How Michigan Basketball Recruits

Mlive.com, Brendan Quinn (http://www.mlive.com/wolverines/index.ssf/2016/08/as_new_world_of_basketball_rec.html)

Kevin Easley sat in John Beilein’s office on April 28, unsure what to make of what he was hearing. Beilein, the University of Michigan’s 63-year-old head basketball coach, earnest and unfeigned, tried to connect.

“Kevin, you have to be patient,” Beilein told him. “This is just how we recruit people.”

At the time, the 16-year-old Easley was wrapping up his sophomore year at Lawrence North High School in Indianapolis. Since the eighth grade, the now-6-foot-7 forward has been hunted and prodded by college recruiters. Purdue and Indiana offered him scholarships when he was a freshman.

Here, though, was Beilein, well over a year after that, telling Easley that, no, despite him visiting campus, Michigan was not ready to offer. Maybe someday, but not this day. Beilein explained that he needed to see more. He said he needed to get to know Easley and his family better. He needed time.

Easley, so used to the overweening ambition of recruiting, looked confused.

So, wait, no scholarship offer?

“I need you to be patient,” Beilein said.

Three months later, Easley is still waiting. This weekend will mark his third visit to campus. Following weeks on the AAU circuit, he’ll be in Ann Arbor for U-M’s College Practice Camp and, like a number of other visitors, is confident that, at long last, Beilein will extend that scholarship offer.

“They’re lot different,” Easley said of Michigan’s recruiting. “At first, I was kind of impatient because the way my recruiting went — I’d go to a school once and they’d offer. But I thought about it and I was like, OK, I think I’ll be willing to wait for this school. I just had to get over that and know that my time was coming.

“I was just like, ‘OK, I’ve got faith in you, Beilein.'”

***

Since Beilein’s arrival in 2008, Michigan has used its own ball in recruiting. The program operates at an unhurried pace, refusing to offer scholarships until after a player’s sophomore year and adhering to a strict list of rules. No player receives an offer, for instance, until he has visited campus and Beilein has seen him play in-person. The method has been dissected and discussed over the years.

What’s different now, though, is everything else. Beyond the rankings and the ratings, since Beilein arrived at U-M, social media and the pressure for programs to offer scholarships and for athletes to accumulate them, has turned recruiting inside out. It’s now more of a real-time beauty pageant than a long-term courtship. Scholarship offers are known immediately. Players share the info or coaches leak it. Nothing goes unknown.

In many cases, the goal has morphed from finding the right scholarship to stockpiling as many offers as possible — and then telling everyone all about it. Many schools, in turn, have cranked up the number of scholarships they offer. The risk of offering someone who might not be the right fit is counterbalanced by a potentially larger risk — failing to hold a recruit’s interest by not giving him a scholarship offer.

“There are schools out there just throwing offers around,” said Quincey Simpson, coach of the prominent King James Shooting Stars U17 AAU team and father of Michigan freshman Xavier Simpson. Simpson coaches rising high school juniors, including some significant prospects. Two college programs, specifically, he notes, have offered four of his players.

All four play the same position.

“When (Michigan) offers a kid, there’s definitely a serious nature of them wanting that kid,” Simpson said.

Amid this backdrop, Michigan continues to do things its own way.

“It’s different,” said Robby Carmody, a four-star, top-100 2018 shooting guard from Pennsylvania. “They definitely take things a little bit slower than normal just to make sure everything is perfect and how they want it.”

Carmody will be alongside Easley and about 120 other high schoolers at this weekend’s College Practice Camp. He, too, is looking for a scholarship offer. Schools like Cincinnati, Xavier, Purdue, Pittsburgh, Louisville, Notre Dame and Stanford already have pulled the trigger and extended scholarships.

“(Michigan) is involved just as much as the other schools that have offered me,” Carmody said. “They just haven’t yet.”

In year’s past, Carmody might already have a U-M offer. Beilein used to hold the College Practice Camp — an event bringing roughly 60 9th-10th graders and 60 11-12th graders to campus that, moreover, serves as a visitations and evaluation weekend — in early June. It’s also been used as an opportunity to offer scholarships in-person to key targets. Because of the early date, however, those offers were going out to rising juniors before their AAU seasons.

