Basketball is a global game. Bill Self knows this, of course. He’s coached a big man from Russia, a small forward from Canada and a graceful 7-foot center from Cameroon.
But if Self needed more evidence, it came Sunday night in San Antonio. Inside the AT&T Center, Self sat with good friend R.C. Buford, the Spurs’ longtime general manager. Together they watched San Antonio win its fifth NBA title with a roster that looked like a micro-United Nations. The Spurs passed, and they cut and they played “exquisite basketball,” in the words of Miami Heat coach coach Erik Spoelstra.
“The United States would be the most athletic country when it comes to basketball,” Self said. “But not the most skilled.”
It was mere coincidence that Tuesday afternoon, just two days later, Self and Kansas announced that the men’s basketball team would represent the United States at the 2015 World University Games in Gwangju, South Korea. But it’s not a coincidence that Self is embracing his program’s latest foray into international basketball — especially the recruiting connections that may result from it.
On its face, the trip to the World University Games next summer will be loaded with fringe benefits. It’s a rare stage for a college program, a chance to build the Jayhawks’ brand across the world during the normally sleepy summer months.
Kansas, serving as the de facto U.S. team, will be allowed extra practice time in the month leading up to the tournament, which begins in early July 2015. KU will enter a competition loaded with and older, more experienced professional players from countries around the world.
“We’ll be playing against men that are pros,” Self said, before adding: “This will be like the NCAA Tournament on steroids.”
But even more, Self envisions making inroads into the often untapped international recruiting market. Last month, the Jayhawks signed Ukrainian teenage Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk. It was a recruitment that, in Self’s estimation, was essentially pure luck. Unlike former international recruits Sasha Kaun (Russia) or Joel Embiid (Cameroon), Mykhailiuk never attended high school in the United States. Self and Kansas simply received a fortuitous tip, and the lead turned into a blue-chip addition.
“Hopefully if Svi has a good experience,” Self said. “That should do nothing but open doors.”
Recruiting international players can be a high-risk proposition. European players have more immediate professional options at their disposal. American college basketball can often be low on the priority list. And at its core, recruiting is about relationships and contacts. So perhaps the Kansas staff won’t be spending too many resources recruiting international players (“You can spin your wheels,” Self said.), but they will be more serious about exploring the landscape.
“We’ll be much more active recruiting internationally after (Sviatoslav) and certainly after this event,” Self said. “Because we’ll be more educated on how to do it.”
The trip to Korea could also help the Jayhawks recruit stateside. Self will be able to tell every blue-chip senior in the country that they can guarantee themselves a platform at the World University Games if they choose Kansas.
“You stop and think about it,” Self said, “Not only every NBA team (will be watching the tournament), but also all the international teams and agents throughout America. I think it can do nothing but open up doors and opportunities.”
For Self and Kansas, the recruiting opportunities and guaranteed exposure were too good to pass up. As was the rare nature of one college program representing the United States at the World University Games. In the past, USA Basketball has usually taken an All-Star team to the biennial event. (In one exception, Northern Iowa participated in 2007.) But a loaded international basketball calendar stretched USA Basketball thin in 2015. So Basketball Travelers, a company that brokers international tours for college and high school teams, was tasked with finding a college program to fill the void.
“We went through a pretty long process to find the most appropriate team,” said Craig Jonas, deputy of the USA Delegation. “And when we went through the criteria, Kansas was a great fit.”
The criteria, Jonas said, included looking at overall records over the last five years and projecting out rosters to the 2015-16 season. According to Jonas, Kansas was the top choice.
“A lot of these teams treat the World University Games as the training ground for the Olympics or the World Championships,” Jonas said. “So they’ll be sending very, very strong teams.”
Kansas, though, might have one advantage. In order to be eligible for the tournament, players must be be under 25 and enrolled in at least one college class. So the Jayhawks could hypothetically take along a few former players to add some experience and maturity. Rosters for the event are capped at 12 players, though, and Self says he won’t add any former players if the Jayhawks have enough scholarship players to fill the roster.
Paradoxically, Kansas could have at least one opening. While the Jayhawks will burnish their brand in global basketball circles, they will still be representing the United States. So Mykhailiuk won’t be eligible to play.
“He’ll have to play for Ukraine,” Self said.
To reach Rustin Dodd, call 816-234-4937 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at twitter.com/rustindodd.