Mon Dec 06 08:25pm EST
The most unlikely recruiting coup of Bobby Cremins' 38-year coaching career began with a phone call from a stranger.
A man called the College of Charleston basketball office in spring 2009 and asked Cremins to meet with him, his son and a young basketball prospect from Ivory Coast who was staying with the family. Cremins had never spoken to the father and he'd never heard of either the son or the other kid, yet past experience taught him it would be foolish not to at least introduce himself.
"They told me the name of the kid from Ivory Coast and I could hardly even pronounce it," Cremins said Monday. "I showed him around, we had a nice visit and I could tell he really liked the city of Charleston. When they left, I said to myself, 'I wonder if he can play or not.'"
Eighteen months after his initial encounter with Adjehi Baru, Cremins now knows that the athletic 6-foot-9 center indeed can play. A breakout performance on the grass roots circuit last summer rocketed Baru all the way to No. 26 in Rivals.com's Class of 2011 rankings, yet he spurned interest from the likes of North Carolina, Maryland and Kentucky and announced Monday that he has signed with College of Charleston.
In an era when most elite recruits attend programs that contend for national titles and play all their games on national TV, it comes as a surprise that a marquee coach didn't swoop in and nab Baru away from College of Charleston. Of the top 75 players in Rivals.com's Class of 2010 rankings, only three signed with mid-major programs and two of those chose to attend that school because the head coach is their father.
Skeptics suggest that Baru's guardian may have steered him toward College of Charleston in return for a scholarship offer for his son, but Cremins offers a far simpler explanation for landing the highest rated recruit in school history.
"Once I went out and saw (Baru) play in July, I thought his recruitment would blow up but the family kept telling me that all he talks about is Charleston, Charleston, Charleston," Cremins said. "What a beautiful city it is, the beaches, the warm weather. They told me not to give up."
Perhaps those qualities mattered more to Baru than other top prospects because he comes from a different background than his peers.
Baru spoke minimal English and knew little about U.S. college hoops when he left Ivory Coast to come to Virginia to go to school and play basketball. He told Scout.com in June that he had lived with his AAU coach before teammate Patrick Branin's parents invited Baru to move into their home early last year.
It was Patrick's father Tim Branin who became Baru's legal guardian and eventually placed the call to Cremins to set up an introduction. Cremins said Baru wanted to commit to College of Charleston as soon as he received a scholarship offer, but the Branin family encouraged him to visit other schools before making a decision.
"The Branin family said he owed it to himself to look at everything and I told him the same thing," Cremins said. "I said, 'As much as I'd like to end this right now, I do not want you to regret that you passed up the opportunity to look at these other schools.' He looked but at the end of the day, it all came back to Charleston and his first visit here."
One way that Cremins enticed Baru to sign was by offering Patrick Branin the chance to play at College of Charleston as well. Recruiting experts say that Branin has few Division I-caliber skills besides his outside shooting, yet Cremins feels the scholarship was well spent because the chance to play alongside a close friend and teammate made Baru even more comfortable coming to play at Charleston.
"They're a very close-knit family," Cremins said. "I recognized right from the get-go that if I was going to have any shot at this young man, I'd be smart to bring along his teammate because they're a very close family.
"Pat can definitely help us in practice. Can he ever start here? Right now, no. But he can definitely help us in practice and who knows he might get better."
Whether Baru becomes the type of player that can elevate College of Charleston from Southern Conference contender to national prominence likely depends on how he develops offensively. Cremins raves about his athleticism, agility and effort, but both his jump shot and back-to-the-basket scoring remain raw.
Regardless of any flaws in Baru's game, Cremins recognizes how fortunate he is to have landed a player of that caliber.
"People will say how the heck did this happen and I'll get credit as being a great recruiter, but I think I'm very lucky," Cremins said. "Once he felt comfortable, that was it. He never wanted to go anywhere else."