It was a pleasure to meet with Coach Jim Blaine a few weeks ago via Zoom. His Pride are coming off a school record setting 24-9 campaign and received their first bid to the NAIA National Tournament in 2020. Unfortunately, the tournament was cancelled due to COVID, but the Pride are looking for redemption in 2021 and are fully stocked to make it happen. All-American and Dubuque Native Keith Johnson is back along with starters and All-Conference selections, Jordan Lake and Josh Meier. Coach Blaine credits his success to his players, but his work behind the scenes has also helped the Pride improve year after year.
Often when we talk about college basketball we refer to power conference Division I schools, the likes of Duke, Michigan State, Kentucky and Kansas. Rightfully so -- these teams have talent that attracts millions of viewers per game and generates billions of dollars per season. And while they get the most media attention, these power conference teams (Big Ten, ACC, SEC, etc.) only represent a small percentage of college basketball played.
Of the over 900,000 high school boys and girls competing on prep basketball courts (399,067 women, 540,769 men), roughly four percent make it to the next level to play college basketball. If you have your eyes set on playing on a Power Five conference team, only 0.02% of players actually do (65 schools in the power five conferences multiplied by 13 scholarships = 845 players x 2 for men and women. 1,690 divided by 900,000 high school basketball players = 0.0018). In total, between the power five schools and the other DI programs, only one percent of high school participants make it to the DI level, leaving three percent in NCAA DII, NCAA DIII, and NAIA.
The odds are obviously small as the number of schools is disproportionate to the number of high school players. If your goal is to play college basketball, the best chance you have more than likely lies beyond DI hoops. Now, I am not discouraging the pursuit of playing DI basketball or any high level post-prep ball. It's a dream of many youngsters to play for Coach K, or represent your state school on ESPN when you're in the driveway shooting hoops. But, the harsh reality for many young dreamers, is still that 0.02% of high school players will go on to the highest levels. With that being said, if you’re dedicated to the game, percentages mean nothing, and the hard work and years of practice will put you in a position to be successful on the hard wood. My own story serves as an excellent example. In middle school and high school, several buddies and I lived at the Webber Center, the local gym in Cascade. Every night we knew where to find each other; no cell phones needed. Being in the gym fulfilled my every need and ultimately being around the game so much allowed basketball to come naturally to me. I didn't care about the low odds of playing at the next level, I knew my hard work would get me there. As a matter of fact, I probably wouldn’t have gone to college if it weren’t for basketball. It was the only thing I cared about, that was my lifestyle.
My goal is to give players the tools to reach their full potential, and in doing so, improve the chance of earning a scholarship to play college basketball. When I sat in my kitchen and Zoomed with Jim Blaine, Head Men's Basketball Coach at Clarke University, we discussed this topic: what it takes to get a college scholarship.
What I loved about this interview was its simplicity and the value it provides for young hoopers looking to get a college scholarship. It is a guide to get you noticed, scouted, pursued, and signed. Though Clarke is a small school in Dubuque, Iowa, it is a member of the NAIA, a league in which you can receive scholarships to play basketball. I played for Coach Blaine in college and had a relatively successful career for The Pride. Although I didn’t go to a high level DI school or make it to the pros, I did get a scholarship to play basketball, which came with an excellent education. I can’t emphasize how good of a deal that really is.
My freshman year was Coach’s Blaine’s first year at the helm. He came from a successful high school coaching career at Benton High School in Wisconsin, where he led the Benton Zephyrs to the 2009 Wisconsin Division 4 State Championship. When Blaine secured the Clarke job in 2014, college basketball was all new to him. “I was overwhelmed with the differences from the high school level to the college level. When you’re a college coach, you’re a professional coach. It is now your life and it is a different world.” In that world lies the recruiting trail. “You can’t take shortcuts when it comes to recruiting and building a culture. It is the most important part of building a successful team. The things that I looked for in a player have changed over the years to fit into what we want to build. It is clear to see that process paying off by looking at our records improve year by year.”
