Recruiting trail never ends for Williams, NCAA coaches

Dalante Dunklin and Sam Beeler are from San Diego County. Aahmad Walker is from Culver City, Los Angeles County, Mike Bryson is from Sacramento. Mitch Brewe is from Seattle, Washington.

These are the scholarship freshmen arriving on campus this summer to begin their basketball careers as UCSB Gauchos.

BY MICHAEL BERGER, a Santa Barbara lawyer, UCSB graduate and Gaucho basketball fan

They will join last year?s recruits, T.J. Taylor and John Green from Oakland, California, Green by way of prep school in Arizona, Al Williams from Phoenix, Arizona, Taran Brown from Gillette, Wyoming and Lewis Thomas from Perth, Australia.

UCSB coach Bob Williams, left, will be entering his 14th season at UCSB in 2012-13. Assitant Kevin Bromley sits at his side. (Presidio Sports Photo)

They are following departing illustrious seniors. Orlando Johnson from Seaside, California by way of Loyola Marymount, James Nunnally from Stockton, Jaime Serna and Christian Peterson from Orange County and Greg Somogyi from Budapest, Hungary by way of Northern California who came after players hailing from locales as disparate as Chicago, Alaska, Serbia, and San Francisco.

A cavalcade of student athletes matriculate through the UCSB Men?s Basketball mid-major program every year, staggered in varying time blocks from one to six years depending on each athlete?s readiness to play right away, injuries, academic standing and transfer issues.

How does Head Coach Bob Williams find these players?

It is not by accident or dumb luck. It is called recruiting and it?s the life sustaining element of a basketball coach?s and his program?s success.

It is the crucial building block, rarely thought about, little understood or appreciated by the students and fans who cheer at the games from November to March each year. There are no Ws without good players.

College basketball recruiting has neither a discernable beginning nor end. It is a painstaking and all-consuming process, components of which include tight coordination of a motivated coaching staff in harmony with what the immediate needs of the team are and what the coaching staff projects will be needed farther down the road.

Not so basic questions have to be asked and answered.

Assuming he has potential to be a contributing player, can the student athlete get into a UC school? The academic requirements are rigorously high. Can he stay in school and remain eligible? Will he mix with the alchemy of a demanding, always delicate but firmly established program? To find and attract good players who are high achieving students and of solid character, an invaluable network of basketball contacts around the state, the country and the world must be cultivated and maintained over many years.

Then, there is time on the road. The coaches log thousands of auto and airplane miles and countless hours through the course of young aspirants? high school careers. These miles are logged in the off season and during any given week of the basketball season.

Each coach on the staff is required to understand the labyrinthine NCAA rules, the full interpretation of which really would seem to require a crack legal staff made up of former Supreme Court law clerks. How many telephone calls can you make? How many tweets; What about Facebook? How many visits? What kind and when and where? When is the next contact period? When is the next dead period? The coaches must be current on rule changes occurring yearly.

Although there is no beginning nor end to the process, Las Vegas, Nevada every July is but one vital gathering site infusing the life force of all 344 Division 1 basketball programs in the United States.

Like an oasis in the desert off the dusty recruiting trail, Las Vegas is a well from which to drink in the talents of some of several thousand scholastic basketball hopefuls from around the country playing on AAU (Amateur Athletic Association) certified traveling teams in tournaments sanctioned by the NCAA.

Unlike other ?activities? available in Sin City which are sheltered by the credo, ?What happens in Las Vegas stays in Las Vegas,? the summer evaluation period there is more like the Cold War era?s Radio Free Europe. Few secrets are in code. There may be a sleeper or two, but even if, they are not operating under cover.

Most D-1 talents have been showcasing their skills and maturation openly for three or four years. By July of any year, Williams? staff has already a carefully studied idea of who they are going to watch and evaluate during the five days of competition. Substantial interaction has already taken place during the NCAA authorized ?contact periods? and earlier evaluation periods. That has to be the case because there are thirty-four distinct venues where games are played — mostly at non-descript high schools built by the Las Vegas Unified School District that have no architectural distinctions from one another, spread through the city and outlying communities.

A GPS is a required tool.

Games start at 8:00 a.m. and run non-stop through to 10:00 p.m. There are over a thousand players in the relevant age groups, only a handful of which are being considered.

The games are not scheduled to accommodate the individualized interests or ambitions of college coaches. It?s a massive talent show. Grown, well-paid men can be seen racing from venue to venue with limited time in between games, all the while internally processing information, judgments, affirmations and reaffirmations just witnessed from the last showcase. It is a frenetic and schizophrenic pace.

There are no casual lunches and leisurely strolls to the next competition. The drill is this: leave a gym chilled by air conditioning out into 103 degree heat right after a game ends. Hop into a hot enough to fry an egg rental car whose AC is then activated full blast. Navigate a 10 to 20 minute drive through city traffic, exit the car and walk in the same desert summer heat from the parking lot and back into the next air conditioned gym.

This drill is run six or seven times a day.

The pace between sites is break neck and goes on for a working week. Sitting through game after game after game watching one or more players, waiting for each game to begin while another ends, is on the other ledge of the same speed spectrum. Double overtimes make the waits insufferably longer.

The only respite is each evening around 11:00 when the coaching staff meets, often around a dimly lit table in a hotel dining place whose kitchen is long past closed, talking and debating about what they have observed and what opinions have changed or cemented. Each coach makes his case for a player and players he thinks can help, or describes one who has come back on the radar.

Like all successful professional groups, the debate is passionate, the discussion energized and each member of the staff is free and encouraged to make his case. None of them are shy. There is consensus and disagreement, revisited the next night after another day of evaluating, and then again the next night.

