OGDEN — The playing field was level. No college basketball team could bring recruits to campus or could visit them where they lived.
The coronavirus pandemic had halted not just sporting events, but also things like college recruiting — at least how it’s normally done. The NCAA suspended all recruiting travel in March, something still in place until at least the end of August.
By the time the sports world shut down in mid-March, it had long been clear to head coach Randy Rahe and his coaching staff that Weber State men’s basketball needed to shift its recruiting paradigm. In recent seasons, the roster had been too young and, relatedly, not deep enough to compete through injuries and stay at the top of the Big Sky Conference. And in the 2019-20 season, the Wildcats couldn’t score.
The coaching staff decided that, despite the pandemic, the plan to change WSU’s roster would move forward.
“I’ll be honest with you, it was nerve-wracking. We didn’t know this was coming, obviously. We had our plans and talked about how we needed to get older, get better at shooting, all those things we decided, and then we had to figure it out after the virus hit,” Rahe said. “Is it going to help us or hurt us? Can we get the guys we need, and can we get that many of them? There was some anxiety there.”
As players arrive on campus for voluntary workouts this week, here’s a look inside the process of the program’s busiest recruiting offseason in 15 years.
THE GROUND WORK
Weber State has selectively targeted some Division I transfers before, players like Kham Davis and Brekkott Chapman. But getting older, more experienced players in a way to drastically impact the roster meant Rahe and assistant coaches Eric Duft, David Marek and Eric Daniels would be living in the transfer portal to find college players looking for a new team.
Coaches would network to learn who might be on the move but, otherwise, refreshing the list of players in the portal became an obsession.
If a player appeared to fit a need on first blush, a coach would call them to gauge initial interest. Then, research and vetting, Rahe said. Lots of it.
Coaches usually vet a player’s character, academics and intangibles like how hard they play but, in this scenario, it was an all-hands-on-deck crash course of contact. The recruiting window for transferring players is usually shorter than it is for prep prospects. And once players concluded travel restrictions would be more than a short-term, temporary obstacle and that campus visits weren’t going to happen, that timeline sped up even more.
“Once kids realized, I’m going to have to take phone calls for a month and then I’m still not sure I can go on visits? I need to wrap this up, find a place I like,” Rahe said.
That brought a whirlwind of action; six of the nine additions committed in a period of less than three weeks, from March 31 to June 18. It also meant as much film study as coaches could do in a day.
“The amount of film we watched on each kid was incredible. We went all the way back through every year, and went back to AAU or high school even, on some of the transfers, to see their progression,” Rahe said. “Film, film, film, film — alright, we like this kid, he fits our needs. Once we decided we’re all in on a kid, it’s phone calls, videos, virtual stuff ... we just inundated the guys with information so they could get a feel for what we are, as much as they could without being on campus.”
New James Madison men’s basketball coach Mark Byington pointed out film as a big benefit to recruiting a class full of transfers given the circumstances.
“The best evaluations we could get during a pandemic was watching guys who played against other Division I players,” Byington told The Associated Press.
Digital communication with players evolved from check-ins and setting up official visits to becoming the entire method of recruiting a signing class.
That meant more phone calls than ever to build relationships with a player and his inner circle, creating a two-way street for both sides to understand one another and measure their fit with each other.
Weber State coaches decided they wanted to leave no stone unturned when it came to communicating with recruits, contacting top prospects daily with a variety of messages, diving deep into their desires for basketball and life, and illustrating how Weber State fit into that picture.
They also made videos that players and their families could watch on their own time. That included Duft giving a virtual tour of campus, a video in which each coach introduced themselves, and game videos by position group to highlight the successes of WSU alums now playing professionally.
“We tried to separate ourselves by showing the most interest, giving them the most information and developing the best relationships,” Rahe said.
Isiah Brown felt deeply that Rahe and Weber State had the right plan for him. After two up-and-down years at Northwestern and the head coach being fired after his lone season at Grand Canyon, the point guard and Seattle native wanted a program and a coaching staff he felt would push him — use his strengths to win, and develop weak spots to remove them from his game.
“That’s what made the decision easier than it might have been under the circumstances. We clicked kind of fast. They made it known I was going to have an opportunity to become my best, so that was really attractive,” Brown said.
