Controversy over recruiting advantage for USA Basketball coaches is overblown

As a freshman playing college basketball, T.J. Leaf averaged 16.3 points and 8.2 rebounds and was named first-team All-Pacific 12 Conference for a team that was ranked in the top 10 and won 31 games. It was everything that could have been imagined when he committed to Arizona in November 2014.

Except those points were scored and those games were won at UCLA.

Those two schools are furious rivals in the Pac-12. So how did Leaf end up a Bruin in 2016 after committing to the Wildcats nearly two years earlier? Well, in June 2015 Leaf tried out to become a member of the USA Basketball team competing in that summer’s FIBA U-19 World Cup. The team was coached by Arizona’s Sean Miller. Leaf did not make it. Before the end of the summer, he decided to attend a different college than the one he originally planned.

I couldn’t help but think of this episode when ESPN analyst Dick Vitale tweeted late Saturday, after the United States had blown out Canada to win the FIBA Americas U-18 championship, that he was bothered that Division I head coaches were being used to coach the squad of primarily high school-aged players.

“I said it once and I will say it again. College head coaches SHOULD NOT be eligible to coach 18/u team. A big advantage in recruiting.”

The coaching staff for this edition of the U-18 squad consisted of head coach Bill Self of Kansas and assistants Danny Manning of Wake Forest and Anthony Grant of Dayton. Their team rolled through its six tournament games, averaging 114.5 points per game. In the medal round games against Argentina and Canada, the U.S. won by an average of 25.5 points.

The 12-man roster included eight players still eligible to be recruited by Division I colleges. For all we know, all eight could end up at Kansas because they so loved being coached by Self during this short period. This seems unlikely, because 24/7 Sports mentions KU as being considered by four.

History also suggests it is highly unlikely Self’s time with the U-18s will turn into a recruiting bonanza.

Since 2008, there have been a combined nine teams at the U-18 and U-19 levels that included recruitable players. In all, there were 42 such players, all coveted prospects with primarily 5-star ratings. They were coached in these competitions by such accomplished figures as Billy Donovan, Sean Miller and John Calipari.

Know how many players wound up going from the coach they played for at USA Basketball to a college career under the same man? Four.

That’s Immanuel Quickly from last year’s U-19 team to Kentucky and Calipari; Mohamed Bamba and Matt Coleman from the 2016 U-18 team to Texas and Shaka Smart; and Allonzo Trier from the 2014 U-18 team to Arizona and Miller.

Oh, and Terrance Ferguson played for Miller at the 2015 U-19 championships, signed with the Wildcats and then bolted for professional basketball in Australia without ever playing a college game.

Miller recruited furiously to get Josh Jackson from the 2015 U-19 squad to Arizona; he went to Kansas. Calipari was pursuing Romeo Langford, Louis King and Cam Reddish when he coached them last summer in Egypt. All chose other colleges.

Is this really worth fussing over?

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“I feel that to alleviate the perception that exists in the eyes of many — that the coach assigned gets a major advantage — simply use top high school coaches or even outstanding D-III coaches,” Vitale told Sporting News. “People that point out the fact that some coaches in the past like Calipari did not have success in recruiting players he coached have no clue that it is still an advantage in that you are developing relationships that help later in other scenarios.

“I just do not think it is healthy and you don’t want to give such an edge to the competition in recruiting. Living with the stars for two weeks is a major plus.”

However, if coaching these players in international basketball were such an enormous recruiting advantage, one would suspect recruiters who’ve had so much success for so long would be able to clean up in these circumstances. They’re obviously not.

It also can be a disadvantage if a player a coach is recruiting suffers the embarrassment of being cut, even though the teams are chosen by a panel of coaches and the one in charge of the team is just a voice in the discussion.

Leaf never has said that being sent home from the U-19 team was the reason for his switch from Arizona to UCLA. But it obviously was a factor. And here’s the thing: Leaf has turned out to be a marvelous player. But he was the worst in the gym that weekend.

Kentucky was recruiting Bol Bol when he showed up at the U-19 trials last summer. He was cut. He chose Oregon.

When Langford was on the U-19 team last summer, he was bothered by a back injury that led to him missing two games at the World Cup and ranking 11th on the team in scoring. His father subsequently blasted Calipari in an interview with the Louisville Courier-Journal.

Yes, that’s quite an advantage.

USA Basketball is in these competitions to win them — and to develop players for the senior national team. Self and Calipari are in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. There aren’t many high school coaches likely to do a better job in a two-week period preparing them for international competition.

The U.S. trials began May 26. Their first game in the tournament was June 10. That’s 15 days to select and prepare a team.

That’s also three weeks Self and his assistants committed to being away from their homes and families. I’ve never been invited, but it’s easy to guess that Self has a pretty nice house, and that when he’s in Kansas it’s not much of an effort to get a prime tee time.

He may not be looking for a thank you for getting the U.S. a gold medal, but he at least doesn’t deserve to be scolded.

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