Monday, May 27, 2024

Vaught: Pope's recruiting strategy

ESPN recruiting director/basketball analyst Paul Biancardi likes what he’s seen from new Kentucky coach Mark Pope’s recruiting strategy.

“Every coach recruits to their personal liking. Not every coach goes after one-and-done players. Some are comfortable recruiting, coaching and developing talent,” Biancardi said. “Others want highly recruited players to mix with a returning group and transfers. 

“Every coach loves retaining players but that’s just not the way it is any more. You don’t know if a player is unhappy with his role or if it is NIL but there is no guarantee of retention. That’s why the transfer portal and high school recruiting is so important. Pope is different from (John) Calipari who is different from (Tom) Izzo. Everybody is different.”

Biancardi knows the “market price” for players is escalating due to NIL.

“Players and families can ask for more if they feel they deserve it and it is up to universities to decide how much money to give out. You can lose a player due to NIL or maybe get a player you would not normally get because of NIL,” Biancardi said. “NIL has leveled the playing field to some degree. Blue bloods still recruit off tradition but you still have to be competitive in the NIL world.

“This is a business. Guys who do not show promise and work may not have NIL for a second season. It’s a lot for parents to comprehend when people are offering so much money. That’s why it is important for a recruit to go to the right coach and right program. You should not make a decision just on money but a lot do. It is causing chaos for everyone.”

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Former UK track star Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone showed at the USATF Los Angeles Grand Prix that she was Olympic ready for a dominating win in the 200-meter dash in 22.0 seconds, the second-fastest

time in the world this season. However, McLaughlin-Levrone, 24, made it clear she would compete in the 400-meter hurdles in the Paris Olympics. That’s the same event she won in dominating fashion in the last Olympics (she was also on the 4x400-meter relay team that took gold).

Would McLaughlin-Levrone ever consider trying both events in the Olympics?

"That's definitely a possibility in the future but just wanting to come back last year, stick to one event, and try to do the best I can, be healthy, which we are, and I'm very happy about,” she said after the LA meet. 

She beat Abby Steiner, another former UK star, in LA. Steiner was clocked in 22.32 seconds but could not match McLaughlin-Levrone, who has battled back from a knee injury.

“Both of my knees feel great right now, which I'm very happy about. I'm just trying to keep it that way. I'm not doing too much to strain myself," she said. 

McLaughlin-Levrone also issued a warning to future foes but admitting her form was the best it has been.

 "Just trying to get progressive, get faster, get stronger, get better technically. All those pieces kind of have to come together so I'm just happy,” she said looking ahead to the Olympics.

If you have not read her book, “Far Beyond Gold,” McLaughlin-Levrone discusses issues she's had with anxiety and even holding back at the 2016 Olympics because of her fear of not winning. She also shared numerous stories about her year at Kentucky.

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Kentucky signee Trent Noah of Harlan County continues to be praised for his prolific scoring and shooting but Kyle Jones, his high school coach, says his star player is more than just a shooter.

“A lot of people talk about his shooting ability and rightfully so,” said Jones. “But he is an exceptional passer. His court vision is next to none. He always makes the right play in pressure situations,

“He’s an unselfish player and a very underrated rebounder. I also think he is an underrated defender. He does things he needs to do and would guard the other team’s best player and do a great job. He would take a charge in a big moment or get on the floor to get a loose ball.”

Noah averaged 29.9 points and 10.4 rebounds per game last season when he shot 56 percent overall from the field, 43 percent from 3 (he made 102 3’s) and 89 percent at the foul line

“Going into his junior year he started taking his diet seriously and getting his body in shape to play college basketball,” Jones said. “Now he has a college ready body. I am anxious to see how having trainers like they have at UK will do for him. He could be scary with his size and ability once they work with him.”

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Leah Macy dreamed of being a McDonald’s All-American and a five-star recruit growing up. The Bethlehem junior never really thought about playing for USA Basketball.

“I think that (USA Basketball) became a goal after I went to my first (USA Basketball) Trials two years ago,” said the 6-2 Notre Dame commit. “I knew I had no chance of making the team but without that experience I never would have made the team this year.”

Macy and Sacred Heart junior ZaKiyah Johnson both made the USA Basketball U18 team that will play in the FIBA U18 Women’s AmeriCup from June 17-23 in Bucaramanga, Colombia. The team will reconvene for training camp in Colorado Springs on June 8.

“I knew what to expect and how to train differently to make the team this time. I knew more about what I was getting into and my mindset was different,” Macy said. “It was cool to be back with USA Basketball but it was a real grind for four days. Every coach is different. You don’t know what type of offense you will be running until you get there.”

Macy knew making the team would be about a lot more than scoring because of how many elite players were at the tryout.

“You try to figure out your role. The tryout was very forward dominant. Being a versatile player allowed me to play a stretch 3. Being able to expand my game helped me make the team,” Macy said. “My ability to pass was a big thing for the (selection) committee to see.

“In AAU and high school I have to score a lot. I do distribute (the ball) but I score a lot. On this USA team, I will be more on the perimeter. We are big inside. My passing will be much more important.’