In talking to Coach Blaine, I wanted to give prep players perspective from a person who evaluates them for a living. It can act as a wake up call to players--no, your high school coach isn’t blowing smoke up your rear end by yelling at you to talk to your teammates on defense. That type of stuff is important and as you’ll hear later according to coach, communication is paramount. If you ignore it, you’ll wind up with 96% of players who don’t make it to the college basketball level. Coach Blaine’s comments can act as a guide to the prep player who is confident in their game but not getting any looks, or steer a player in the right direction to reevaluate some parts of their game that need work.
What it Takes
Just because you put up big numbers on a high school basketball team doesn’t ensure that you will receive an offer to play in college. Coach described what he looks for in a player and his basic recruiting principles:
The magnificent thing about Coach Blaine’s principles is that each one of them is something you, as a player, can control. “When I watch a player I have already done my work and evaluation on how he can play, i.e. skill and ability. In my first trip to watch a high school player, I look for Clarke University Men’s Basketball character requirements.” Some good news to players who may aspire to play at colleges other than Clarke is the majority of basketball coaches look for a similar combination of character requirements. “If the character requirements are there, and I like what I see on the first visit, I will come back and watch him play a second time to look more in-depth at his skill and ability. At this point, if I am coming back a second time, there is a great chance that the player will be getting an offer to play for us. The ability to fit into our program and a player's character always comes first.”
Coach Blaine offered a story to illustrate this: “I went to a game in Wisconsin not too long ago to recruit a kid. He was in foul trouble early and spent the majority of the game on the bench. To my surprise, that was enough for me to know he was a player that would fit into our system. He was on the bench cheering on the team and the first one to meet his teammates at half-court for a timeout. Right from that moment, I knew his high character personality was one that would match well with what we were looking for. We already did our evaluation and knew he could play, but we were making sure he was able to pass our test, and he did even though he didn’t play.” One of many lessons learned here is, just because you’re on the bench doesn’t mean the eyes are off you. If you are a prospect, the eyes don’t leave you. Also, if you are a prospect, simple things like this can be attractive and make you a steal without even playing. Like Coach said, if he is going to watch you play, he has already done his homework. So what you think is the worst case scenario could result in what gets you to the next level. “How will a player conduct himself in the worst case scenario? Will he mope and complain and let a bad call affect him for multiple possessions? Or will he move on and focus on the next possession?” This applies to getting in foul trouble and sitting on the bench. How do you react? If you’re throwing water bottles or punching the bench, it may be time to clean that up and work on areas outside of your game.
Obviously, you must have the skills and ability to back up your play. As much as I love high character individuals, just because you have those traits, doesn’t mean much if you can’t play. But, let’s say for the sake of exploring, you do have the ability. Then one might ask, “If I have the ability to play at the next level how can I get noticed?” Players who have made it to Division I have had more of a clear cut path to college basketball since their extraordinary skills and abilities have stood out (obviously hard work and dedication is required as well.) While this is the mythological way many prep players envision college recruiting, for the vast majority, it doesn’t work like this.
I asked Coach what are some things players can go out of their way to do to get actively recruited, and he says, “If you want to be recruited--meaning you’re not currently being recruited and you think you are good enough to play college basketball, TALK! COMMUNICATE! Whether you’re on offense or defense, at an AAU tournament or playing for your school team, communication on the court will simply get you noticed. It will be up to you to make sure your skills back up your communication, but this is the first step in getting a coach's attention, in my book.” Coaches are on to something when they tell you to talk and communicate. It is the base of your play and what could very well decide if you go on to play at the next level or not. Coach goes on to say that high school or AAU mixtapes have never swayed him into looking into the player who sent the video. “If I am going to watch a tape of someone, I either need to watch a full game or a string of possessions put together. I’m 57 and I could make myself look good in a highlight video. There is a good chance I won’t even watch the video you send because it really means nothing.” Clarke is an NAIA DI school, if Coach Blaine were to get a mixtape of a kid doing 360 dunks and dead-eye shooting, this kid isn’t going to Clarke. Let’s be real. The only highlight tapes that stick out are the ones of players who are beasts among kids in high school who aren’t going to smaller schools. If you're not putting together a mixtape that might attract millions of viewers on YouTube or Instagram, there is really no point in making one. Instead, put a long string of possessions together and send that to coaches, where your character and skills can be evaluated.
