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On Kim Anderson, Jayson Tatum, and What a #1 Recruit Can Do

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There's been a lot of discussion lately on Mizzou's efforts to land Jayson Tatum (or lack thereof). Let's take a look at the reasons and what we'd be missing out on by letting Tatum go elsewhere.

Dak Dillon-USA TODAY Sports

Since word broke in the last few weeks that Mizzou was no longer in play for Jayson Tatum, we've talked a great deal about how that happened.  Sam's written two great pieces about what happened, and I think we're all pretty much agreed that 9-23 was the death knell of any shot Mizzou had at bringing him in.  The commentary from both sides has featured an odd disconnect, though.  I’ll say this now: I think Anderson decided not to pursue Tatum because, Top 5 school or not, Tatum wasn’t going to pick a Mizzou hat on signing day.  The other possibility, of course, is that Anderson and his staff have a much more restrictive view of NCAA regulations on recruiting than recruiters from other programs.  I can tell you that there's evidence to support the second version of events, but there's no way to know for sure.

Whatever the reasons, we're all disappointed that the presumptive number one recruit in the country is headed elsewhere.  Let's rip the band-aid off and talk about the reality of what Kim Anderson and Mizzou have to offer Jayson Tatum, and what a guy like Jayson Tatum can offer Mizzou.

First, let's talk about the sales pitches Kim Anderson can offer Jayson Tatum.  There are basically two options here.  The first pitch you’ve got is an appeal to the competitive basketball player: come play for us, and we’ll win basketball games in front of a lot of people, and then you can go play in the NBA. The second is appealing to the hometown kid: we’re the flagship school of your home state. If you come play here, everyone will love you. Let’s look at the support for those pitches.

First, pitching the program to the player.

Let’s take a look back and look at the program Kim Anderson had to pitch in the fall of 2014. On the roster, your best returning players both averaged less than 6 PPG, and they’re both sophomores. You have a defense-averse scorer who leaves basketball altogether before he plays a second in a Mizzou uniform. Your only returning upperclassmen are big men: one who’s never lived up to his talent level, and another whose talent level just isn’t that high. You’ve got some talent signed up to come in, but you have to re-recruit two of them, because they signed up to play with a guy who just left a power 5 conference program to be the head coach at the University of Tulsa, and you’ve got a short time to bring in the bodies you need to fill up the roster. There is talent here, but none of it looks ready to carry the load in a grueling, physical college season. Last year, with two players on the roster who are now starting for the Los Angeles Lakers, this team only managed to win 23 games. That’s not much of a pitch to a guy who’s also looking at offer letters from Duke, Kentucky, North Carolina, and Kansas, all of whom are helmed by coaches with national championship rings. Kim Anderson’s in his first year as a Division 1 head coach. So, pitching the program probably isn’t going to work.

Now, how about pitching the legacy to the hometown kid?

Tatum’s from Missouri, and if he goes to play for his home state school, he gets to play basketball close to home, where his family can watch, and if things go well, he could be a real hero. Unfortunately, Tatum’s only real tie to Mizzou is that he's a kid who may want to stay close to home. The problem with that is that his dad played at SLU, and SLU is even closer to home. So the legacy only works if you can couple it with the program pitch. But even that doesn’t match up: in the 2013-2014 season, SLU won 27 games and the A10 conference title en route to the third round of the NCAA Tournament. Despite playing the 13-14 season in a tougher conference, Mizzou didn’t even make it past the second round of the NIT.

Let’s add one more anecdote to the increasingly depressing legacy pot: Devin Booker.

Devin Booker wasn’t the top recruit in the country, but he was a 4 or 5 star recruit with close ties to the University of Missouri, unlike Jayson Tatum: his father was the best player on Mizzou’s best teams of the 1990s. Melvin Booker was the face of Norm Stewart’s last hurrah. The moment Devin Booker puts on a Mizzou jersey, he’s a folk hero. Devin Booker went to Kentucky.

That’s the specific situation. To get a more general idea of what it takes to land a number one recruit, and the impact of a number one recruit on a basketball program, let’s take a look at all of the number one recruits since the one-and-done rule took effect, and the programs that landed them. Here they are:

Year Recruit School Head Coach Status Year Before Recruit Year With Recruit Year After Recruit
2006 Greg Oden Ohio State Established Coach 26 wins National runner-up, 35 wins 24 wins
2007 Michael Beasley Kansas State First-year Coach 23 wins 21 wins 21 wins
2008 BJ Mullens Ohio State Established Coach 24 wins 22 wins 29 wins, Sweet Sixteen
2009 John Wall Kentucky First-year Coach 22 wins 35 wins, Elite Eight 29 wins, Final Four
2010 Josh Selby Kansas Established Coach 33 wins 35 wins, Elite Eight 32 wins, National runner-up
2011 Austin Rivers Duke Established Coach 31 wins 25 wins, Sweet Sixteen 30 wins, Elite Eight
2012 Shabazz Muhammad UCLA Established Coach 19 wins 25 wins New coach, 28 wins, Sweet Sixteen
2013 Andrew Wiggins Kansas Established Coach 31 wins 25 wins, Sweet Sixteen 27 wins, Third Round NCAA Tournament
2014 Jahlil Okafor Duke Established Coach 26 wins 35 wins, National Championship Unknown
2015 Ben Simmons LSU Established Coach 22 wins Unknown Unknown

Those programs break down into basically two categories: successful programs with established coaches (Duke, Kansas, Kentucky, Ohio State) and middling programs (LSU, UCLA, K-State). From a recruiting standpoint, established coaches landed the top recruit in every year except for 2007, and established programs landed 7 top recruits to the middling programs’ 3 (although it’s worth noting that, while UCLA under Howland was on a sharp decline, he did take a team to the National Championship there, as well as to two Final Fours). Only K-State and LSU really managed to buck the trend, and they managed it by hiring assistant coaches: LSU had the advantage of having Ben Simmons’ godfather on its coaching staff, and Michael Beasley was close with Dalonte Hill, who was hired at K-State during Beasley’s recruitment. Hill, it’s worth noting, is out of coaching after resigning from Maryland’s coaching staff in 2013.

The only programs that showed sustained success after a number one recruit passed through for a year were the programs that were already sustaining that success.

That begs the next question: what happens once you get a number one recruit to campus? The results were somewhat inconsistent, as the 13-14 Kansas and 11-12 Duke teams were actually worse with the number one recruits than they were before or after, but you can identify basically three outcomes: the best version, where the hotshot player comes in and pushes your team to an extra 5-9 wins, the middling version where you win about the same number of games, and the bad version where you lose some wins. Obviously, the small sample size means that there’s no hope of any kind of statistically sound measure, but consider this: only one of the 10 number one recruits correlates with a sustained increase in success, and that player arrived on Kentucky’s campus at the same time as a coach named John Calipari. For every other program, the number one recruit represented something between the status quo and a temporary blip. The only programs that showed sustained success after a number one recruit passed through for a year were the programs that were already sustaining that success.

That’s all to say this: bringing the number one recruit to campus is almost definitively a good thing, but it is not the stuff on which a successful program is built. Successful programs bring in hotshot recruits because they’re already successful, not the other way around. I would like to think that we all hope Kim Anderson builds a program with sustained success, whether or not we think he’s capable. If he brings Jayson Tatum, Michael Porter, Jr., or another such player, it needs to happen because he’s built Mizzou into a consistently competitive program, because the other version – where it masks problems and delays his inevitable dismissal – will put us right back where we started. Shabazz Muhammad didn’t save Ben Howland’s job, and Michael Beasley didn’t turn K-State into a Final Four contender. Until Kim Anderson builds a program capable of sustaining success, bringing Jayson Tatum to campus is unlikely to happen, and, even if it does, it’s not going to turn Mizzou into a basketball power. It won’t even turn Mizzou into the perennial conference contender that it was in Norm Stewart’s best years.

Let’s be honest with ourselves: Kim Anderson inherited a train wreck, even if none of us realized it at the time. He had a serious recruiting job ahead of him to get Wright and Gant suited up for Mizzou last year, and keeping his inaugural freshman class on campus is going to take all the relationship building he can muster. But just keeping them on campus isn’t enough. He has to get them to develop their strength and basketball skills, and bring in new recruits for the sake of continuity and depth, because another season like this one will be his last in Columbia. And there are only so many hours in a day (and only so much recruiting allowed by the NCAA). When he says the staff needs to be more efficient, and that they need to target their recruiting focus, he may well be saying that recruiting Jayson Tatum is a lower priority than building a Mizzou program that consistently meets the standards we expect it to.

The reality is that, even if Kim Anderson had put forth the effort to keep Mizzou in Tatum's Top 5, there was almost no chance that he would commit to play at Mizzou.  And while being in the Top 5 is good for PR and would make us all feel a little better about things, the reality is that any benefit it provides is superficial.  Top 5 for Tatum doesn't win basketball games, and Top 5 for Tatum won't help Kim Anderson keep his job.  If Kim Anderson has opted to put the time and resources he would have spent on Tatum into other pursuits, all he gave up was some PR and a basically nonexistent chance at landing him.  If he can use those resources to build a program that has a legitimate shot at both landing and capitalizing on the Tatums of the future, Mizzou will be better for it.