Has Duke replaced Kentucky as the king of college basketball recruiting?

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Let’s make this clear from the get-go: Kentucky is doing just fine with its basketball recruiting.

The Wildcats added three Top 50 prospects in the early signing period last week — five-star guards Immanuel Quickley and Keldon Johnson, and four-star guard Tyler Herro — and another No. 1-ranked recruiting class for John Calipari isn’t out of the question for this 2018 cycle.

That said, there has been a trend in recent recruiting classes that is impossible to ignore.

The Cats are striking out with top-five recruits a lot more than they used to.

In Calipari’s first five recruiting cycles at Kentucky (2009-13), the Cats landed a total of eight players in the top five of the composite rankings for their respective classes: John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Brandon Knight, Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Nerlens Noel, Julius Randle and Andrew Harrison.

Over the five most recent classes (2014-2018), UK has landed just two such players: Karl-Anthony Towns and Skal Labissiere.

Kentucky has still finished with either the No. 1 or No. 2 recruiting class nationally in the past four cycles (and the Cats are currently ranked No. 4 for the class of 2018 with more additions likely), but there’s no denying the drop-off with top-five talent.

The Cats’ relative fall in that area has also coincided with Duke’s rise.

The Blue Devils had three top-five signees during Calipari’s first five cycles at Kentucky, but they’ve successfully recruited seven such players in the five most recent cycles. All seven of those players — Jahlil Okafor, Brandon Ingram, Harry Giles, Jayson Tatum, Marvin Bagley, Cameron Reddish and R.J. Barrett — were heavily recruited by Kentucky.

So, what happened?

What has Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski done to, seemingly, snatch Calipari’s title as the king of college basketball recruiting?

Popular theories

UK fans — ever attuned to such trends — have noticed the Cats’ relative decline with top-five recruits in recent years, and they haven’t been shy about sharing possible reasons for that development.

Among those theories: Duke has better recruiters among its assistant coaches (namely, Jeff Capel); the Blue Devils have been more receptive to recruiting one-and-done players in recent years (following Calipari’s lead); the 2015 title — won with three one-and-done players — resonated with recruits (UK did the same in 2012); some prospects (and, more to the point, their parents) are easily drawn in by the “mystique” around a Duke education, even if those players only plan to be on campus for one school year.

Those theories were, for the most part, picked apart by the recruiting experts the Herald-Leader reached out to for insight on Duke’s success with top-five players.

Jeff Capel joined Duke’s coaching staff in 2011.
Gerry Broome AP 

Capel’s arrival at Duke following the 2011 season is one of the most popular reasons presented for the uptick in the Blue Devils’ recruiting efforts.

Indeed, the former Duke player made an almost immediate impact as a Blue Devils’ coach. He was instrumental in landing the commitment of Jabari Parker in late 2012 and putting together the vaunted 2014 class — Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones, Justise Winslow and Grayson Allen — that led Duke to a national title in 2015.

“He’s phenomenal,” said Rivals.com’s Corey Evans. “He’s kind of like the killer on the recruiting trail. Capel checks all the boxes. He’s a past head coach. He’s a relationship guy, so he knows how to get in with kids early on in the process.

“It’s been noted with guys like Okafor and Jabari Parker and all of these other big-time guys that relate to Capel, and they cite Capel as one of the determining factors for going to Duke.”

247Sports director of recruiting Evan Daniels said Capel certainly helped Duke’s recruiting efforts.

“Jeff is very good at building relationships with potential recruits, and that dates back to his days at Oklahoma and VCU,” he said. “He’s one of the best recruiters in the country. I don’t think that’s debatable. The list of players he was the primary recruiter for is beyond impressive, but it’s also important to note that their whole staff has done a good job.”

Around the same time that Capel was hitting his stride with top recruits, UK assistant Orlando Antigua left the Wildcats’ program for the head coaching job at South Florida.

