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Duke recruiting: Vernon Carey, Coach K and inevitability

The news stories say that high school basketball star Vernon Carey Jr. picked Duke this week, but it may be more accurate to say Duke picked him. From the moment Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski made Carey a priority, everybody else was angling to be the runner-up, even if it didn’t always feel that way to them. Recruiting against Coach K is like trying to escape an enormous door-less, window-less room. No matter how high you climb or how far you go, eventually you will hit your head against a wall.

In the six years prior to this, Duke had the No. 1 recruiting class in the country five times, according to 247Sports. (In the off year, Duke finished second.) There is a perception that only Kentucky can match Duke’s recruiting prowess, but really, the only program that can do it is Alabama football.

Nick Saban has assembled the top class in the country seven times in the last nine years, according to Rivals. In related news, Alabama almost always has the most talented team. Alabama is what would happen in the NFL if you gave Saban’s buddy Bill Belichick the best draft picks and most cap room every year. If the Crimson Tide win the national championship next month, that will be their sixth title in nine years. Saban can honestly tell recruits, “We usually win the national championship,” and with truths like that, who needs to lie?

You might say Alabama’s success is tiresome, its program is unlovable, and college football would be more fun if Saban had a couple sub-.500 seasons, but if you do, I suggest you stay far away from Alabama, which has always been my favorite state, by the way.

Recruiting is the art of selling without sounding like a salesman. Saban did it well at Michigan State, did it better at LSU, and has done it on an almost unprecedented scale at Alabama. He identifies talent as well as anybody, but he has also turned Alabama into a brand that not even Urban Meyer at Ohio State could match. If a player’s primary goals are to win, play in an intense atmosphere and get to the NFL, Alabama has a huge head start. Alabama is not like USC, Florida or Texas. Alabama is Apple; if you want an iPhone, you have to go there.

Whoever said, “It’s harder to stay on top then get to the top” never recruited against Krzyzewski or Saban. Krzyzewski’s recent record is not as incredible as Saban’s, but that is largely because college basketball is a more volatile sport, especially these days. Over the long term, Krzyzewski’s career is actually more impressive than Saban’s.

Krzyzewski first took Duke to the Final Four in 1986, before there was a three-point line. He built an empire competing against Dean Smith and has maintained it against Roy Williams and John Calipari. He won titles when his stars usually stayed four years, when they started to leave after two or three and now, in the one-and-done era.

If college basketball eliminated foul shots, switched from 5-on-5 to 4-on-4, made one player on each team wear a blindfold and gave everybody two years to adjust, the favorite to win the 2021 national title would be Duke.

Coach K is obviously a terrific basketball coach, but his genius is not in X’s and O’s. It is in reading situations and figuring out how to succeed in them. He has earned the trust of the biggest stars in the world, in the Olympics, and of high school kids.

Longtime college basketball fans may find the modern Coach K bewildering. A generation or two ago, people mocked him for having a team of geeks, droning on about graduation rates, and now look at him. But he pulls it off largely because today’s recruits believe they see the same guy that Bobby Hurley and Christian Laettner and Shane Battier saw all those years ago.

Many coaches these days offer scholarships to multiple players at one position. Krzyzewski tries to avoid that. As he told me a few years ago: “The guilt trip that sometimes people put these kids through, I don’t want that to be the basis of our relationship … I want them to trust me from the very beginning.”

This approach is risky with one-and-done players, because if you whiff, there is nobody left. It requires an incredible level of self-comfort, and Krzyzewski has it. It is easy to say, “Duke gets everybody” now. But when Krzyzewski shifted strategies toward elite short-timers, Kentucky coach John Calipari seemed to own that market indefinitely.

Calipari recently declared himself “overrated as a recruiter,” which was meant to sound self-deprecating but of course was not. In all my years of talking to college coaches, I have never heard one say he or she wanted to be known primarily as a recruiter. That would be like an actor asking to be known for his good looks or a politician proclaiming he won because of name recognition.

We all tell ourselves that our success comes from substance. What separates Krzyzewski is how well he convinces others his success comes from substance. Vernon Carey Jr. just turned down two Hall of Famers, Roy Williams and Tom Izzo. He would have done very well under either of them. But Carey knows what every Alabama recruit knows: If he wants to win, play in a great atmosphere and become an excellent pro, he made the safest choice.

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