Bob Holt is a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of the University of Missouri, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America, and a voter for the Heisman Trophy and AP Top 25 basketball poll. Holt has been awarded Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year three times.
Virtual recruiting successful for UA
Arkansas basketball coach Eric Musselman is shown during a game against Tulsa on Saturday, Dec. 14, 2019, in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE -- Recruiting by the University of Arkansas men's basketball staff has changed drastically as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, but it's still proceeding at a rapid pace.
Virtual recruiting has replaced on-campus visits by players or road trips by coaches.
"We really had to revamp how we recruit, and we had to do it quickly," Razorbacks Coach Eric Musselman said.
Recruiting coordinator Michael Musselman said this week that Arkansas has had more than 300 video presentations with 28 high school recruits and 26 transfers since the remainder of last season was canceled in mid-March.
The Razorbacks added three senior graduate transfers with immediate eligibility in 6-9 forward Vance Jackson from New Mexico, 6-6 point guard Jalen Tate from Northern Kentucky and 6-7 forward Justin Smith from Indiana.
"I think the response has been overwhelmingly positive, especially with the Zoom and the FaceTime meetings," said Michael Musselman, who is Eric Musselman's son. "What people underestimate is how much better the video chat is than just talking on the phone.
"It's great for Coach Muss to be at his house and be with his family and make that family connection with prospects, who are with their parents and their siblings. They can flip the camera around and say, 'Hey, Coach, look I'm outside working out,' or whatever they're doing.
"That's something I think is going to definitely stick in the future. We'll have more FaceTime calls and less phone calls, just because it's so much more personal."
Eric Musselman and assistant coach Clay Moser have been doing the presentations with help from the support staff including Michael Musselman, recruiting coordinator Pat Ackerman, director of operations Anthony Ruta, video coordinator Riley Hall and Hays Myers, the special assistant to Eric Musselman.
"It really has been a team effort with everyone involved," Ackerman said. "Overall, I'd say our staff has done a really good job adapting and just rolling with the punches."
The video presentations include tours of Arkansas' facilities: Walton Arena, the Eddie Sutton Basketball Performance Center and the Jones Center.
"We show them everything with the locker room, film room, training room, weight room," Moser said. "All the things they'd see if they were here in person."
Showing every aspect of the facilities is similar to a video tour of a house on a realty website.
"We actually use what Realtors do as a model for what we're doing," Moser said. "But we didn't have to reach out to a Realtor to know how it works. We already know.
"When you're in our business, you become [an] expert in house hunting."
There also are video presentations featuring breakdowns of game tape to show recruits how they fit into Arkansas' offensive and defensive systems and how they would benefit from what the Razorbacks do. Analytics and statistics are involved.
"We're always coming up with new presentations, because we can't present the same thing to a point guard as we do to a center," Ackerman said. "Or there may be a guy who doesn't fall into a particular positional category and we've got to have a video especially for him."
Taliyah Brooks, an NCAA champion in the pentathlon and SEC champion in the heptathlon for the Razorbacks who now works in the UA marketing department, conducts a video tour of the campus for recruiting presentations.
There also are videos recruits are emailed showing what life is like at Arkansas beyond basketball and school.
"We have videos that show the surrounding areas, the businesses, the events and concerts that are held here," Michael Musselman said. "We try to give them as good a feel as possible for what Fayetteville has to offer, what Northwest Arkansas has to offer."
Musselman said Rick Thorpe, deputy athletic director for external communication; Jacob Hoops, academic counsel for the basketball team; and Jack Parker, an editor and producer for Razorback Sports Network; also have been contributors to the presentations along with the team's graduate assistants.
"I take the point in helping organize when we're going to do a virtual presentation with a kid," Musselman said. "Making sure we're reaching out to kids that we're interested in and who are interested in us."
Moser said Musselman "coordinates the whole thing" in regards to the presentations.
"Michael keeps things moving forward," Moser said. "He's the one that keeps a checklist of what we've presented to a kid and his family and what we haven't and what we still need to do."
If a recruit has a particular academic area of interest, there are virtual presentations for that, too.
"We take them over to those buildings and show them around," Moser said. "We show them what close proximity there is to all the buildings here on campus.
"We tell them, 'Look at how close everything is here. Your days will be structured to be efficient and help you with your time management.' "
Sometimes a recruit's parents are on the Zoom and FaceTime presentations with him. In some cases, the parents get presentations at different times.
"We ask them if there's something we haven't covered that is a burning question for you," Moser said. "We'll even ask, 'Have you seen something that another school has done that you thought was interesting or informative or fun for you to go through? And if so, tell us what it is and we'll do our best to replicate here if you think it's good.'
"To be honest, we get a lot of feedback that we are at the upper echelon of being organized and creative and thorough."
Ackerman said the staff also does extension research on recruits.
"Pretty much anyone we can talk about a player, we try to do," Ackerman said. "A lot of times we'll talk to four or five or six people.
"Much of the time it's the same information, but every once in a while we're get a little piece information from one person that we didn't get from the other four or five. Then we try to find a way to use that in the presentation.
"We've had kids say, 'Wow, that's something new.' Or they'll say, 'That's never been brought to my attention before.'
"I think we have an advantage where we're just so meticulous and so detailed with what we're doing with these kids and how we're examining them as players. They're impressed by what we do and just the level of detail when we do these things with them."
When the SEC Tournament was canceled on March 12 -- before the Razorbacks could play their second-round game against South Carolina after they had beaten Vanderbilt -- no one could have anticipated circumstances resulting from the pandemic wouldn't allow for recruiting visits.
"When this whole thing hit, clearly nobody had a plan or was prepared for it," Moser said. "But kind of the way we operate here is, we've got to keep this train moving down the tracks and figure out the best way to do it.
"We figured some things out and adjusted very quickly. What we're doing on Zoom or FaceTime is giving recruits and their families the same information as we always have. It's just packaged in a different way."
Michael Musselman said it helped Arkansas that most of its support staff members are in their early 20s.
"We realized everything is going to be technology based," he said. "We were already kind of ahead of the game on the technology front of what we do, so we were able to transition quickly.
"A million schools could have all these great things to say, but if you can't convey that to a recruit on a virtual tour in a clear way that looks good and makes sense and is entertaining, it does you no good. The fact we're able to convert the information the way we do makes a big difference.
"You don't have a kid on a visit for three days. Instead you're giving him a presentation for 45 minutes. You cut the fat out of the visit and it just boils down to all the details."
Pivoting quickly to virtual recruiting was especially crucial to attract players entering the transfer portal.
"You had so many people coming into the portal so quickly with everyone's season ending right around the same day," Musselman said. "There was a mass exodus with probably 50% of the transfers going into the program within two weeks.
"It was a really hectic time, a really stressful time. But we've all made it work."
Virtual presentations will continue with recruits in the 2022 class now eligible to be contacted.
"It's not slowing down," Musselman said.
Moser said he expects virtual presentations to continue to be used to some extent even when recruits again are able to take in-person visits.
"I think what we'll do is take the best parts of it and continue to integrate it into the process," Moser said. "You're able to read some body language and get some feedback from [recruits] on the Zoom and FaceTime chats.
"It will help you get to know whether a kid has a real interest ultimately in signing here. Because at the end of the day, that's the objective."
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