Macy also made a concerted effort to be a vocal leader, something that is a bit out of her comfort zone. 

“I am not always the loudest leader and it was hard to do that in that environment but I tried,” she said.

Macy is home until June 8th and then will return to Colorado Spring before heading to Bucaramanga, Colombia, for the competition June 17-23.

“I have not played internationally before. I do know most of the players on the team which is a big help,” Macy said.  

She’ll also have a familiar face on the coaching staff as Notre Dame coach Neile Ivey will be an assistant under coach Teri Moren of Indiana.

“Having 2 1/2 weeks with her (Ivey) to further our relationship is going to be great,” Macy said. “I really didn’t plan my commitment around the Trials but I am glad I did commit and that is going to make this USA experience so much better.”

* * *

She might have the perfect name to be a Kentucky basketball player but incoming freshman Alexandra “Lexi” Blue didn’t always envision herself being a college basketball player.

“I played everything but basketball. I did dance, cheerleading, tumbling, tennis. I did a bunch of things,” Blue said. “I was really, really girly. I wanted to be on ‘Dance Moms.’ If you had told my dad I would choose basketball, he would have thought you were crazy. He probably never even thought I would pick up a basketball. 

“My dad played basketball and kind of introduced me to it. I don’t remember exactly when that was but once I got it, I wanted to keep rolling with it and happened to be pretty good at it. When you love something, you don’t mind working at it. The more I worked, the better I got.”

Blue is Kentucky’s highest-ranked incoming freshman since Treasure Hunt, who was a five-star guard and top-10 prospect in the Class of 2020. The 6-2 Blue is ranked No. 11 by All-Star Girls Report and is a consensus top 30 recruit after averaging 13.9 points, 5.1 rebounds, 1.8 assists and 1.1 steals per game as a senior at Lake Highland Prep in Orlando, Fla.

“Rankings are not something I pay attention to. It is nice to be recognized but I just try to make myself the best person and best player I can be,” Blue said.

In her five seasons at Lake Highland Prep, she had 1,360 points, 196 3-pointers, 504 rebounds, 187 assists, 99 steals and 43 blocks and helped the Highlanders win five straight state championships.

“I got to play varsity early and played several different roles on our teams. I got to play with some amazing players and hope I can bring that winning culture to UK. We played team basketball. My goal is always winning and not personal accolades,” she said. “I learned how to be an efficient player. I am a wing but I had to play post and learn different angles, get better at rebounding and boxing out, guarding bigger players. 

“I just had to work on everything. I was constantly staying in the gym because that’s something I love to do.”

Blue signed with coach Kenny Brooks at Virginia Tech but immediately opted to join him at Kentucky when he changed jobs. She did so without making a visit to Lexington because she “trusted the process” and was impressed immediately by the “welcoming” feeling she got from UK fans.

“Coach Brooks is a great guy. He just has an ability to really connect with his players and help you in different ways on and off the court,” she said. “When he told me he was going to Kentucky, I wanted to be part of that and go with him. Other schools reached out but I had to figure out what was best for me and I had fallen in love with coach Brooks and all he does.”

She understood Brooks would have to put the pieces of a puzzle together to build his first UK roster but didn’t worry about what her role might be.

“Where he needs me is where I will play. Ballhandling, shooting, rebounding … I will try to fill as many roles as coach Brooks needs,” she said. 

Brooks is glad she will be part of his first team and knows what her versatile skill set can mean to the team. 

“She didn’t take long to decide to be part of BBN. She had committed to us (at Virginia Tech). We had to tell her we were leaving and immediately she said she wanted to come,” Brooks said. “I think BBN is going to love her.

“She shoots exceptionally well. She has great size for her position. I like to surround bigs with great shooters, but she can rebound and protect the paint if we need that. Once she gets acclimated to college basketball she will be a tremendous asset with her skill set. She is a very smart basketball player as well that we are lucky to have.”

And she does have the perfect Kentucky basketball name.

“Alexandra, no one calls me that,” the incoming freshman said. “I thought Big Blue Nation and Blue did fit. When I was looking at comments after I committed, Lexi in Lexington kept popping up. It fits perfectly.”

It could also be the perfect marketing slogan for NIL purposes, too.

“I hope so. I definitely would be interested in any way that might work out,” she said.

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Quote of the Week:  “We continue working to navigate the landscape in college athletics. Our commitment to putting diplomas in our student athletes’ hands and championship rings on their fingers remains. This is who we are. This is what we do. That won’t change,” Kentucky athletics director Mitch Barnhart on the school’s philosophy.

Quote of the Week 2: “I don't think anybody has been more consistent than them from the start of the year until the end of the year,” LSU coach Jay Johnson on Kentucky baseball.

Quote of the Week 3: It’s a great hire. It’s outside the box for UK but the entire college athletics experience is operating outside the box now with the NIL and transfer portal. I think being a former player makes it easier to go back to a school to be the head coach because they know and understand the pulse of the program,” former UK player Reggie Hanson on new UK coach Mark Pope.