Self Winning Versus Calipari – New Story, or True Story?

The past few months have been great off-season ones for the Jayhawks from a media and hype standpoint. Without any games being played, all everyone could do was wax about how good Andrew Wiggins was going to be and how excited everyone should be to watch his one year in college.

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The past 7-10 days continued to build on this hype, with ESPN showcasing Wiggins’ Late Night highlights from October 4 and Sports Illustrated’s cover story on Wiggins and how he fits with KU’s other illustrious freshmen, Wilt Chamberlain and Danny Manning, hitting the newsstand on October 10. As exciting as those moments were, it was the coverage of an event that was sandwiched between the two of them that really caught my eye.

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Kelly Oubre, a 5-star, top 10 recruit, verbally committed to being a Jayhawk on Tuesday, October 8. While Coach Self getting a top flight recruit is of course great news for Jayhawk nation, it was interesting to see how it was followed up on nationally – particularly since Oubre cancelled his visit to Kentucky later this month.

“Kansas’ Self making inroads vs. Calipari on recruiting trail,” was the headline of a New York Post story. “Jayhawks land big blow in recruiting battle with Kentucky,” proclaimed Bleacher Report. Rush the Court’s article about how Self’s coaching abilities combined with elite level talent should strike fear into opposing schools didn’t mention Kentucky by name, but it’s a short list of “other national programs” that has secured a bushel of consensus, top-20 recruits.

Was this Self versus Calipari angle a story because it was new, or because it was true?

It’s easy to see how this angle could be considered in vogue: the season is just (barely) underway and with so many freshmen & unknowns this is a solid known to report; there is Kentucky fatigue and a desire to anoint a new, top dog; it’s a simple way to get the attention of two large & rabid fan bases, as well as ones that resonate nationally.

It’s also just as easy to see how this story has legs: Self historically hasn’t had the success signing the top-tier recruits that Calipari has; new assistant coaches at KU have breathed fresh air into the program; Self and Calipari have each been incredibly successful and won their national championships at the expense of the other, so why wouldn’t that continuing pursuit of excellence extend to the recruiting trail.

I think it’s a blend of both being new and true, though it’s still too early to state that it is more fact over narrative.

It’s difficult to simply & succinctly boil recruiting down to a mano-y-mano duel between two heavyweight coaches, but it is true that by the numbers, Calipari has enjoyed more success in signing top-tier talent. Starting with the high school class of 2006 (the first group required to attend college for at least a year) through 2013, Calipari signed 20 top 20 high school recruits (per the final rankings of the Recruiting Services Consensus Index) at Memphis and Kentucky; during this same time at Kansas, Self has signed 7, with three of them coming from the 2013 class alone. So far with the 2014 class, Calipari has signed one top 20 recruit and now, with Oubre, Self has matched him.

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What made Oubre’s commitment somewhat surprising to those who closely follow recruiting, is not only that Oubre passed on attending Kentucky’s Big Blue Madness, but that Oubre also seemed to be a significant target of Calipari’s. By missing out on Oubre, it appears that Calipari’s annual Jenga-like puzzle to construct a team exclusively out of top-tier recruits is in jeopardy. Calipari has been on a nearly unprecedented run of securing talent (Wooden’s UCLA teams say hello), and it will be interesting to see what happens if – if – he “only” gets one or two top 20 recruits. Calipari’s system seems to be completely dependent on a steady influx of talent, and if that consistency has reached a tipping point, it will be interesting to see what happens. Heck, Kentucky had a universally renowned recruiting class last year and couldn’t get past the first round of the NIT. As it stands now, if the recruiting prognosticators are correct, Kentucky could only be a realistic probability for one other top 20 recruit.

NCAA Final Four Kansas Basketball

As for Coach Self, it is within the realm of possibility for him to sign two to four more top 10 recruits. Going by history, getting four doesn’t seem likely, but if Self is able to get two of them plus another couple of top 50 recruits, Kansas will once again have one of the best incoming classes in the nation. That’s what is so exciting about being a Kansas fan right now – Self has taken talent not quite as highly rated and developed them into awesome players & teams. If Kansas is entering a phase where it’s the new, it program and is now a destination of choice (thank you, Mr. Wiggins, for the dusting of cool you brought), we could be in for one hell of a ride these next few years. (Though, yes, ESPN will have to completely change their current programming format of reporting on All Things Kentucky, North Carolina and Duke.)

College basketball blue bloods will always be in the running for top talent, but as for the question of whether Self replaces Calipari as The King of Recruiting Mountain, we might have an answer in about a month when the early signing period begins on November 13.

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