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Tom Oates: Many factors contribute to UW’s recruitment of the state’s top basketball talent

March 26, 2018

In the wake of last week’s star-studded state boys basketball tournament, I keep hearing the same question over and over:

Why can’t the University of Wisconsin recruit any high-profile players from the state?

To begin with, the question is wrong. UW coach Greg Gard signed the best player from last year’s class, Kobe King. Having said that, there clearly is a trend toward top players either leaving the state or going to Marquette.

There are multiple reasons why Gard and former coach Bo Ryan weren’t able to sign many of Wisconsin’s top players the past five years, ranging from short-sighted coaching decisions to national influences out of their control. But if you look at each case, you’ll see that blanket statements about UW’s inability to land top in-state recruits don’t hold water.

First, prep players don’t have the same affiliation to Dear Old State University that they once did. Today, they travel all over the country to play starting in grade school, expanding their horizons and leading to less home-state loyalty.

Mike Hlas of the Cedar Rapids (Iowa) Gazette wrote recently that only one of the 14 Big Ten Conference teams (Penn State) had more than two starters from its own state this season. In all, only 22 of the 70 Big Ten starters were home-state players.

Second, basketball isn’t football, where the top players stay close to home. The expansion of summer basketball and the excessive shoe-company money in the sport are influences that don’t impact football nearly as much.

In football, the dominant influence in a player’s recruitment remains the high school coach. For elite basketball players, the prep coach has been pushed aside by AAU coaches, agents and shoe company representatives, all of whom have a financial stake in a player’s career. That’s a morass some college coaches choose to avoid.

Third, the national exposure state players now get in the summer has led more schools to recruit Wisconsin, including high-profile programs such as Duke, Kentucky and North Carolina. Until it happens, you simply never know how much a call from one of those schools will turn a recruit’s head.

This doesn’t just happen in Wisconsin, either. In the past five years, Duke has signed three players — Tyus Jones, Gary Trent Jr. and Tre Jones — who played at the same Minnesota high school. Of Kentucky’s 16 recruits the past three years, none is from Kentucky.

Finally, there are things at each school that alter recruiting. Does the recruit qualify academically? Is he a fit in terms of playing style? Is he swayed by a program’s style of play? Do the player, his family and his entourage have their hands out? How many scholarships does the school have to give? What positions does it need help at? Has there been coaching upheaval? What happens when a committed player ties up a scholarship and then reneges at the 11th hour?

Every one of those has affected UW’s recent recruiting to some degree, which is why there is no one-size-fits-all explanation for UW’s lack of success recruiting the state.

Including the 2018 class, 18 state players earned scholarships from big-six conference schools in the past five years, starting with King and Brevin Pritzl at UW. Eight more simply weren’t a good fit for UW, including 2018 Mr. Basketball Jordan McCabe of Kaukauna, who needs to play in an up-tempo system. As for the rest?

In 2014, UW had Ethan Happ and saved its last scholarship for Milwaukee Hamilton’s Kevon Looney, a top-20 player. UW was in the mix for Looney, who shocked everyone by picking UCLA at the last minute, then went one-and-done. For the record, Looney said he was smitten by UCLA’s campus and weather.

UW put a full-court press on Diamond Stone of Whitefish Bay Dominican and Henry Ellenson of Rice Lake, two more one-and-done talents, in 2015. Stone was leaning toward UW but signed with Maryland. His name surfaced in recent reports of an FBI investigation into agents funneling money to prospects.

In hindsight, UW had no chance to get Ellenson, who followed his brother to Marquette. Wally Ellenson, who transferred from Minnesota, had been given a scholarship by coach Steve Wojciechowski and UW could never overcome that with Henry, a vastly superior player, and his family. UW’s much-maligned 2015 class is a byproduct of those swings and misses.

Even before Ryan’s on-again, off-again, on-again retirement undermined the 2016 class, UW made a critical recruiting mistake. The assistant coaches liked Stevens Point’s Sam Hauser, but Ryan, who had only one scholarship to give and wanted a point guard, wouldn’t offer Hauser. Hauser ended up at Marquette and so did his more highly recruited little brother, Joey. There are no guarantees the Badgers would have landed Sam had they offered him, but the blunder cost them a realistic shot at Joey and was magnified when Sam developed into an outstanding college player.

If there was an in-state miss in 2017, it was with guard Jordan Poole, who played at Milwaukee King, an Indiana prep school and now Michigan. UW liked Poole, but already had King committed and Brad Davison in its sights at guard.

This year’s class was sabotaged by Whitnall wing Tyler Herro, who was committed to UW for 13 months before backing out shortly before the signing period and going to Kentucky. Since the Badgers had only two open scholarships and had been holding one for Joey Hauser, they stopped recruiting Oshkosh North’s Tyrese Haliburton, who they liked. By the time Herro decomitted, Haliburton was off to Iowa State.

To sum it up, UW has made two significant recruiting mistakes — failing to pursue Sam Hauser and handcuffing itself by not balancing out its recruiting classes. Otherwise, the Badgers got a bit unlucky. They did all they could do to land Looney, Stone and Ellenson but, for whatever reason, couldn’t close the deal. And Herro’s stunning decommitment had a far-reaching effect on this year’s class.

If one or two of those decisions had gone differently, no one would be asking any questions about UW’s recruiting.