MORGANTOWN — As it is with all of us, the events of recent days are testing the strength of a friendship.
What makes this different is that it involves two of the highest profile college basketball coaches in the country, a friendship between West Virginia’s Bob Huggins and Kentucky’s John Calipari. It’s a friendship that has deep roots planted long ago and has survived through meetings on the court over the years, some of them with really high stakes.
That the relationship is feeling strained cannot be denied, for anyone who knows Huggins knows that he wears his heart on his sleeve and that he is extremely careful with his choice of words.
And when sophomore forward Oscar Tshiebwe, a rare 5-star recruit who found his way to West Virginia, announced he was transferring to Calipari’s Kentucky team, it became quickly clear it was eating at Huggins.
When asked if he and Calipari had talked going into the situation or afterward, his answer was terse and pointed:
“He texted me.”
And asked what the text conversation was like, Huggins said, “He didn’t ask me anything.”
But this is not to say Huggins is putting blame on Calipari himself, for Huggins really let out what was eating at him on his radio show after Tshiebwe’s decision was announced.
“I think it’s the world we live in,” Huggins said. “It’s better to steal than it is to work and earn things. It’s take-the-easy-way-out, and I think there were some people involved who saw where they could benefit, maybe profit, and they worked very diligently at trying to get him out.”
Sneaker companies? Agents? AAU coaches? Huggins pointed a finger, but it was at a shadowy, an unnamed culprit, at a society gone mad.
Recruiting collegiate sports has always been a world without ethics, for the rewards are so much higher than the penalties that there is no incentive to stay clean.
But Huggins’ use of the word “steal” is significant, for he saw this coming with his prized big man early on.
It was obvious from Game 1 of the season that something was wrong.
WVU beat South Dakota State, 79-71, in the opener, but the box score showed Tshiebwe — saddled with foul trouble from the first minute on — played just 14 minutes while scoring seven points with three rebounds.
Huggins then talked about something being wrong with Tshiebwe and about how his offseason approach had been less than satisfactory. But he held out hope it would all work out.
Seven games into the season, though, little was different for Tshiebwe.
“I expect to see a lot more from Oscar,” Huggins said after beating Richmond. “Oscar’s a talented guy, he’s getting better, he’s starting to become more and more and more the old Oscar. But I expect a lot from Oscar, a lot more, actually.”
Tshiebwe’s numbers were down. He wasn’t dominating on the boards nor running the court as he had as a freshman. In those seven games, the 6-foot-9 sophomore had reached double figures in scoring just three times and had only one double-double.
While the tension was growing, WVU was trying very hard to bring back the Oscar of old. Assistant coach Erik Martin grabbed him and talked to him for a few minutes on the bench before they went to the locker room.
When asked about it, Tshiebwe said the subject matter was about him going out and having fun when playing, a part of his game that obviously was lacking.
It was spilling over into his effort.
He put together a couple of solid games before being a no-show against Kansas, where he played just 18 minutes and made 1-of-5 shots for three points with five rebounds.
It is safe to assume he was readying himself to leave, and one game later he announced he was entering the transfer portal.
Huggins understands the business. If Oscar Tshiebwe comes knocking on your door, you are obligated to listen and to act to benefit your team, your state, your employer.
Huggins knows the blame lies with outside influences, just as they did when Sagaba Konate left WVU before he was ready to have a shot at the NBA.
The problem he sees, though, is this is not the end of a trend but the start.
When asked about the direction recruiting will take from here, Huggins replied:
“I think the majority of what’s going to happen is going to be stealing from other programs. Stealing is not the right word, but taking guys out of the portal, that’s what’s going to happen. Ironically, the guy who came up with this is the same guy who came up with the APR. I don’t know how those fit together. I’ve been trying to put those two together, but I’ve been having a real hard time.”
Huggins seems to be referring to the NCAA’s research psychologist Thomas Paskus, a Ph.D from Dartmouth.
The APR was implemented in 2003 as part of an ambitious academic reform effort, its goal to see that athletes make not only academic progress but that it retained students in its program.
Then a year ago, the NCAA came up with the transfer portal, which seemed to make it easier for athletes to transfer while hurting retention, especially as the NCAA did away with forcing athletes to sit out a year if you were a graduate transfer.
“We are finding that certain high academic achievers may not need to sit out for a year, so we recommended that NCAA members study our research on transfer for their discussion on whether these students should participate in sports right away,” Paskus said at the time.
And so it is times have changed.
Rest assured, Huggins and Calipari’s friendship will not end over this, not after Calipari has been the featured guest at Huggins’ charity Fish Fry. But it shows just how insane the system is in which they are operating.
It seems to be time for a complete reformation of the sport.
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