Antigua — also known as a tremendous recruiter of top talent — was a key player in some of the Cats’ biggest recruiting victories under Calipari. Since Antigua’s departure following the 2013-14 season, Skal Labissiere is the only top-five recruit to commit to Kentucky.

“Orlando was really good,” Daniels said. “But it’s not like Kenny Payne or Tony Barbee or Joel Justus haven’t been recruiting with really good success. Each of those guys have landed multiple stud recruits.”

Daniels called Capel and Payne the two best recruiters in college basketball today.

“I think Kenny Payne is one of the premier coaches in the country, in terms of recruiting. I think that’s evident,” he said. “He’s been a huge part of Kentucky’s success and ability to build top-tier classes.”

Payne has had plenty of high-profile victories as a UK recruiter.

Barbee, who was elevated to an assistant coach after Antigua’s departure, was UK’s point man on the recruitment of Hamidou Diallo and has also been involved in the pursuit of other current Cats such as Wenyen Gabriel, Quade Green and Nick Richards.

Justus has been a full UK assistant coach for a little more than a year, and he’s already laid the groundwork in the recruitments of Immanuel Quickley and Keldon Johnson — the Cats’ top two signees for next season — and has UK in the role of early favorite for James Wiseman, arguably the No. 1 prospect in the 2019 class.

“Obviously, these kids are drawn to Calipari,” Daniels said. “But the assistants also have to set the table and do the legwork.”

As far as the 2015 title won with eventual one-and-doners Okafor, Jones and Winslow, that championship perhaps did more to negate a point on Calipari’s side of the chalkboard than give Duke any great advantage.

“I think it was more about erasing Calipari’s argument that, ‘We’re the only ones to do it.’ And then K turns around and does it,” Evans said. “Calipari can’t be the only one to say he’s won it all with one-and-done guys anymore.”

247Sports national analyst Jerry Meyer noted that schools that win national championships will always be able to use that to their advantage during the next couple of years on the recruiting trail — no matter what type of players that program won with and no matter what type of players they’re recruiting.

“Any time you win a national championship, it helps your recruiting,” Meyer said.

There weren’t any takers on the theory that top-five prospects and their parents might legitimately be more drawn to the mystique around Duke’s academic reputation.

Duke has cast a wider net in terms of recruiting probable one-and-done players in recent years, and Krzyzewski and Capel haven’t been shy about that fact.

They’ve also embraced the “players’ first” motto that Calipari has used to such success on the recruiting trail, and — the recent numbers would say — beaten the UK coach at his own game.

“Coaches that are successful long-term adapt,” Daniels said. “And I think Mike Krzyzewski did a really good job of adapting to the one and done. Just as John Calipari did. It’s something that only a few schools can really take advantage of, and it can be a major advantage if you’re one of those schools. So I think they’ve adapted — and they’re thriving with it.

“I thought it was interesting — when I had Coach K on my podcast — I asked him about the one and done, and he said he was all for what’s best for the kid. And he said he thought it was a good idea that the kids could go straight out of high school to the NBA. And he’s one of the two that has taken advantage of it more than anybody.”

USA Basketball

The theory that most resonated with recruiting analysts as to why Duke has flipped the numbers with top-five recruits in recent years: Mike Krzyzewski’s status as the head coach of the U.S. national team.

“I’m a firm believer that Coach K’s involvement with national basketball and being the head coach, I do think that had an impact on Duke’s recruiting,” said Jerry Meyer. “I don’t know how you can deny it — and I know some people try. That’s when they took it up a notch. And that’s why Coach Cal coached that team this summer.”

Krzyzewski was actually appointed as head coach of USA Basketball in 2005, following an embarrassing run by the Americans on the international stage that included high-profile defeats on the court and decisions not to participate by the country’s top players.

Coach K convinced many of the game’s top stars to play for the national squad and had the Americans back on the gold-medal stand by the 2008 Olympics. The national team transformed back into a force on the international stage, and — along the way — Krzyzewski developed close relationships with the best players in the NBA.

