Vanderbilt can't get top recruits because of their academic standards. We've all heard it before. We've made arguments based on the idea on days where the 'Dores are getting pounded by SEC rivals. As fans, we hold it up as a badge of honor during otherwise awful seasons; we can't blame the coaches, they're just doing the best they can with the talent they've got. And they can't get anyone better because Vandy so blatantly emphasizes the "student" part of student-athlete. This rationalization has become the cure-all for what ails the Vanderbilt graduate looking back at 1-7 conference records and first round SEC Tournament losses.
But that excuse just lost some of its credibility. Yesterday's inking of power forward James "Bamba" Siakam surprised many fans as the high school junior finished his course work a year early to jump in to the 2010 recruiting class. What's more surprising though, is what sealed his decision to come to Vanderbilt over schools like Illinois, Purdue, and Marquette - Vandy's academics. Check out this quote from the Illinois Prep Bullseye (and KJIV's article on Monday):
The fact that Siakam was able to trim his options as a result of his reclassification actually ended up benefitting him tremendously with respect to the recruiting process. That is because both Siakam and Aaron Lee (the head basketball coach at Brehm) knew from the beginning exactly what they were looking for when it came to Siakam selecting a college.
Siakam is an elite student in addition to being a talented basketball player, which is why above everything else he was looking for a school which would offer a perfect blend of academics in addition to being able to play college basketball at the highest level. Needless to say, Vanderbilt offers Siakam the ideal combination in that regard and therefore is a perfect fit.
- Roy & Harv Schmidt
Sure, there were other issues at play, but the thing that brought Siakam to Nashville wasn't a strong network of boosters, the promise of a high octane funnel into the pros, or a number of high-priced facilities - it was Vanderbilt's legacy as one of America's best universities. Rather than excluding players due to low SAT scores and limited high school coursework, the Commodores were able to welcome an overachieving student who happens to be a beastly rebounder who plays hard on both ends of the court. Siakam's commitment looks like a win for the university on both an athletic and academic level.
Of course, Siakam doesn't have the luster of a five star recruit and won't be a candidate to drive big crowds to Memorial Gym or to make a jump to the pros, but he'll still be a key contributor on what will probably be a Top 25 team in 2011 and into the future. He's small, but he can crash the boards, plays tough, and is advertised as an ambitious team player - imagine what Kevin Stallings can do for him. His attention to education could help play a role in that respect as well.
In a hypothetical situation, let's assume that Siakam will need to bulk up in 2010 and will have plenty of experienced players in line for playing time in front of him - the obvious (but speculative) solution would be a redshirt year. Now just think how much easier selling a redshirt year will be to a hungry young player that may equally value being able to get his Master's degree in a Top Ten graduate program over his five years on campus in addition to enhancing his playing career. In this case, Vanderbilt's classwork would be not only a selling point for a prospective athlete, but also a tool that the basketball team can use to strengthen the program as a whole. It's a bit surreal - how many times have you heard of tough, rigorous classes being a benefit for college athletics in the past?
Siakam's recruitment doesn't debunk the theory that Vanderbilt's academic standards stand in the way of their athletics, but it does help present an opposing argument. While the young Cameroonian isn't a John Wall or Derrick Rose type player who will bring instant attention to the program and deliver big wins almost single-handedly, he is the type of player that makes a longer lasting contribution in different aspects - from the court to the classroom, he will almost definitely have a positive impact. Vanderbilt has a history of turning mid-level recruits into stars while churning them through to graduation, and 2010's newest recruit could be another shining example.
While Siakam is the current case, the argument exists that every one of Vanderbilt's top-rated recruits are choosing academics when they come to campus. The rest of the 2010 class no doubt knows what they're in for in the classroom, but players like Rod Odom, Kyle Fuller, and Josh Henderson still picked Nashville over bigger programs like Arizona, Cincinnati, Wake Forest, and Louisville. It would be foolish to assume that academics didn't play at least a small role in each decision. These players have undoubtedly heard the stories of Derrick Byars having to miss a late-season practice before the NCAA Tournament to finish up a class project or of homework sessions taking place on plane rides to out-of conference games. But, despite the extra rigors, they came to Vanderbilt anyway.
So maybe there are a few holes in the idea that being an elite school saps recruits - and that the small pool of elite and academically eligible players are snapped up by other elite schools with richer athletic traditions like Duke and Stanford. Sometimes having tough academics helps bring home the players that want to be there - the players that understand that they can get more than just basketball out of their scholarships. Vanderbilt has more to offer its players than just funky baseline benches, a mascot few have heard of, and a fervent home crowd - and hopefully more Top 150 recruits will take notice. James Siakam did.