LAWRENCE — If you've ever doubted that elite college basketball players are more likely to choose a coach they like over a school they like, check out tonight's Kansas-Memphis game.
Four current Jayhawks — sophomores Marcus and Markieff Morris and freshmen Xavier and C.J. Henry — were one-time oral commitments of the Tigers. Their choices between KU coach Bill Self and former Memphis coach John Calipari were based on their feelings toward the coaches, not the name on the jersey. With each set of brothers, it worked out for Kansas — but for very different reasons.
Back in 2007, the Morris twins committed to Memphis. But after deciding to attend prep school, they reopened their recruitment. The twins say they weren't comfortable with Calipari.
"Us and Calipari never really talked," Marcus said. "As soon as I opened my recruitment, when I was allowed to talk to coach Self and the staff, we made sure we talked. Even after I committed, we made sure we talked almost every day. That went a long way for me and my brother."
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KU assistant coach Joe Dooley was in southern New Jersey often during the year the twins attended Apex Academies in Pennsauken, N.J. But still, the attention they got from Self made the difference.
"When you're picking a school and you're a young guy in high school, the coach is a major part of it," Marcus said. "At the end of the day, it's always the head coach that makes the decisions."
Calipari and Self went at it for years recruiting Xavier Henry. And when all logic said Henry would end up at KU — his father, Carl, and mother, Barbara, played there — Xavier and older brother C.J. chose Memphis. Rather, they chose Calipari.
"I liked Cal," Xavier said. "That's the reason I went to Memphis — and my brother. Once (Calipari) left, we just re-evaluated everything and changed schools."
Not without another big decision, of course. The Henrys strongly considered following Calipari to Kentucky but ended up choosing Kansas because their mother wanted the family to live in Lawrence. As for Memphis, the Henrys said at the time that the Tigers were still in the running, but it appears they were just saying the right things.
"CJ was talking about how he wanted to leave," Xavier said. "They weren't really a big factor in anything after that."
And so here the Jayhawks and Tigers are tonight, entering this showdown at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis in totally different situations. KU is the No. 1 team in the country, largely because of those four former Memphis commitments, and the Tigers are unranked.
"It's a crazy world," Self said. "We've gone head to head with coach Calipari and his staff many times and will continue to go head to head with Kentucky. And now that (Memphis coach) Josh (Pastner) and his staff are in place, they'll recruit at a national level also. It seems to me we're recruiting the right guys if all those people are going after them."
Kansas freshman Thomas Robinson chose between KU and Memphis as well. Robinson said he considered the Tigers because of Calipari and his style of play. He has said that he chose KU because of the tradition. For some kids, the name on the jersey still matters in recruiting. The Jayhawks, who beat the Tigers in the 2008 national championship game to win their third NCAA title, have a clear advantage over Memphis in that battle.
But Calipari is at Kentucky now. And Self and Calipari are currently going for three of the top guards in the 2010 class — Brandon Knight, Josh Selby and Doron Lamb. The competition between Calipari and Self will only intensify in the years to come.
"When Cal was (at Memphis), it seemed like for most of the kids we recruited it came down to us and Memphis with a lot of them," Self said. "He tries to go after the best guys, and we're trying to go after the best guys."