Kenny Johnson has made a huge impact for a guy who’s only been with the Indiana basketball program for about six months.
Johnson is the new assistant coach with the big recruiting presence. His East Coast connections, and they are formidable, have enabled coach Tom Crean to tap into the area’s rich talent pool like he never has before.
Johnson was a major factor in IU getting 6-9 forward Noah Vonleh (Massachusetts), 6-4 shooting guard Stanford Robinson (Virginia) and 6-7 forward Troy Williams (Virginia).
Voneleh is the nation’s No. 7 player in the Class of 2013 and the highest-rated player of Crean’s Cream ‘n Crimson tenure. Williams comes in at No. 37. Robinson is at No. 50.
They are the key components in IU’s latest recruiting coup – this year’s group is rated No. 3 behind Kentucky and Kansas.
So what is the secret of Johnson’s success? First, his six years as a primary force in Team Takeover, one of the top travel ball programs on the East Coast. It produced Victor Oladipo and Maurice Creek, among others.
He was the assistant head coach at Paul VI High School in Virginia, associate head coach at Eleanor Roosevelt and Dr. Henry Wise high schools, also in Virginia. Most recently, he spent one year as an assistant coach at Towson University.
But that’s just resume filling. Johnson's ability to connect with players, to build relationships with them, is crucial.
So what’s been the secret to his early success?
“IU is one of the top programs in the country historically,” Johnson says, “but (it was important) to identify some of the things (Crean) does. Diving into his philosophy. Understanding what makes Indiana, in its current state, good. Finding the right type of individual who fits into that philosophy. Taking the lead of not only him, but Coach (Tim) Buckley and Coach (Steve) McClain, in identifying and recognizing the hard work Marnie Mooney (director of academics for men’s basketball) has done. The strength and conditioning work that (strength and conditioning coach) Je’Ney Jackson has done. Finding people who want to fit that culture.
“It took a little bit of time, and having a little bit of a head start because of the impact I had with Maurice Creek and Victor Oladipo, being a fan of Coach Crean for many years. I kind of understood what he was about. It was a smooth transition in identifying what a Coach Crean type of player would be.
“When have that background information, you’re able to come in and identify people who I think (Crean) would like. People I knew would fit into his culture and mindset. Recruiting has been enjoyable from that standpoint, to be part of a staff that fits my own personal philosophy.”
As are as relationship building, Johnson says, “Relationships are important in all facets of life. It starts with a conversation. You’re watching hundreds and hundreds of talented individuals, but you go back to certain characteristics that we talk about as a staff that are valuable and important to us. Once you recognize that in an individual, you go through the process of whether there’s interest on their part.
“It starts with a conversation. Relationships for me can start with a hello.”
Indiana traditionally has not had a strong recruiting presence on the East Coast. Does the program have a lot of name recognition among elite recruits from there?
“In general it’s a generational thing in most situations,” Johnson says. “People know the name, Indiana, but might not understand the history.
“There’s an interest in the program now with the success and hard work of Coach Crean and his staff. There’s been an increased visibility lately.
“Identifying the actual style of play and what I consider what the separating factors of the program are, whether it be the player development, strength and conditioning or academic standards. Once you get the opportunity to present all that information, it increased the interest level.
People are familiar of the history of the Indiana program, but they don’t understand the differences in the level of fan support, the loyalty that you have.”
Does Johnson seek the best players possible or the ones who fit a specific need, such as a point guard or power forward?
“The strength of the program is multi-dimensional players. We try not to (target) individuals like, ‘Hey you’re going to be a 2-guard or a small forward.’ We identify players who can guard multiple positions, and who would be interested in being coached and developed to play multiple roles.”
Players, it seems, such as Vonleh, Robinson and Williams.
Members of Indiana's 1953 national championship team will be honored tonight during the Sam Houston State game. Specifically, there will be an autograph session from 6 to 6:45 p.m. at the Assembly Hall South Lobby.
The team also will be recognized during the game.
Among the players committed to attending are Bobby Leonard (who made the winning free throw), Dick White, Charlie Kraak, Phil Byers, Jim Schooley, Paul Poff, Jack Wright and Burle Scott.