Matt Stock, former player and Gaucho alum and fourteen-year assistant to Williams, is publicly unassuming. Internally with the staff, he is indispensable; a quality forged from a focused intensity that for a coach is, like speed and size and strength for a player, a requirement for success. Anyone who comes by a practice at the Thunderdome can readily observe that he can coach. What is generally invisible outside the program is his organized methodical commitment to the recruiting process year in and year out and the importance and reliance placed on his work and his evaluations by the Head Man and the other coaches.

Kevin Bromley?s basketball knowledge runs deep. He has honed a sharp eye for talent. Brom brings a healthy optimism and exuberance tempered by his many years on the recruiting trail and in the coaching trenches.

Ryan Madry, the newest and youngest coach on the staff exudes a physical power and displays an excellent understanding of the game and just the right youthfulness. These are all qualities which enable him to relate effectively to players and recruits.

The coaches all share the ball when it comes to evaluating. The goal is to score signed letters of intent from quality selections. They are all self-assured and their views are mutually honored. Williams is paid to take the last shot. That is, whether a scholarship will be offered. The considerations that go into any offer are complex.

Very soon after finding a hard wooden seat in the stands of the next gym or upon entering through a crowded front door, Williams will encounter any of a number of other coaches on the hunt at the same athletic safari.

Florida?s two time national champion coach, Billy Donovan stops on his way out of the venue?s latest game to say hi and recommit to visiting Bob in California. John Beilien, the Michigan Wolverine head coach and one who shares X’s and O’s with Bob on the 1-3-1, 2-3 and match up zone defenses during the year, inquires from his own bucket list about the best body surfing on the California coast.

Mike Jarvis, the former St. John?s head coach now at Florida Atlantic, compares vitamin supplements with legendary Bobby Cremins, famed ex-Georgia Tech coach just retired from College of Charleston. Cal?s future Hall of Famer, Mike Montgomery, shares, tight lipped, his pride in one of his assistants, his son. Blaine Taylor, a Montgomery disciple at Montana and Stanford, in his 11th year at Old Dominion, spins Philadelphia inner city open gym stories informing all in ear shot that there are no dead balls in those games?whoever gets to the rock first, out of bounds, keeps it- and no fouls called; ever.

Jim Harrick, the last UCLA national champion coach long retired but still interested, visits briefly. Scott Drew, on the national rise at Baylor and San Diego State?s Steve Fisher, one of the respected deans of the profession and often looking at the same players as Williams, exchange greetings. Steve Lavin of UCLA and now St. Johns, warm and engaging, openly gives updates on his prostate cancer, Stu Morrill of Utah State, all 300 plus pounds of national respect and a coaching opponent of Williams over the years has four or five rich new, or maybe retold, stories and updates before settling in to scout ? a kid.?

What becomes evident early is that notwithstanding the genuine camaraderie among this exclusive fraternity, no one is sharing any information or letting out any harvested secrets. On the one hand, it?s humorous because they are watching and have scouted the same players. On the other hand, it underscores the steely competition at play to land commitments that will hopefully add to the stew of success.

Tallying thirty eight years as a coach eminently recognized and respected as a highly successful basketball mind and an honest man with a clean program, Bob Williams knows almost every coach and they know him. Many of them are ESPN celebrity figures year in and year out during the collegiate season. Most of these men are genuine, some are authors, some are legends, some on the coaching hot seat, some looking for the next championship, and some funny, some looser, some tighter. They all share very traceable DNA. That is: their love of basketball and ambition to coach it and their intense competitiveness.

An elegantly graceful 6?7? wing man, recently arrived from Africa?s Senegal or Somalia, bounds like a gazelle down the court. He must be on the list of kids to watch. No. There is no way to verify his true age or the authenticity of his academic transcripts. Another 6?6? player awesomely and relentlessly attacks the rim, possession after possession, seemingly unstoppable. What about him? No. He has attended five high schools in three years; a red flag of instability. Another athlete, showing impressive play, highly coveted, is verbally committed to another school. Others, showcasing skills and inspiring physical presence are pre-ordained for the Pac 12 or the SEC or another major conference. Some have to wait that one year before NBA eligible.

Valuable time cannot be spent on these players.

Many on ?the list? and very much on the radar are also hotly pursued by other mid major powerhouses like UNLV, San Diego State, Gonzaga and St. Mary?s. How are his grades? Has he taken the SAT? Look at his feet. Look at his lateral speed. Look at his hands, look at his size, look at his vertical and look at his shot. Will he grow? Will he defend? Can he defend? What positions can he defend? Will he work to get better? Who are his parents? What are they like? Do his teams win? Is he coachable? Where else is he interested in going? What does his high school coach say about him?

Some defining athletic move in a humdrum game may change a player?s grade from average to A. Some perceived A rated player may disappoint in one game and reestablish himself in the next three ? or not.

What might seem easily observable is subtle. The nuances are recognizable to those who have played themselves and coached and observed thousands of prospects. Recruiting talent is not an exact science but more of a specialized art form. Then, once a player commits to coming to school, the next process, without a discernable beginning or end commences. Coaching individuals who will work and share and compete for the good of the team.

Aahmad Walker was the last commit for the Gauchos’ 2012 freshmen class announced recently. His recruitment, like the other commits, has been going on in earnest since last July in Las Vegas and earlier. The Gaucho coaches? reservations have been made for this July?s tournaments and the evaluating for the class of 2013 and beyond.

No beginning and no end.

Recruiting is an art form. But, there is some science too.