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UK dodges a bullet; UCLA gets its guy

4/12/2012

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- From a historical perspective, Wednesday’s announcements by No. 1 Nerlens Noel (Everett, Mass./Tilton) and No. 2 Shabazz Muhammad (Las Vegas/Bishop Gorman) made for one of the most significant recruiting events of the past 10 years.

From where I sat and the vantage point I had, the day itself was unique. It was clear that, especially with Noel, none of the coaching staffs knew where he would pick. Georgetown, Syracuse and Kentucky had no “inside information” regarding his decision. There was real anxiety in their offices as they watched him unveil the best flattop since Kid and Play’s run. John Calipari, the man with the golden touch on the recruiting trail, gave what sounded like a concession speech an hour before Noel made his decision and minutes before Muhammad committed to UCLA. In my mind, he was bracing Big Blue Nation for a pair of misses.

In the end, Noel chose to follow in the footsteps of Anthony Davis. UK used Davis’ success to demonstrate a game plan for Noel. It was an easy pitch but one that had a potential hang-up. What if Noel wasn’t comfortable stepping into Davis’ shoes? An hour before the show, I asked Noel about each school’s pitch and he seemed more comfortable following Davis and more content than he’d ever been in our conversations regarding Davis and UK. Still, I wasn’t sure what he was going to do. Minutes before the show began, those who needed to know – producers, graphics folks, etc. – found out the closely-guarded secret.

Kentucky dodged a big bullet last night. The Cats landed one of the two true impact players in the class. Missing on both would have stunted the growth of their recruiting package. As great of a class as UK’s was without Noel, it was void a true superstar -- a guy capable of carrying the mail. Noel guaranteed Calipari would sign an unprecedented fourth straight No. 1 class, continue his string of lottery picks and keep UK in the hunt for another Final Four.

On the flip side, UCLA had been cast in the role of favorite for Muhammad for quite some time. The other schools on his list rode the roller coaster of rumors and speculation all through the season. Each head coach invested significant time into recruiting him. Duke, UCLA and UK had needs for his scoring touch and offered immediate chances to impact their programs. However, there was a sense that UCLA had to have Muhammad.

Last season’s 19-14 record in Westwood wasn’t up to Ben Howland’s standards. A critical Sports Illustrated article and mediocre season had the boo birds screaming for something, anything that would redirect the fortunes of the program. Muhammad’s commitment was like hitting the pressure release valve. When you take a step back and look at what the Bruins have coming in, they’ve reconstructed the roster and put scoring pieces in place at different positions.

Jordan Adams (Lawrenceville, Ga./Oak Hill) is a darn good player. Kyle “Slo Mo” Anderson (Fairview, N.J./St. Anthony) is the most unique prospect in the entire class. Cue the Magic Johnson comparisons but temper the hype and understand he’s not Magic, but he does sample from his approach. UCLA is going to be fine.

Everyone in the Bruins' recruiting class has a state or national championship on his resume. We juice up these guys for their individual abilities but we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that they come from winning backgrounds.

Twenty-two guys made the show

We’re extremely fortunate that the Jordan Brand Classic will be in Charlotte again this year and will airing Saturday on ESPN at 7 p.m. ET. Without that game, our show doesn’t go down as it did. We had 22 “props” on our set and that was fun. America got to see Arizona’s frontcourt next to each other, and what a frontcourt it is. Those guys were HUGE standing side by side.

One of the lasting images from the show was seeing UK’s class -- minus Willie Cauley -- on the set sitting alongside Noel, its newest member. It was cool for Noel to be able to share that moment with his new pals, and what a great look for the viewers at home.

The kids made that show what it was. Behind the scenes they were as excited as we were to be there. I’m glad we worked each and every one of them into the show. There will be some that criticize what we did as over the top. Let’s face it: Recruiting is covered on a national level these days. We’re right in the middle of the process. Wednesday night was fun and, despite the pageantry, the show had value and excitement for those who love recruiting.

Time to make the transition

The signing day show was a celebration and culmination of players and in particular the two true impact guys in the class. They had their moments and so did many others from the ESPNU 100. Now it’s time to get down to business.

My hope is that the hype now morphs into something new. It’s time for all the guys to invest in their future teams. The name on the front of the jersey trumps that name on the back. Kids have to understand that you don’t just go to college; you have to go with the mindset that you’re going to be part of a team. Winning is an elixir that makes everyone look great and individual accolades come as a function of the team winning.

Kentucky is the greatest example of this. Individually, the pieces Calipari worked with this season were outstanding. However, as a unit, and a winning one, each player on that roster boosted his stock by performing his role at a high level. There were defined roles and the kids owned and mastered their roles within the team. That’s why the Cats won the national title, not because of their pure individual talent.

It’s time for production to trump pageantry and my sincere hope is that the players in the Class of 2012 shut out the people in their ears and listen to the voices that are going to coach them. It’s time to buy into next season and move onto the next phase.

The touchscreen incident

During the segment of Wednesday’s show following Noel's announcement, Paul Biancardi and myself changed the recruiting class rankings. Sort of.

Earlier in the show I successfully used the touchscreen element to re-rank the classes. Though I’ve used the touchscreen before, later in the show my actions contradicted that notion. Here’s what happened.

Yes, we practiced the touchscreen beforehand. However, when we got onto the set, there was another row of teams and unbeknownst to me, the rules of how to operate the board under those circumstances changed. The result was me flubbing the segment and feeling naked in front of a nation of recruiting junkies. Twitter toasted me; my friends roasted me and cracked up. It wasn’t fun but it was funny -- just not at the time.

“Come on Dave, come on,” Tony Parker said in the control room. Tony, you have no idea!

If we could ever get the audio of the producers screaming in my ear, it would be better than any botched 911 recording you’ve ever heard. “TOUCH the top, TOUCH the bottom. Top, bottom, BOTTOM, top,” two producers kept saying. I pounded the board, flailing like a fish out of water. Yes, I went back and watched the video (which is at the top of this blog post).

Life’s too short and Wednesday was too much fun to dwell on it. From now on, please call me the “Czar of The Touchscreen.” I think I’ve earned that right!

On Wednesday, the landscape of college basketball evolved. Kentucky isn’t going away. UCLA has the ammunition to regain its national standing. Lost in the shuffle is that two of the three best recruiting classes are headed to the Pac-12. Nationally, the Pac-12 was a punching bag last season. That won’t happen the next few years. The league is relevant again.