Remember David Huertas? Or, David Kellum, if you're reading this article, remember David "Wor-tez?" The University of Florida transfer snagged by Andy Kennedy that ended up averaging 10.7 points per game in 2007-08 and 18.1 points per game in 2008-09? Huertas has since returned to his native Puerto Rico and become a dominant force on the Puerto Rican national team. Yet while he was here, he represented something exceptionally unique to Ole Miss basketball: a starter NOT born in the United States.
Recruiting to the Ole Miss basketball team is tough work. What do you do if you're Kentucky and you lose prized contributors Archie Goodwin and Nerlens Noel to the NBA Draft? Not much... just reel in six 5-star players in your next recruiting class. What do you do if you're Florida and you lose Kenny Boynton and Erik Murphy to graduation? Not much... just replace them with a 5-star guard and a 5-star center. What do you do if you're Ole Miss and you lose both pieces of your post attack and your leading mid-range jump shooter?
Andy Kennedy has made a name for himself in many ways: He's led his squads to division titles, a pair of NIT Final Fours, a conference tournament championship, and an NCAA Tournament upset. He's been named SEC Coach of the Year, and he's become the winningest coach in Ole Miss history. But despite his success, he's not been known for reeling in big-time recruits. And if we're honest with ourselves, is it really all that surprising? With the Big East, the ACC, the B1G, and the Big 12 all falling over themselves for the nation's best recruits? Here in Mississippi, Kennedy's staff was able to lure the state's highest-rated 2013 prospect in Dwight Coleby, but for 2014 5-star Devin Booker out of Moss Point tops the board. And with Duke, Florida, Michigan, Michigan St., and Kentucky all offering him... yeah, it's probably best to look elsewhere. Add in the fact that it had been 11 years (before last year) that Ole Miss had gone to the promised land of the NCAA Tournament. Add in Tad Smith Coliseum. Suddenly, when one considers all of the variables, the recruiting struggles are easy to understand, even if they're hard to accept.
With recent (and hopefully continued) success, a new, unbelievably beautiful arena rapidly becoming reality rather than fantasy, and a re-energized fan base, one would assume that the recruiting struggles should turn into recruiting successes. Yet in the meantime, Kennedy has had to mine for his gold rather than pick it up off the ground, and without a doubt, he has found his nuggets. Just to name a few off the top of my head:
- Kennedy recruited a 3-star point guard not even listed in the Top 10 of the state of Florida. His name was Chris Warren, and he broke the 2,000 point barrier when it was all said and done. Had his ACL not betrayed him in his sophomore campaign, Ole Miss would likely have had a new all-time leading scorer. He became a 1st team All-SEC selection.
- Kennedy recruited a 3-star shooting guard out of Memphis, Tenn. that was passed up by Memphis, Missouri, and Tennessee. His name was Terrico White, and he was drafted by the Detroit Pistons in the 2nd round of the 2010 NBA Draft after being selected SEC Freshman of the Year the season prior.
- Kennedy recruited an oversized small forward passed up by the Memphis Tigers. His name was Reggie Buckner, and he shattered the all-time shot blocks record by the end of his career at Ole Miss.
More recently, though, in his search for overlooked players, Kennedy, along with his staff, have turned their eyes away from the US.
Terrance Henry, another Kennedy recruit, brought a unique skill set to the team that Kennedy seems to prefer: a versatile forward that could spread the floor. He could shoot the 3, shoot the jumper, and drive it to the rim, all while being 6'9". In the search to replace him two years ago, I imagine Coach Sergio Rouco bursting into Kennedy's office and exclaiming:
"PERO JEFE! HAY UN JUGADOR DE VENEZUELA!"
Okay, so that's probably not how it happened, but Coach Rouco was right. There was a player from Venezuela, and his name was Anthony Perez-Cortesia. Perez had played ball in nine countries, including his home country of Venezuela. After transferring to the United States in high school, he bounced around the country, eventually graduating from Word of Life Traditional School in Kansas. Perez was a highly talented forward, mentored by current New Orleans Pelican Greivis Vasquez. And thanks largely to the recruiting efforts of Sergio Rouco, he became an Ole Miss Rebel. But before he played ball in America, he was noticed in Venezuela. Check out some highlights: Video 1, Video 2, Video 3.
Last year, Perez was the only foreign-born player on the Ole Miss roster. This year, he will be joined by three others, giving Ole Miss the most foreign-born players out of any team in the SEC. These players are as follows:
- Sebastian Saiz: Spain - Saiz played ball in Spain before transferring to Sunrise Christian Academy in the United States. (Watch announcers sit there and watch Saiz abuse the Serbian youth team.) Sunrise's head coach Kyle Lindsted said in an interview that Ole Miss knew about Saiz and had already developed a relationship with Saiz and his parents before his transfer to the United States. Saiz, himself, has said that Coach Rouco played a vital role in getting his signature. (Check out this interview of Saiz by local Spanish media, and scroll to the bottom of the video's description. "The University of Oxford Mississippi" has made local Spanish media!)
- Janari Joesaar: Estonia - Joesaar was a teammate of Saiz at Sunrise Christian Academy. He, too, transferred to the United States after playing ball in Europe (video highlights). And oh, yeah.... he really likes to dunk. In this clip, he looks like vintage Manu Ginobili. And in this clip. after an audience member exclaims, "who is this white boy?," Joesaar doesn't disappoint. Notice how his head is nearly parallel to the rim.
- Dwight Coleby: The Bahamas - Coleby moved to the United States at the beginning of his high school career and played at Piney Woods School, just south of Jackson, Mississippi. He developed a solid relationship with Coach Kennedy and chose Ole Miss over schools like Memphis, Nebraska, and Georgetown. (Video highlights)
Lately, the Ole Miss basketball staff has done a remarkable job with developing early relationships with foreign-born players, and it has paid off in signed Letters of Intent. How they will contribute to the consistently ranked offensive attack of Kennedy remains to be seen, but their abilities meshed with Kennedy's style make me smile with anticipation.
And oh... don't look now, but Ole Miss has gotten its first commitment for the 2014 class: Gian Louis Clavell Lopez, a native of... Puerto Rico. Check out his highlights, and thank Rouco later.