Now the camp is in August. The reasoning is two-fold: Michigan wanted to wait until the switch to Jordan Brand was complete and, more importantly, allow for an extra two months of evaluation and relationship building.

“I’m personally trying to push everything back as far as we can for two things — one, know more about the young man and, two, to know more about what we need,” Beilein told MLive earlier this summer.

So while the college basketball landscape shifts to earlier offers and more offers — especially amongst the schools Michigan typically recruits against — U-M is choosing to go the opposite way. Whether it’s a situational decision or not remains to be seen. In 2011, 2013 and 2014, the program offered a chunk of recruits in June after their sophomore seasons with varying success. In 2011, Austin Hatch, Mark Donnal and Zak Irvin were all offered on June 15. Each ended up committing. In 2014, five-star guards Tyus Battle, Derryck Thornton Jr. and Cassius Winston were all offered on June 15. That did not end well.

As of this week, Michigan has one outstanding scholarship offer to the 2018 class — held by in-state power forward Brandon Johns. Even the powerhouses that handpick their products are more generous than that. Duke has at least four 2018 offers out there, according to 247Sports. So does Kentucky. North Carolina has five. Arizona has 14. Kansas is reported to have 16.

Michigan has held pat, but that will change this weekend with rising juniors like Easley and Carmody hoping to land offers. A few others will, too.

Cormac Ryan is a 6-foot-4 shooting guard from Milton, Massachusetts. He’ll be in Ann Arbor this weekend after Beilein and his staff watched at least 20 of his AAU games this summer. Middlesex Magic coach Mike Crotty Jr., who also coached current Wolverine Duncan Robinson in AAU play, laughed and called Michigan’s recruitment “thoroughly researched and really thoughtful.”

Ryan recently picked up offers from Northwestern, Indiana, Florida and Stanford, to go with a slew of others, the result of some dynamic play in the AAU season. Just last week, Duke reached out.

Ryan, nonetheless, has been waiting for Michigan.

“I actually think it’s refreshing that they really do want to take the time,” Crotty said. “I respect it. Now, if I were in their shoes, I don’t know if I’d be able to wait. I think it shows a great deal of restraint. I think if I were watching (Ryan), I wouldn’t be able to hold back from offering, but I think there’s a lot of value in how they do it.”

Thomas Kithier also will be in town this weekend. He’s a three-star combo forward from Macomb, Michigan, and has been recruited by U-M since attending last summer’s camp

Still, though, Kithier doesn’t hold a Michigan offer. Michigan State, meanwhile, offered in mid-June. Maybe U-M will make things official this weekend. Maybe not.

All that’s known for sure is that Michigan will do what Michigan is most comfortable with, as it’s wont to do.

In September 2015, Beilein sat in a quiet gym in Milwaukee, staring straight ahead. A single ball bounced as Jordan Poole, a rising junior, conducted an individual workout. Having seen enough, Beilein rose, thanked Poole, and headed to his car.

Once outside, he turned to Rufus King High School coach Jim Gosz and, one old-timer to another, said, “This kid can play for me.”

Gosz nodded and replied, “Yeah, he’s going to be a good one.” The two shook hands and Beilein went on his way. One month later, Poole became the first commitment in Michigan’s 2017 class.

“They did it the right way,” Gosz said at the time.

The right way, in this instance, is a dying methodology. Many — not all — college coaches have cut the middleman out of recruiting in recent years. High school coaches are now often spectators, as AAU coaches handle much of the recruitment surrounding top prospects.

Jack Keefer, Kevin Easley’s coach at Lawrence North, says he often finds out some high-profile coaches are recruiting his players well after the process has begun. Keefer, it should be known, is not some half-wit high school coach. He’s won 700 career games and four state titles. He coached Greg Oden and Mike Conley. The gym at Lawrence North is named after him.

“A lot of these coaches just go through their AAU guys to get right into the kids’ ears,” Keefer said.

Michigan and Beilein, meanwhile, still choose to maintain a more traditional route. Easley’s recruitment began, like Poole’s, with an individual workout at his high school.