That has trickled all the way down to recruiting.

“Ten years ago, the USA Basketball thing was, ‘Do we have to?’” said Rivals.com’s Corey Evans. “And there’s a culture now in place that the NBA guys created — alongside Coach K — and now it’s, ‘We want to become part of that grassroots USA Basketball team. Because we see guys like Carmelo and LeBron and Kobe.’ I don’t want to sound like it’s a scare factor, but they want to make sure that, ‘OK, by me going to Duke, I might have a better chance of making this USA team.’”

The USA Basketball junior national teams — the U15, U16, U17 and U18 squads — compete during the summer for FIBA gold medals, and making one of those teams has become a point of pride for young basketball stars in the United States.

Krzyzewski, who stepped down as the head of the national team after leading the Americans to a third consecutive gold medal this past summer, hasn’t been coaching any of these young players directly, but his status as the top guy in USA Basketball has not been lost on those he’s recruited in recent years.

“It makes his brand — and that’s what recruiting is, marketing for a brand — it makes it more powerful,” Meyer said. “Whether it’s directly and overtly used or not, if I’m a recruit and I think I can be on the Olympic team one day … man, I think that’s a big recruiting advantage — that if I play for this coach in college that might help my chances.”

Coincidentally or not, many of Krzyzewski’s top signees over the past few cycles have first bonded during their overseas trips with USA Basketball.

Okafor, Jones and Winslow all played on the same team before picking Duke. Harry Giles and Jayson Tatum developed their close friendship as Team USA roommates. Current Duke freshmen Wendell Carter and Gary Trent Jr. played on two USA Basketball teams together, starting when they were 16 years old.

San Antonio Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich is now the head coach of the national team, but Krzyzewski will remain in the mix as a special adviser to the USA Basketball program, and the relationships forged with such NBA stars — and recruits’ favorites — as LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony certainly won’t hurt in future recruitments.

Zion Williamson — the top uncommitted player in the 2018 class — recently said that part of Coach K’s pitch is that he’d play Williamson in the same manner as he played James in past Olympics.

“He said that every year he changes his system with new players,” Williamson wrote in his USA Today blog. “He said he was gonna play me the way he played LeBron in the Olympics in 2012, so I did my research. Coach K gave him the chance to showcase that he was still the best player in the world. I thought that was a real, genuine answer, because Coach K is always 10 steps ahead.”

Kentucky is also recruiting Williamson.

“I guarantee you it resonates to a point,” Meyer said of Coach K’s pitch. “How could it not? And Coach Cal is doing the same stuff.”

Meyer pointed out that Calipari and his assistants will often bring up UK’s past players such as Anthony Davis, John Wall and Karl-Anthony Towns as points of comparison to various prospects they’re recruiting.

He also noted that Calipari’s first comments when welcoming shooting guard Tyler Herro as a UK signee last week compared Herro to former UK shooting guard Devin Booker, another ex-Cat now excelling in the NBA.

“It just happens that Coach Cal didn’t coach LeBron,” Meyer said. “If he did, everyone would know it, including everyone he ever recruited.”

The perceived recruiting advantage Krzyzewski enjoyed as head of the national team didn’t go unnoticed by Calipari, who has voiced concerns in the past.

Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim — an assistant on Coach K’s Team USA staffs — said three years ago that Calipari had complained to him about the recruiting boost he felt Duke was getting as a result of Krzyzewski’s USA Basketball involvement.

Those comments led to some offseason back and forth between the coaches, capped by a series of Calipari tweets aimed at diffusing the public dustup.

“The job that Coach K and Coach Boeheim have done to turn around USA Basketball, to make it what it is today is truly amazing.” Calipari tweeted. “If — and I emphasize if — they gained any advantage because of that work, I don’t begrudge them in the least.”

