Wednesday, July 23, 2008 | 4:41 a.m.
With Vegas serving as a hotbed for prep hoops between now and next Thursday, the Sun tracked down college coaches Tuesday to find out just what this evaluation period means to them.
Hang around Bill Self long enough this week during summer prep tournament action in Las Vegas, and you might think he's recently changed his legal last name to 'Congratulations.'
Tuesday afternoon, one by one, colleagues approached the Kansas coach - decked out casually in a navy KU polo, khaki shorts and loafers - to say 'Hey Bill! Congratulations!', accompanied by a firm handshake and a touch of small talk. Such is the life of the coach who carries the title of 'defending national champion.'
Sure, it's the pinnacle of any college coach's career. But it's far from the culmination.
Like every other college coaching staff in Vegas this week and next, Self and his assistants are looking at who they'll target in the quest to reload.
"To be honest, I'm nervous," Self said of recruiting as a defending champ. "I'm nervous because we lost some great guys, and we've got to recruit just as good of guys as we lost. I feel like last year's recruiting class that we got is a very sound recruiting class, deep. But there's not the five-star prospect coming in, at least according to the so-called experts, so we've gotta go get us a couple of difference-makers (in the class of '09).
"It's a given if you're a college coach that someone on your staff will definitely be here this week."
They're here to watch. That's it.
No contact is allowed between college coaches and prep prospects until Aug. 1. That's when the phone calls fire back up again. Conveniently enough, tournament action in Vegas runs through July 31, with the Adidas Super 64, Reebok Summer Championships and Nike's Main Event this week, followed by the National Youth Basketball Championships consuming next week.
And few coaches around know about evaluating these two weeks better than Self. It started in his early days at Oral Roberts and Tulsa, trying to find sleepers, to now recently figuring out which of the nation's top prospects he wants to go after, armed with a national championship on his resumé. He's seen - and succeeded at - both ends of the spectrum.
"When I was at Tulsa or ORU, I'd find somebody here every year," Self said of evaluating in Vegas as a coach of a smaller school. "You want guys who are under the radar, guys who maybe haven't finished growing yet, guys who you feel like are gonna fill out. Guys that look like they can shoot it but they miss every shot out here, so that way other people don't get excited about 'em. You just try to find a diamond in the rough. You can't help but find guys here."
Now, being at a traditional power of a program, he says it doesn't get any easier. It's just a different type of challenge.
"I think everything's relative - People say, well, you're at Kansas now, it should be easier to recruit," he said. "Well, it is easier to get in on guys, but the guys you're getting in on, you've gotta beat (North) Carolina or Duke or UCLA or Michigan State or Texas. And you're usually on their turf, because we don't have (several elite) players in our area. That's hard. And then, you're at ORU or Tulsa or whatever, you've gotta evaluate, you've gotta project, you've gotta be the best recruiting team in your respective league. So that's all hard. There are very few recruiting places where you just think 'We're gonna get guys no matter what.'"
Recruiting plans for several coaches will also change by the time next weekend rolls around.
"We always find one or two here who either we didn't know about or we weren't involved with who we wanted to try to get involved with," Self said. "And then we'll find some guys here who, after watching them, maybe they weren't as good a fit for us. But it's a very important evaluation time for all programs."
Sometimes, having a change of heart on a prospect can pay pretty big dividends.
Asked to recall players who jumped out to him and became priority gets for his staff after a trip to Vegas, the two names he brought up were players who he not only wound up landing, but both are in the early stages of fruitful NBA careers.
"The one that really comes to mind - Luther Head comes to mind. We went to saying, after seeing him out here, 'We've got to get him,'" he reminisced from his days at Illinois. "We always wanted Deron Williams. But when we saw him beat the New York City Panthers out here, with Charlie Villanueva and all those guys, I thought 'We've got to get him.'"
Those two also were key pieces of the 2005 lllini squad which ended up as national runners-up two years after Self left the school to head to Lawrence.
Decisions like those become staff decisions. Self, for example, has his entire staff out scouring the gyms this week. Tuesday afternoon, Self was hunkered down a few rows up in the bleachers at Foothill High to watch the two kids seemingly every major program made a point to watch. First, he took in John Wall, a 6-foot-3 guard out of Durham, N.C. who is widely-regarded as the top prospect in the class of 2009. And after watching Wall's 30-point, 11-assist, eight-rebound masterpiece, he scouted California big man Renardo Sidney - another hot commodity in the '09 group - take on John Henson - a lanky forward out of Round Rock, Texas, who is already committed to North Carolina.
While he's at Foothill, he's tapping at his cell phone regularly - Jayhawk backdrop on the home screen and all - texting back and forth with his assistants. Self said the coaches are in touch with one another at least five times a day, not including a meeting at night after the day is done. The staff got to Vegas Tuesday morning, and has 48 hours in town to see everything it needs to. Before departing Lawrence (only to come back early next week), the coaches met to decide who they needed to see, and it's all typed up on a master sheet, which Self pulls out and unfolds from his pocket, including times and locations.
