Make no mistake about it: Shaka Smart is one of college basketball’s premier recruiting gurus and there’s no longer any room for debate.
On Thursday, five-star power forward Mohamed Bamba unexpectedly concluded his lengthy recruitment in a fashion perfectly fitting for his unique personality with an impressively illustrated column in The Players Tribune.
“I’ve decided to attend the University of Texas.”
For Smart’s Longhorns, Bamba’s commitment is far more significant than that of your typical nationally sought-after recruit’s pledge, even for a program that’s landed its share of five-star prospects over the years. Just months after landing four-star floor general Matt Coleman, who was at the time considered the most noteable addition of Smart's tenure in Austin, considering the team’s needs, Smart earned Bamba’s coveted commitment, giving Texas its biggest basketball pledge since Kevin Durant in 2006.
But like Tom Herman famously says so often, “this is Texas,” and at Texas, you’re expected to recruit successfully.
Rick Barnes made a career in Austin out of consistently hauling in some of the nation’s premier prospects, but Barnes was virtually always able to reflect on winning seasons and NCAA Tournament berths as selling points. Smart, on the other hand, now has the ‘Horns 2017 class ranked No. 4 nationally, which is Texas’ highest ranking since its No. 3-ranked class in 2009, but more notably, he’s attracted such a crop following Texas’ worse season since the 1980s.
Smart on having a top-5 recruiting class after an 11-win season: "I think is shows a lot of belief...on what this program can be." #HookEm— Garrett Callahan (@CallahanGarrett) May 18, 2017
While managing to land Bamba, as well as Coleman, following an 11-win season is praiseworthy, it isn't the most impressive feat about Smart and his staff’s recruiting effort this cycle; it’s which basketball blue-bloods they outlasted to earn their respective signatures.
Following a fall and winter push from legendary coach Mike Krzyzewski, a longstanding relationship with Coleman gave Smart and the ‘Horns his mid-January commitment over Duke.
Selling Coleman on Texas wasn’t the difficult part.
Anyone with eyes could see Texas was in dire need of a point guard and as Coleman often said, Smart let him know the keys are his to take.
4-star PG Matt Coleman on why he picked Texas over Duke. pic.twitter.com/QvVPUg5KgR— Cody Daniel (@CodyDanielSBN) January 16, 2017
Duke prioritized Coleman down the stretch, but Coach K couldn’t boast the same half-decade long relationship with Coleman that Smart can dating back to his time at VCU, which ultimately became a significant factor in Coleman’s commitment.
In the case of Bamba, though, Smart essentially showed up late to the party with a couple guests alongside him and simply won the recruiting royal rumble against a pair of the nation’s blue-bloods throughout the next 11 months.
Smart’s ticket for the Bamba sweepstakes was stamped just shy of a year ago while serving as the head coach of the gold-medal-winning Team USA U-18 squad in Chile.
Along with coaching future Longhorns on the roster in Jarrett Allen, James Banks, and at the time, an uncommitted Coleman, Smart was unknowingly being evaluated by a prospect that he instantly bonded with while overseas.
“Coach Smart may not have been aware of it, but I put him through a weeklong job interview last summer when he coached me on Team USA in Valdivia, Chile,” Bamba wrote in The Player’s Tribune. “We instantly formed a bond. Now, the tables have turned, and I’m the one interviewing with him, hoping to show I can play a major role in his team’s success next season.”
As we now know, Smart thrived throughout the weeklong job interview and as a result, his job for the 2017-18 season just got much easier with Bamba’s commitment.
The interview didn't end when Smart, Bamba and Team USA boarded the plane and head back to the states.
Throughout the entire process, Smart was tasked with going head-to-head-to-head against Coach K, John Calipari and the respective brands that are Duke and Kentucky basketball, and do so from the complete opposite side of the country.
While Texas was able to present the opportunity to play alongside a pass-first point guard in Coleman, Kentucky—the other finalist when many ruled Duke and Michigan out of the mix down the stretch—offered a continued career with Bamba’s AAU teammate, five-star point guard Quade Green, who also thought Bamba was Big Blue Nation bound. Furthermore, while Duke’s point guard situation remained cloudy at the time of Coleman’s commitment, Kentucky knew it would certainly benefit tremendously by adding Bamba to the mix.
Some writers and analysts have even argued that Kentucky needed Bamba to push next year’s team back over the top and provide much-needed interior depth and productivity.
Yet, despite all the factors going in Kentucky’s favor—Bamba’s AAU teammate running the show, possibly serving as the ‘missing piece’ in Lexington and the allure of spending what will likely be his only collegiate season at a national power with a history of transforming big men into No. 1 picks—Bamba committed to Smart and the 11-win Longhorns.
If nothing else, Bamba’s Player’s Tribune pledge to Texas is a resounding testament to what Smart and his staff can do on the recruiting trail—it’s worth noting the significance of Darrin Horn’s development and recruiting prowess throughout this process, too.
Amid and after one of the worst seasons in school history, Smart found recruiting success in his own backyard and and even before Bamba’s commitment, wandered beyond the state lines to secure Coleman (Va.) and Jericho Sims (Minn.).
Traveling from Austin to Harlem to land Bamba over Kentucky, though, despite the black cloud of 11-wins in 2016-17, is nothing short of remarkable and a program-altering achievement.
For the third time in a year, Smart has landed the most significant addition to his Texas tenure—Allen last June, Coleman in January, and today, Bamba.
To date, considering a No. 5-ranked 2016 class and a No. 4-ranked 2017 class, as well as the late 2015 addition of Tevin Mack after taking the Texas job and success in the transfer market, here’s who Smart has landed since arriving in Austin:
- Mohamed Bamba - 5-star PF - No. 2 overall - McDonald’s All-American/Team USA
- Jarrett Allen - 5-star PF - No. 17 overall - McDonald’s All-American/Team USA - (2016)
- Andrew Jones - 4-star CG - No. 32 overall - McDonald’s All-American - (2016)
- Jericho Sims - 4-star PF - No. 49 overall
- Matt Coleman - 4-star PG - No. 47 overall - Team USA
- Tevin Mack - 4-star SF - No. 58 overall (2015)
- James Banks - 4-star C - No. 64 overall - Team USA (2016)
- Royce Hamm - 4-star PF - No. 85 overall
- Jase Febres - 4-star SF - No. 86 overall
- Jacob Young - 4-star PG - No. 106 overall (2016)
- Mareik Isom - Arkansas-Little Rock graduate transfer (2016)
- Dylan Osetkowski - Tulane transfer (2016)
- Elijah Long - Mt. St. Mary’s transfer
Of the 13 prospects listed, 10 are expected to be on next season’s roster with the projected return of Andrew Jones, who tested the NBA Draft waters without signing an agent. My. St. Mary’s transfer Elijah Long will have to sit out next season per transfer rules, but an entire nine-man rotation of just Smart’s recruits will be available, which is now headlined by elite 7’0 power forward Mohamed Bamba.
All that’s left for Smart to do is win and if he can land prospects like Bamba following an 11-win season, having necessary the pieces in place to win in 2017-18 could result in the recruiting floodgates flying open in 2018.