That’s not to say Michigan ignores the bountiful avenues of AAU. A recent recruitment of 2017 shooting guard Eli Brooks began with this spring when Jersey Shore Warriors AAU coach Tony Sagona reached out to new U-M assistant Billy Donlon. He told Donlon that he should take a look at Brooks and Donlon promptly text messaged James Brooks, Eli’s father and high school coach at Spring Grove (Pa.) High School to ask for some film.

As Donlon, hired by Beilein in May, built the relationship, he explained to James and Eli Brooks how Michigan recruits, while he was learning it himself.

“He really did a good job of informing us,” James Brooks said. “It was sort of like we were learning as he was learning.”

Brooks is the prototype of a Michigan recruit — good grades, a coach’s son, discreet, solid home life.

When U-M extended a scholarship offer, he didn’t run to Twitter to announce he was “blessed” to receive the offer. When he later committed, he allowed Sagona to announce the news his AAU program’s social media pages.

Compared to other recruiting announcements, it came with the subtlety of a feather landing on a mattress.

There’s a reason that players like Brooks ultimately receive the scholarship offers. Their true motives are detected through that aforementioned vetting process and, right or wrong, Beilein seems to prefer a certain idealistic recruit.

“He recruits nice, educated, respectful young men,” said Isaiah Livers, a rising senior at Kalamazoo Central High School. “He wants to know if I’m a gentleman.”

Last week, Livers became the ninth 2017 player with a Michigan scholarship offer, joining Poole, Brooks and six current uncommitted recruits. Beilein began pursuing him in May and invited him to campus in June, despite having previously extended scholarships to other 2017 wings, whom U-M doesn’t appear content to simply wait for.

That said, a familiar theme arose when Livers and Beilein first spoke. Livers recalled, “The major key of the entire conversation — patience,” and Beilein told him that, if a scholarship were to come, it would be around the first week of August.

“He stuck to the plan,” Livers said last week, after picking up that U-M offer, one he didn’t announce on social media, noting, “I don’t need my business out there.”

Nor does Beilein, who often walks with delicate diplomacy when discussing recruiting. When presented with the notion that Michigan’s tactics are different, he retorted: “I hear you say that and I hear people say that — I don’t think it’s that different. I don’t think it’s different. We don’t offer a scholarship without knowing a kid.”

That’s because Beilein views scholarships as “quite an investment,” which is, in fact, different than other programs. In the age of mass player transfers and, as Michigan has come to know, early entries to the draft, many programs are clearly recruiting to build teams on a year-to-year basis. Some lean heavily on one-and-done prospects. Others pocket scholarships to pursue transfers and, notably, one-and-done grad transfers. Others proceed with a combination of all the above, turning over their rosters like films on a movie marquee.

Beilein? He still recruits with an eye on rosters two, three years down the road.

“We’re building a team,” he told MLive. “We’re not amassing talent.”

Still, though, whether it’s weeks or months of assessing and investigating a recruit, the end result still amounts to a guess. A scholarship is offered and fingers are crossed.

The core of Michigan’s 2014 recruiting class was rinsed and washed and appraised. Ricky Doyle and Kameron Chatman went through the full process and, two years later, transferred this summer. A key piece, D.J. Wilson, has yet to find his way. (A fourth member, Austin Hatch, had an entirely unique set of circumstances.)

After the 2013-14 season, though, Michigan was hit with three early entries to the NBA draft and the 2014 class grew by two. Aubrey Dawkins was added and went on to score more points that anyone else in the class in two years at U-M before transferring this summer to play for his father at UCF. Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, meanwhile, was basically recruited for two weeks and has blossomed into the best member of the class and will be a starter next season.

Beilein says the net result of the 2014 class basically boils down to a case study of recruiting and modern college basketball.

“We do our due diligence, but sometimes it doesn’t work out,” he said. “Sometimes it just doesn’t work out.”

***

Kevin Easley says he considered walking away entirely back when Beilein preached patience. He concedes, though, “When a place is, like, your dream school or something, you’ll wait.”

So he’s been waiting and, in a recent conversation with Beilein, was told that, if he plays well this weekend, he could land an offer from the University of Michigan.

“Oh yeah, for sure,” Easley said. “That’s the plan. I’ll do my job on the court and then they’ll do their job.”

Both sides will hope that plan works.

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