This is no busman's holiday. Friendships among the coaches are rekindled while hearing squeaks, whistles and buzzers in the background. Self said if he gets free time at the same time as buddies such as Kentucky coach Billy Gillispie or St. John's coach Norm Roberts, they'll meet up for a bit. But making plans ahead of time practically never happens.
"People look at it this way sometimes, that coaches are coming to Vegas like this is vacation - There's nobody here vacationing," he emphasized. "I've been in the gym with Mike Krzyzewski or Jim Calhoun or Tom Izzo or Lute Olsen, where you can see them at 9 a.m. and see them at midnight. And there's some days where maybe you're not tracking kids all day long so you maybe get an hour or two break. I've had several days out here where basically the only time you eat is driving between gyms. And that's not unusual. Everybody does it."
There's no frills, either. Self and his staff make it a point to stay off the Strip, too. It's not to take away the potential for distraction, but rather make things as convenient as possible in terms of commuting.
"The only negative I think is it's so spread out," he said of Vegas. "Like the next gym I'll go to is 35 minutes away. It's so spread out that, literally, if you're doing your job and trying to get as many kids as you can, you can put 1,000 miles on your car in a span of a few days."
Most college coaches appear to treat time at the gyms in Vegas around colleagues as more of a friendly reunion than a competition for recruits. Self spent his time at Foothill seated next to Virginia coach Dave Leitao. The topic varies from analyzing a box score from the day's first game to discussing family vacations from earlier in the summer.
"We have a pretty close-knit fraternity in that we're all competitive, but I think the vast majority of guys want what's best for our profession," Self said. "And in recruiting, you've gotta understand something - you win some, and you don't win some. That's the way it is. Now, you're competitive and you want to never get beat recruiting, that will not happen. You do not ever win them all in recruiting. You've probably got a better chance of going undefeated than getting every guy you go after, over time. That's the way it is, and coaches respect that, we get it."
Well, if you're going to spend that much time in Vegas not on vacation, each coach must preach efficiency. That said, there's certain things each coach looks for.
Self, for example, looks for ...
"I would say what I look for is athletes - first step, second jump, ability to slide, those things - that can shoot," he said. "And then you try to fit your needs. Like there's no reason for us to try to go out and spend a lot of time recruiting a guy who we know we can't take, because we've already got two guys in that spot. Your needs also determine what you're looking for, too. That's one thing that I think is good, really, the way we play, because we play so many positions, that you could literally go three point guards at the same time, or you could literally play a point and two three-men at the same time. It doesn't make any difference to us, so I think our pool of players are bigger than just going in saying 'we need a two guard' or 'we need a good guard.'"
There's also intangibles which coaches notice. It's easier for any of the prep players in attendance to take time during warmups, timeouts or time on the bench to start glancing up into the stands. The big name coaches - i.e. Self, Roy Williams, Krzyzewski, Olsen, Izzo ... - are easily identifiable. The rest aren't very discreet, either. It's almost dress code that you wear your school's colors and/or logo.
That said, it's easy for a high school kid's to get lost in the sea of university representation.
"You can tell who watches, you can tell who looks around," Self said. "To me, the players that I like watching the most are the ones who don't care, they just go play. 'I don't care who's here, I don't have to impress anybody, I'm just gonna go play.' And if a guy's looking in the stands thinking 'Oh, is he watching me?', and that kind of stuff, I don't like that at all. And you get that with recruiting all the time, like 'Oh, I've gotta go play well, so-and-so is coming to watch me tonight.' All you've gotta do is go be a kid and have fun. It'll all work out.
"Some kids come in here hoping that someone will watch 'em and see 'em, which is fine. Some kids come in here thinking 'Heck, I'm gonna do my thing. If they don't like me, they mised out.' And not put pressure on themselves to say 'I really want this to happen.' Whatever happens happens, and I think those are usually your better performers."
Self's certainly had success by following that pattern. He recalls some of the better players who have come through his programs, such as former Illinois guard Dee Brown, Darrell Arthur - a first-round pick in last month's NBA Draft - and current KU point guard Sherron Collins.
And Self now has no plans of changing his recruiting philosophies just because of the hardware he brought home from San Antonio in April. Instead, his program's accomplishment offers a few 'Get out of jail free' cards, so to speak, in the recruiting game.
"I think what has happened is if we've done not a great job on certain kids, we can make up more ground on one phone call, and I think we can get in on most every kid," Self said. "But getting in doesn't mean you've gotta chance to get 'em. Getting in means they're receptive, maybe have them come in your home or whatever, but that's if we do our job. But, still, that doesn't mean you're gonna get them."
Self said he would love for that type of leeway to last three or four years, but realistically, he added that he knows the time to strike is now. Self lost seven players out of his core nine-man rotation.
So, the wish list includes ...
"We want a ball-handling lead guard, a big guy who's a difference-maker, whether it's a (power forward) or a (center), we want a point guard, and we want the best other tall guard," he said of his current recruiting plan. "That could be, obviously, recruiting five or six tall guards, five or six points, five or six big guys, and hopefully we'll get one of each."
If history has proven anything, those numbers could increase for Self and his staff after two weeks in Vegas.