It wasn’t long ago that Bruce Pearl famously said he intended to make sure all the elite basketball recruits in this state ended up at the University of Tennessee.
Maybe now we know why he was so confident. It’s obvious that the UT coach is willing to go the extra mile — into gray areas and even across clearly established lines — to land top-flight talent.
That approach did, in fact, net him a lot of talent, most notably the in-state trio of Tyler Smith, Wayne Chism and J.P. Prince, who all came in together. More recently, it brought him some public humiliation and the termination of his contract.
All the while, Vanderbilt’s Kevin Stallings seemed to pay Pearl no mind.
Rather than go head-to-head with the charismatic Volunteers’ coach for local talent, Stallings went elsewhere. Seriously elsewhere.
Three years ago he plucked a big man out of Australia (A.J. Ogilvy). The following year — with a wealth of open spots — he got a Swedish-born forward out of New Mexico (Jeffery Taylor) and a pair of native Africans who had found their way to the United States (Steve Tchiengang and Festus Ezeli), among others.
In a way, it was a perfect metaphor for the differences between the two universities. Tennessee: the state school that is dedicated to furthering the education of all Tennesseans who are willing and able. Vanderbilt: the private institution with the global reach and aspirations.
Suddenly, though, a funny thing has happened. Stallings’ wide reach has made his program more appealing to the local kids.
Last season’s Vanderbilt roster included John Jenkins out of Station Camp High School, who was widely regarded as the Commodores’ best recruit this side of Clyde Lee and who led the team in three-point shooting on his way to being named the SEC’s Sixth Man of the Year.
More recently came word out of Marshall County that Kedren Johnson intends to sign with Vanderbilt this winter. Johnson was a highly coveted recruit who ultimately narrowed his choice to four schools — and Tennessee was not one of the four.
It was one thing for Stallings to get a kid from within the metropolitan area. It was something altogether different for him to venture into a more rural area and come away with his guy.
Vanderbilt, it seems, is now the destination that Pearl once claimed Tennessee to be.
If he wants to keep it that way, it’s time for Stallings to take his program where Pearl routinely has taken his — deep into the NCAA Tournament. Clearly, Stallings and the Commodores have gotten the attention of the state’s top talent, and they have done so at a time when Pearl’s ability to recruit has been cut by the school, and it’s possible the number of scholarships he can give could be cut by the NCAA.
But a few more first-round flameouts like last season’s against Murray State will get those same players looking elsewhere in a hurry.
After all, it’s not as if this state is overflowing with so many SEC-caliber players that there’s enough to go around.
If Stallings can seize this opportunity to ensure that most of those players think about him and his team first, he’ll have that much more time and energy to go all the other places he needs — and has shown he is willing — to go to fill out the rest of his roster. And he’ll never have to go to the lengths to which his in-state rival apparently was willing to go.