The art of recruiting junior college players

A Division I basketball coach who knows Tennessee coach Donnie Tyndall and his staff told me a couple of weeks ago that “besides Wichita State, no staff in the country may be more connected in the junior college ranks than Tennessee.”

Of course, that coach was referring to the great Steve Forbes, former Tennessee assistant, ace recruiter, and the captain of the All-Lobby team at the Final Four (the dude knows everybody). He’s also a former junior college head coach, and before Wichita State’s Gregg Marshall rescued him from the NCAA’s show cause purgatory he was trapped in after the Bruce Pearl regime fell apart at Tennessee, he led Northwest Florida State College to consecutive trips to the NJCAA championship game.

That coach who praised WSU’s JUCO connections was also referring to Chris Jans, the former WSU assistant who is now the head man at Bowling Green. Jans had been a head coach at two different junior colleges (Chipola, Howard).

Now that Wichita State has lost Jans, could this mean Tennessee is now the most hard-wired staff into the JUCO scene?

Of course, this is all just speculation, but it’s leading to a point. In scrambling to rebuild a roster depleted by graduation, the loss of veteran players A.J. Davis and Darius Thompson and the entire four-man recruiting class brought in by former coach Cuonzo Martin, Tyndall’s staff reached to familiar territory to grab some former junior college players.

Can 6-4 combo guard Kevin Punter and 6-5 swingman Devon Baulkman provide the immediate assistance Tennessee needs? It’s a misnomer that JUCO players always provide a quick fix, given that they, along with freshmen, have to learn a new system. Conventional wisdom suggests that because these players are older, wiser, and are used to being away from home, they can adapt more readily, but that isn’t always the case.

Take for example the last three junior college players signed by Tennessee, all by Martin and his staff. To say that 6-8 forward Dwight Miller, 6-6 swingman D’Montre Edwards and 6-10 center Pops Ndiaye were complete busts would be sugarcoating their contributions. Oh, unless you count the fact Edwards made the 2014 SEC Community Service Team. He does have that going for him.

Edwards is also probably the only one of the three that will have put in two years of service, if you could call it that, in a Tennessee uniform. Edwards was around for two years, but he played in just 16 games in 2012-13 and twelve last season. Veteran junior college coaches I spoke with when Edwards signed were stunned the Vols took him. “He can’t play dead in a mafia movie,” one coach told me.

But at least Edwards hung around for two years.

Miller had some moments in his only season, 2011-12, scoring 13 points and grabbing seven boards in a loss at College of Charleston and scoring 10 points, with seven boards, against Ole Miss. Beyond that, he barely played, averaging just seven minutes. He managed to block 14 shots and shot .500 from 3-point range, impressive for how little time he spent on the floor. Martin never elaborated publicly, but Miller must have been a horrific overall defender. Why else leave a shooter and a shot blocker on the pine?

A knee injury suffered in the spring of 2012 sidelined Miller all of the next season. Of course, Tennessee was on the hook for his rehab expenses and his scholarship.

Ndiaye seems doomed to follow Miller as a one-and-doner, but not in a good way. Tennessee coach Donnie Tyndall and Ndiaye are going to meet this week, and it seems likely that the plodding Ndiaye will be told his services will not fit in Tyndall’s high-paced system.

Here are some stats that boggle the mind, given Knight Commission research that estimates Southeastern Conference schools spend an average of $144,592 per year on every student athlete, counting scholarship, room and board, academic counseling, nutritional counseling, gear, strength training, etc.:

The three junior college players signed by Martin logged a total of four seasons and 73 games. They contributed 139 points and 103 rebounds.

Taking the Knight Commission’s dollar figure (four times $144,592 or $578,368 total) into account, Miller, Edwards and Ndiaye cost Tennessee $7,923 a game, $4,161 a point and $5,615 a rebound. That’s good work if you can get it for the player, but the kind of investment that can get coaches fired.

Martin was in no danger of getting fired at Tennessee before he bolted for California, but recruiting misses, with JUCO players and freshmen, were adding up. For every Josh Richardson signed, there were two Wes Washpuns, Quinton Chievouses and Pops Ndiayes.

This brings us back around to Punter and Baulkman. It remains to be seen how much either will help the Vols, but this much is true: SEC schools wanted them. Ole Miss went down to the wire with Baulkman before passing on him in favor of Stefan Moody, whom the Rebel staff thought was more suited to play the point. But Al Pinkins, the Ole Miss assistant who recruited Baulkman and is now on Tyndall’s staff at Tennessee, says, “There’s no doubt in my mind he can play in the SEC. He’s athletic and scores the ball in a variety of ways. I think he can come in and help us right away.”

At least, unlike Miller, Ewards and Ndiaye, Baulkman is tough and has the ability to defend, as many as three positions. That alone, and good health, should get him on the floor more than those three combined.

Punter was a first-team NJCAA selection, so there seems to be a consensus he can play. What Tennessee coaches like about Punter, and what one opposing Division I coach told me, is that Punter is a “throwback” player. In coaching parlance, that means he works to get his points instead of settling for 3-pointers. He’ll get into the lane and attack, and he also has a midrange game that includes pull-up jumpers and floaters. Punter shot 57 percent from the field last season, unheard of for a guard.

Pinkins tried to recruit Punter for Ole Miss but had been told by sources he was headed for Missouri. But when Missouri coach Frank Haith bolted for Tulsa, Punter was wide open. So Tennessee assistant Adam Howard put in a call to his buddy Josh Sash, an assistant at State Fair Community College, where Punter played.

“I told Josh, don’t let Kevin do anything,” Howard said. “We’re gonna jump in. It was a battle. Kevin was worried about our roster and all our guards. But he did some more research and we got him over a visit to SMU. Once he visited with his parents, we were able to get it done.”

None of this is to suggest that Tyndall’s staff will be overly reliant on junior college players. They’re already making in-roads with a host of top 100 high school players in the class of 2015. But those junior college connections are nice to have in a pinch, when positions of need arise, just like they did during the last month.