personality Dave Baker, former UK star Keith Bogans said he’d like to coach someday. But first, he’d like to continue his nomadic NBA playing career (nine teams in 12 seasons).
Former UK big man Jared Carter, a second baseman in the Celebrity Softball Classic, said he played in Spain, Japan and Canada after his college career.
He now works in sports marketing for Abilene Christian University.
Morris and mandarin
Another former UK big man, Randolph Morris, is about to begin his seventh season playing professionally in China.
He said he’s becoming more and more fluent in Mandarin, a language spoken by more than 730 million. “I can get around,” he said of the crumbling language barrier.
Football or basketball?
Pro football Hall of Famer Cris Carter spoke highly of UK Coach John Calipari, who coached Carter at the Five-Star Camp way back when.
Carter, who grew up in Middletown, Ohio, credited Calipari for steering him away from basketball and toward football. This sounded like a playful commentary on Carter’s basketball skills.
But Carter considered himself a basketball prospect. Older brother Butch Carter played for Indiana, where he became the first guard to lead the Big Ten in field goal percentage.
Kentucky recruited Cris Carter for basketball.
“My college basketball choice would have probably been Louisville because they played the style,” he said of U of L’s up-tempo style at the time.
Carter mentioned one other factor: the relationship he had with Denny Crum’s top assistant at Louisville. “I was a little closer to Wade Houston” than UK assistant Leonard Hamilton, he said.
Through the years, Calipari has kept in contact, Carter said. “To me, I’m a fan of Coach Cal, and the way he does things, the way he treats people.”
To Jim Andrews. He turned 65 on Thursday. … To Steve Masiello. He turned 39 on Friday. … To former Georgetown Coach John Thompson. He turned 75 on Friday. … To Julius Mays. He turns 27 on Sunday (today). … To Bo Lanter. He turns 57 on Sunday (today). … To Nazr Mohammed. He turns 39 on Monday. … To Alex Poythress. He turns 23 on Tuesday. … To John Wall. He turns 26 on Tuesday. … To Dale Brown. He turns 48 on Tuesday. … To former Mississippi Coach Rob Evans. He turns 70 on Wednesday. … To Oak Hill Academy coach (and Asbury grad) Steve Smith. He turns 61 on Wednesday. … To former SEC referee John Clougherty. He turns 73 on Sept. 10. … To Mark Pope. He turns 44 on Sept. 11. … To Billy Evans. He turns 84 on Sept. 13. … To Marcus Lee. He turns 22 on Sept. 14.