On the day Bill Self landed the biggest recruit of his life, he picked up a phone and attempted to convey the mix of joy and relief that comes after a winning a high-stakes recruiting war.
It was early May 2013, and Andrew Wiggins had just announced his decision to attend Kansas in an afternoon press conference in Huntington, W.Va. Forget for a moment Wiggins’ lone season at Kansas, and recall the sense of hope that surrounded the Kansas program on that day.
“Sometimes you don’t get what you deserve,” Self would say, speaking to a collection of reporters. “And sometimes you do get what you don’t deserve.”
The sentiment was in regards to Wiggins, but it was not the first time Self had offered a version of this phrase. A few years earlier, at a Big 12 media day, Self had spoken about a recruiting class that included Xavier Henry and Thomas Robinson.
“Recruiting is a weird deal,” Self said then, “in that sometimes you don't get what you deserve, and a lot of times you get what you don't deserve.”
Self, perhaps, could have just stopped at “recruiting is a weird deal”. But as the last couple weeks have reminded us, sometimes a program can win in recruiting even as it loses out on players.
Entering May, the Jayhawks had two top-25 players signed in the 2015 class — power forward Cheick Diallo and forward Carlton Bragg. Self is reportedly still targeting swingman Tevin Mack, a former VCU commit, and Kansas has reportedly offered former SMU commit LaGerald Vick, a member of the 2016 class who could re-classify to 2015. With two open scholarships, the Jayhawks’ class is likely not complete. But for now, the main pieces are in place.
It’s a strong class, one that fills needs and infuses two coveted talents into the program. It’s not Self’s best class, but far from his worst. The new faces fit well into Kansas’ current roster.
But here’s the thing: Self and the Jayhawks made some gains in other ways during a busy spring recruiting period. While they missed out on a collection of five-star recruiting targets, the Jayhawks mostly lucked out in terms of where those players landed.
Center Stephen Zimmerman, a Las Vegas native, stayed home to play for UNLV. Same for guard Malik Newman at Mississippi State and big man Ivan Rabb at Cal. Swingman Brandon Ingram, a native of Kinston, N.C., picked Duke, while small forward Jaylen Brown of Marietta, Ga., subsequently shocked observers last week by joining Rabb at Cal.
This came after consensus top-15 recruits Ben Simmons and Antonio Blakeney had picked LSU, and Maryland (Diamond Stone) and Marquette (Henry Ellenson) had each landed five-star recruits. Contrast this with recent years, and there’s a different kind of balance at the top of the recruiting rankings. Nobody would mistake Cal, UNLV or Mississippi State for NCAA title contenders, but here they are, staking claim to some of the nation’s best talent.
“I don’t know that it’s unusual,” said Eric Bossi, a national recruiting analyst for Rivals.com. “But I think the class of 2015 had a little more independence.”
In a specific sense, it means that a school such as Kentucky has just two recruits ranked in the top 20 after years of stacking super classes on top of each other. In a broad sense, it’s good for program’s in Kansas’ position — at least in 2015-16.
Let’s look back at the last couple classes: In the 2013 class, the top 12 recruits in the country went to just six different schools — Kansas, Kentucky, Arizona, Duke, Indiana and Florida. Kentucky, alone, landed six players ranked in that class’s top 20.
Last year, Kentucky and Duke each landed another four McDonald’s All-Americans — eight of the top 30 players in Rivals’ rankings. Of the top 13 players in the country last year, nine went to Duke, Arizona, Kansas, Kentucky or North Carolina.
This year, the wealth of talent was spread out in more equal fashion, with nine different schools landing recruits ranked in the top 12.
“There is a balance,” Bossi says.
Bossi, who has tracked recruiting for close to two decades, mentions a collection of “unique ties” in this year’s class. Some geographic — such as players opting to stay close to home. Some coaching — Simmons’ godfather is LSU assistant David Patrick. And some decisions — like Brown’s — were just surprising.
“No one could have possibly seen that coming last year,” Bossi says.
The balance in recruiting will likely have a carry-over to the college game, which is good news for Kansas and others. While the blue bloods hoarded the top recruits in 2013 and 2014, resulting in Kentucky’s perfect regular season and Duke’s recent NCAA title, this coming season figures to have more parity at the top.
For the moment, there is no great consensus favorite — though North Carolina has emerged as a trendy No. 1 in many of the early projections. Kentucky swung and missed on many of the same prospects Kansas missed on. Duke’s class is loaded, but the Blue Devils must still replace their four best players. Maryland, Iowa State and Virginia will likely be preseason top-10 teams as well.
For Kansas, the great flattening taking place at the top of the polls is perhaps the most welcome story line of the offseason. The Jayhawks return a talented and experienced nucleus. They add a couple of intriguing recruits. Self expects his team to be better. We don’t know their ceiling yet, or how high they can climb. But as of now, the surrounding college basketball landscape looks a lot more manageable.