BOZICH | Kentucky, Calipari and Payne answer any questions about recruiting mojo
Questions about Kentucky's basketball recruiting mojo were answered this week when John Calipari, associate head coach Kenny Payne and the staff landed commitment from two top recruits.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- They said Kentucky lost its recruiting mojo when the prospects ranked one, two and three in the Class of 2018 committed to Duke, not John Calipari’s program.
They said Kenny Payne lacked the experience and presence to ascend to a head coaching spot at a Power Five program without more juice on his resume than serving as Calipari’s top assistant the last eight seasons.
The grapevine always speaks. It's speaking a different narrative today.
Ask Efrem Montgomery. Or Marvin Hagans.
Their sons — E.J. Montgomery (Monday) and Ashton Hagans (Tuesday) — committed to Calipari, Payne and the Kentucky program.
Montgomery, a forward, is ranked 12th among this year’s seniors by Scout.com. Duke and North Carolina had spots on his final list. The same recruiting service considers Hagans, a point guard, the eighth best player in the Class of 2019. More than a dozen schools pursued him after Hagans de-committed from Georgia last month.
“What impressed me the most is how good at developing players Coach Payne is,” Montgomery said. “My son is a big guy, and they have a proven track record of developing bigs. Their bigs get to the (NBA), and they do well.
“Everybody that I talked to said that Coach Payne is one of the top developers in the country. You can’t go wrong there.”
“Coach Payne was great,” Marvin Hagans said. “The whole staff was great. Coach Calipari. Coach (Joel) Justus. All of them.
“They did me a favor. When I say they did me a favor, for them to recruit my son. How many kids get to go to their dream school?
“A lot of times you’ll see parents making their kids go here or making their kids go there. After it’s all over with, the kids say, ‘You’re the one who made me go there. I wanted to go here.’
“If a kid goes to where he wants to go, you’re going to get 150 percent out of them. If you make him go somewhere he doesn’t want to go, you’re going to get 48 percent out of them. My son wanted to go to Kentucky.”
For the ninth consecutive spring, when most recruiting is complete, Kentucky must rearrange its roster. Players are leaving for the NBA (Kevin Knox, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander). Players are thinking about leaving (P.J. Washington and others). The roster must be tweaked, rebuilt, upgraded.
There’s no time for pouting in basketball recruiting. No time to pause and reflect. No time for pity-parties. No fretting about the grapevine.
Payne was interested in the jobs that opened at Georgia as well as Louisville. Both programs gave him a splash of consideration and then hired coaches with considerable head coaching experience who have made NCAA Tournament runs.
It happens. It’s standard operating procedure. Payne earned a conversation with each school. The End. Back to the work that has made him one of the best assistant coaches in the country -- and has his friends, like former Louisville star Pervis Ellison, wondering what Payne must do to get a head coaching position.
“I love my job and what I’m the proudest of is the relationships I’ve built with these kids who have played for us,” Payne said. “That’s what’s special. That’s what is going to last for the rest of my life.”
Payne, 51, kept working. Efrem Montgomery said that his son wanted a blue blood program like Kentucky to recruit him, and Payne moved the Wildcats into the mix several months after Montgomery de-committed from Auburn, the school he learned to love when his sister played basketball for the Tigers.
Montgomery cut his list to four: Duke, North Carolina, Vanderbilt and Kentucky.
Efrem Montgomery said Payne and North Carolina head coach Roy Williams made their most intensive pitches on the same January evening after they watched E. J. practice at Wheeler High School in Marietta, Georgia, an Atlanta suburb.
Williams asked Payne if he could speak first. Payne agreed and waited as Williams huddled with the family for nearly two hours.
“Roy likes to talk,” Efrem Montgomery said. “He’s from the same city (Asheville, North Carolina) where my wife was born. They had a lot to talk about.”
Payne sold Kentucky in 15 minutes.
“He said what needed to be said,” Efrem Montgomery said. “He kept it real with us and that he believed in our son and how they really needed him and wanted him. That pretty much was it.”
“And how hard it was going to be,” Montgomery said. “Don’t forget that part.
“A lot of coaches tell you what you want to hear. Coach Payne was just honest about how hard it was going to be for E.J. to achieve his goals.
“He didn’t try to sugarcoat anything. He pretty much said that it was going to be this, this and this. He told us up front that it was going to be a challenge. We appreciated that about him.”
Like Montgomery, Hagans is a Georgia kid. Ashton has played high school basketball in Covington, about 35 miles east of Atlanta, although his father is from Long Island, New York.
Marvin Hagans said that when Ashton was in the seventh grade, he determined that his son’s future was at point guard. He decided to pattern his play after one guy: John Wall, the point guard from Calipari’s first Kentucky team.
“Going downhill all the time like John Wall, trying to use his speed, trying to steal the ball for layups, bringing it back out and running the offense if you don’t have anything,” Marvin Hagans said. “Just all the things that go into being a big point guard.
“I’m not going to say we were waiting for Kentucky to offer him a scholarship, but we were hoping.”
Marvin Hagans said his son will not decide when he is going to enroll — 2018 or 2019 — until late June or July. He was committed to Georgia until the Bulldogs fired Mark Fox in March.
“Then all of the schools started calling,” Hagans said.
“Georgetown, Marquette, Florida State, Georgia Tech, Georgia, Florida, Memphis, Ole Miss, Louisville, Alabama, Ohio State, North Carolina. There were more.
“You’d be a fool to be a point guard and not look at Kentucky or for them to be your son’s favorite.”
Kentucky, Calipari and Payne have not lost their recruiting mojo.
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