At the same time, it was common knowledge that Calipari was looking for his own in with USA Basketball, and, as Boeheim pointed out then, the UK coach had already benefitted from coaching the Dominican national team by later adding a commitment from Towns.

Calipari was named head coach of the USA Basketball U19 team earlier this year. In that role, he coached eventual UK signee Immanuel Quickley, as well as several players who ultimately picked other schools, such as Cameron Reddish (Duke), Louis King (Oregon) and Romeo Langford, who’s narrowed his list to Indiana, Kansas and Vanderbilt.

Top-five recruit Bol Bol was notably cut from Calipari’s U19 team, and that decision — made by a committee, not just the UK coach — led to speculation that it hurt the Wildcats’ chances with Bol, who announced his commitment to Oregon on Monday.

In reality, Calipari’s involvement with USA Basketball likely didn’t do much to ultimately alter any of those recruitments: Quickley was going to pick UK; Reddish and Langford weren’t; Calipari didn’t offer a scholarship to King; and Bol’s recruitment took so many twists and turns that it’s unclear what would have happened had he never shown up for U19 training camp (or had he been named to Calipari’s USA team).

At the very least, Calipari got his foot in the door with USA Basketball, and that could lead to more opportunities down the road.

“You’re crazy if you don’t get involved. It’s just a natural thing,” Meyer said. “Your name is out there with the very top recruits. … You’re more prominent. And that’s what it’s all about, as far as recruiting goes.”

Is this a trend?

All of the recruiting analysts presented with the statistics of this top-five shift among Duke and Kentucky recruits in recent years reached the same conclusion.

“I see the numbers, but I don’t think there’s any meaning there,” Meyer said. “Each recruiting scenario is it’s own individual case. And those players who happened to be ranked in the top five, who chose Duke over Kentucky — they were going to choose Duke over Kentucky if they were ranked No. 50 in the country. That’s just where those guys wanted to go to school.

“So I don’t see any significance to it. It’s not like there’s some groupthink among top-five recruits. ‘Oh, we’re top five, so, if you’re top five you want to go to Duke, not Kentucky.’ That’s not how it works.”

Meyer went down the Duke list over the five most recent classes — Okafor, Ingram, Giles, Tatum, Bagley, Reddish and Barrett — and said there was never a time in any of those recruitments that he thought UK had a better shot than the Blue Devils.

247Sports’ Evan Daniels pointed out that Kentucky has beaten Duke for players in recent classes, too, and those players — though not ranked in the top five — were highly coveted by the Blue Devils.

Kevin Knox picked Kentucky over Duke in May.
Alex Slitz aslitz@herald-leader.com 

“I think it just varies,” he said. “I think, in recruiting, it’s all a case-by-case basis. Wenyen Gabriel — Duke badly wanted. He went to Kentucky. He didn’t end up as a top-five player, but that’s a head-to-head win for Kentucky.

“Duke wanted Kevin Knox badly. They were all in on Kevin Knox.”

And, even though Duke has dominated top-five recruitments in the most recent classes, Kentucky is, obviously, still getting its fair share of blue-chip commitments.

Duke is beating UK, 11-8, with top-10 recruits over the past five cycles. Both teams have exactly 19 signees ranked in the top 25 nationally over the past five cycles.

In the current climate of college basketball recruiting, Kentucky could easily flip those top-five numbers the other way over the next five recruiting cycles.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if they did,” Meyer said. “And I wouldn’t be surprised if they didn’t. It’s like flipping a coin with these two.”

The biggest takeaway from these national analysts is not that Duke has overtaken Kentucky as the new kings of college basketball recruiting — the Blue Devils haven’t, they said — it’s that, for now, it’s these two programs and everyone else.

“I don’t see how they’re not on the same tier,” said Corey Evans. “And that tier is pretty high, and there’s no one coming close to it. I don’t see it as Duke or Kentucky, one above the other. I think they’re both kind of battling each other for supremacy.”

Ben Roberts: 859-231-3216@BenRobertsHL

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