Former Indiana assistant Kenny Johnson is expected to join the Louisville basketball staff.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – When Rick Pitino gave his first scouting report about the guy he expected to follow Kevin Keatts as an assistant coach on his Louisville staff, his only clue was the guy would have hair like mine.
Good thing Pitino isn’t working the security line for the Kentucky Derby because I haven’t had hair like Kenny Johnson’s since the Louisville Times was churning out an afternoon edition.
What happened to Ralph Willard, the silver-haired sage who was already arranging a tee time at Valhalla?
Willard told Pitino that he didn’t need Ralph Willard. He needed a recruiter.
Enter Kenny Johnson, one of the best, as he proved during two whirlwind seasons at Indiana.
As Louisville enters the Atlantic Coast Conference, Pitino has shrewdly added an assistant who knows Tobacco Road as well as Pitino knows the upper East Side of Manhattan.
Johnson should be a perfect fit, a plug-and-play addition who will give the Cardinals a jumbo-sized presence in Virginia, North Carolina, Maryland and other places where Top 50 prospects gather.
Johnson is a bright (degree from Maryland in cell, molecular biology and genetics), engaging guy who relates well with teenagers and has a Twitter handle that explains his philosophy about work in 12 letters -- @kjrelentless.
How relentless is K.J.?
When I saw him at a Trinity game last winter, Johnson walked into the gym at Waggener High School with an older woman. It was his Mother. She had arrived in Bloomington from Maryland earlier that day and then he asked her to make the two-hour ride with him to watch a prospect.
IU coach Tom Crean has often described Johnson as “a great person,” and that didn’t change after the news broke Monday night that Johnson was leaving Bloomington.
Speculation always percolates when an assistant coach changes jobs, but this one isn’t difficult to analyze. Johnson is a determined up-and-comer who will run his own program one day.
Kenny Johnson has put himself in position to follow Kevin Keatts (North Carolina-Wilmington), who followed Kareem Richardson (UMKC), who followed Richard Pitino (FIU), who followed Steve Masiello (Manhattan) … and you can look up the remaining branches of the Pitino coaching tree on Google.
Did the 17-15 season that put the Indiana faithful in a perpetually sour mood last winter inspire Johnson to consider his options, which also included Maryland, Virginia Tech and Boston College?
Johnson will have to answer that question at his introductory press conference.
If he’s candid, Johnson will also remind you of this: Indiana was already ranked number one in several pre-season polls before Kenny Johnson arrived from Towson State in 2012.
Crean and top assistant Tim Buckley are the guys who did the most difficult repair work in Bloomington, convincing Cody Zeller, Yogi Ferrell, Christian Watford, Jordan Hulls and others to sign with the Hoosiers.
The list also includes Maurice Creek and Victor Oladipo, two guys that Indiana signed from suburban Washington D.C., Johnson’ sweet spot, before Johnson arrived. There actually are recorded signs of basketball life in Bloomington before Noah Vonleh, Troy Williams, Robert Johnson and other Kenny Johnson recruits.
Crean has a major hire to make. But I’d look for him to take his time and move after the spring evaluation period.
What Indiana achieves next season won’t be determined by the addition of an assistant coach. It will be determined by how well Hanner Mosquera-Perea develops as the first-team center and how serious the rest of Crean’s young team becomes about the essential lesson of eliminating turnovers. Crean has already fixed the problem of lacking shooters by adding James Blackmon Jr., Robert Johnson and Max Hoetzel.
Crean was once a prized assistant coach, too, the guy who helped Tom Izzo create momentum at Michigan State by recruiting Mo Peterson, Mateen Cleaves, Andre Hutson and others.
Then Crean left for Marquette after the 1999 season.
Izzo found the proper replacement – and kept rolling.
It’s Basketball 101 – and every successful head coach must grasp that early in his career.
If there is any fallout, I’d predict this: Indiana and Louisville will finally play in the Jimmy V Classic in Madison Square Garden in December.
I’d be surprised if they played again -- unless it was arranged by the ACC-Big Ten challenge. Pitino and Crean have a history, no matter how many glowing things they say about each other. I was there, when Marquette student managers collected some funny Louisville scouting reports in Milwaukee in 2004, to record it.
Recruiting is a contact sport. Rick Pitino delivered a blow on Monday. Now Tom Crean gets to respond. It’s Basketball 101.