A valuable source when it comes to recruiting according to Coach Blaine is your high school coach. “If I get word from a respected high school coach of a player who can play and is interested in coming to my school, I will take that very seriously and do my homework.” Players can simply tell their high school coach they would like to play college basketball. Most high school coaches would be thrilled and do whatever it takes to get you there. I can’t imagine a more satisfying feeling as a high school coach than sending one of my players off to play college hoops, especially knowing I had something to do with it.
An example: “Dennis Geraghty [Western Dubuque High School Basketball Coach] reached out to me about one of his players, Jordan Lake, and said that this kid was very interested in coming to play at Clarke. He was a junior and was just coming off a season-long injury when I went to watch him play. He wasn’t in prime shape and I was thinking ‘this guy won’t be able to play at the next level, no way!’ A few months later Geraghty reached out again and said, ‘Jim this guy would really like to play at Clarke.’ So I go watch him play a second time and it is a night and day difference. He’s back in shape and I’m thankful Dennis reached out to me because he was a great local talent.” Jordan is now the starting point guard at Clarke. The takeaway: Don’t underestimate the power your high school coach has in getting you to the next level. A valuable life lesson to learn at this age--don’t burn bridges, starting with your high school coach.
Does a coach ever take a chance on a player who can fill up the stat sheet but whose character fit is in question? … At that point you hope the culture that you’ve established can help mesh this player into your program while their extraordinary skills will enhance the players around them. “If you have a solid culture, you can take a risk on a player who may not match your culture----with the idea the team will help shape the player to fit their culture.” With that being said, what players want to be the rogue of the team? To fit within a culture or fit into a system requires players to step beyond their own egos and do what is best for the team. That is why Coach Blaine rarely takes risks on players who don’t match his character requirements. It is not worth the risk of having that player come in and damage the culture you’ve spent time building.
Red Flags That Will Hinder Your Chances of Playing At The Next Level According to Coach Blaine:
Coach's recruiting process has certainly evolved since his humble beginnings as a head coach at small town Benton Wisconsin, where he won a state championship and many conference championships. “When I was a high school coach I didn’t have to worry about the team chemistry. These guys have been playing together their whole lives and didn’t need a coach forcing relationships on players or attempting to build a culture. They were going to do those types of things on their own. I was in the right place at the right time when I got hired to take the head position from Coach Drymon at Clarke. It was overwhelming and it was all new to me. It took me a while to narrow down how we wanted to get guys to join our team. It wasn’t until about year four when we finally got our five principles for recruiting down (which are stated above). It was clear to see the culture wasn’t fully established until these principles were set in place and we were really committed to our ‘next play’ mentality.” Coach has built his successful teams following the principles he has set forth and now that they are established it would take a lot for him to bring in wildcard talent. It just isn’t worth the risk.
As the Corona virus rattles youth and prep basketball, it cannot stop the driving force behind the next generation of hoopers getting ready to thrive at the high school - college level. From coaching youth basketball players around eastern Iowa, I am proud to say that basketball is in good hands. After checking in with each family (now that gyms are closed until Dec. 10th or later), every kid is reported to have been finding some way to continue to play the game and get better. Whether they are dribbling in the front yard or shooting in their barn, the drive to continue to improve upon their game has not stopped.
For players living that hoopers lifestyle, no matter what age or talent level, your characteristics are what define you as a player. Aside from basketball, where can you develop yourself more as a person of character? No matter what percentages say, if talent and high character mesh, there is a good chance you will find yourself reaching your maximum potential!
Many thanks are due to Coach Blaine for taking time to reflect on his recruiting process and sharing great wisdom of what college coaches look for on the prep and AAU circuits. I’m thankful for my time playing for Coach Blaine at Clarke and looking forward to catching a game somewhere down the road once COVID is no longer an issue.
By Haris Takes