Brown connected with the push on player development. Coaches analyzed film and advanced analytics so they could spell out exactly what they saw ahead for each player: here’s what the numbers say you’re really good at, here’s where we can help you get better. Pick-and-roll to the right is strong, pick-and-roll to the left is not, and here’s how we’d fix that.
“That was the biggest thing was seeing that it was somewhere where, OK, there’s a plan here,” Brown said. “This is what you’re coming into, this is what’s going to be asked of you, and this is how we’re going to help you achieve those things and be prepared. I trusted them on that, I feel good about that.”
The staff sent videos to show how former players succeeded at Weber State and moved on to professional careers — to guards, clips and statistics of Damian Lillard, Jeremy Senglin, Davion Berry and Jerrick Harding; and to bigs, footage of players like Joel Bolomboy, Kyndahl Hill and Kyle Tresnak.
That past development success was a path that generally stood out to transfers. The selling points were similar but the pandemic required the delivery of them to change.
“They’ve already been through the recruiting process and now they really know what they want. These guys we’ve got, they knew exactly what they were looking for: They want to be on the court and contribute to a winning team,” Rahe said. “The older kids are more mature. They see through BS. So in some ways, it’s just this is what you’re looking for, this is what we’ve got — does it match up?
“They do their homework. They’re well-versed, they look up rosters and history and they educate themselves on each program. When you get a kid who’s coming down toward the end of his career, certain things become a lot more important.”
Weber’s approach struck a chord with Brown, who was in his third recruiting process and who Rahe said was “critical” to the momentum they’d need to secure a full recruiting class.
“We kind of figured out the recipe. Why did we get Isiah, what worked? And we talked to Isiah about it,” Rahe said.
Brown’s March 31 commitment was the second of the class. Once he was on board, he wanted to make the vision come together.
“I had a lot of confidence in them building what is now our team, with the guys coming back and the guys we added. And that was exactly the plan from the jump, to go get guys like Dontay (Bassett) and Balint (Mocsan) and the guys that filled out the class,” Brown said. “(Rahe) was determined and I knew he had a good plan, and I wanted to be a part of it.”
Brown would dial up recruits to get to know them and talk about why he was excited for the 2020-21 season at Weber State.
“I wanted to tell them about coach and my perceptions of him, how I felt trust in him and that staff, and that I saw the vision of wanting those guys to be part of it,” Brown said. “And I want to win, that’s the big thing. I think we have a great opportunity to be really good. We’re coming into this with a championship mentality, and that’s something I wanted to pass forward and express that as the main focus to every player.
“The first step was getting everybody and I was glad to be part of it. Now we’re locked in and ready to go, ready to put it together.”
Rahe said recruiting with no in-person visits helped bring out tweaks he’ll use going forward, even if this ends up being the only offseason when travel is grounded.
It wasn’t a wholesale change of how to recruit, but Rahe said the anxiety of it made his staff become better, more creative recruiters.
“Sometimes a kid will gravitate toward one or two coaches who do most of the heavy lifting, depending on who the player is,” Rahe said. “But this year, everyone on our staff was involved with every kid, so we had the same relationship with all four coaches. It wasn’t drastically different than years past but enough to make sure those relationships were even better.”
Recruiting is more art than science, and Rahe feels recruiting nine players during a pandemic helped him learn how to paint just a little better when it comes to building relationships.
“In some ways — I wouldn’t want to do this every year but, in a weird way, I think it might have helped us in a few cases with some of these kids because we did our due diligence, we developed good relationships with these kids who are good players. Had they gone out and taken visits, they maybe would’ve seen some bigger schools probably and there’s a chance you might not get them.
“But a lot of it was based on how strong a relationship we had with the kids and the people around them. Once we had that established, the kids started to understand what we were all about.”
Dillon Jones, WSU’s only freshman for the upcoming season, echoed that train of thought when he committed in April.
“I didn’t take any official visits, before the season or after. But it was probably good that I didn’t; it eliminated all the stuff that doesn’t matter,” Jones said. “People can get caught up in the wrong things like the arena or things like that. I had to solely make my decision a basketball decision.”