Mitchell Robinson conceivably could have played college basketball for any school in the country. At 6'11, 220 pounds, Robinson has long arms, soft hands and springs in his legs. He is one of the best high school centers by any estimation, rated as high as No. 15 overall in the class of 2017 by ESPN.
Robinson announced his college decision on Wednesday, but he didn't choose one of the blue bloods that typically have a monopoly on five-star talents. Robinson didn't even choose a program in a power conference. Instead, Mitchell Robinson is going to Western Kentucky, a team that finished eighth in Conference USA last year.
On the surface level, Western Kentucky beating everyone for a five-star center seemingly makes no sense. But when you pull back the layers, the picture starts to come together. This is all the work of Rick Stansbury, one of college basketball's most tenacious recruiters for the last two decades.
Stansbury was introduced at Western Kentucky in late March after spending two seasons as an assistant at Texas A&M. All he did in College Station is help sign the No. 4 recruiting class in the country in 2015. The Aggies had previously never finished with even a top 20 recruiting class since 247 Sports began its scouting service in 1999.
Before Texas A&M, Stansbury spent 22 years at Mississippi State. He helped land many of the players that made up the Bulldogs' 1996 Final Four team as an assistant and reached the NCAA Tournament six times as head coach.
More than anything, Stansbury's Mississippi State career was defined by working tirelessly to end up falling just short. The Bulldogs never made it past the second round of the NCAA Tournament during his tenure as head coach, a result of the heartbreak he suffered on the recruiting trail.
Stansbury's near misses were chronicled in Jonathan Abrams' book "Boys Among Men," an in-depth look at the prep-to-pro era in the NBA. Stansbury was used as an example of how the rule affected recruiters in college basketball, men who worked for years to sign highly touted recruits only to see them enter the NBA draft at the last possible second. Stansbury knows that pain as well as anyone.
Jonathan Bender was supposed to be Stansbury's biggest catch. Abrams writes about Stansbury's frequent drives to Bender's hometown and "hours-long fishing trips" between the player and the coach. When Bender committed to Mississippi State during his first year as head coach, Stansbury considered it one of the greatest days of his life.
Then he watched Bender break Michael Jordan's scoring record at the McDonald's All-American Game. Bender decided to turn pro, where he would be the fifth pick in the 1999 NBA Draft.
Stansbury went through the same thing with Travis Outlaw and then went through it again with Monta Ellis. By the time Stansbury earned a commitment from all-world recruit Renardo Sidney in 2009, the one-and-done rule had been installed. But Sidney's case was the most cruel of all, losing his entire freshman season to an NCAA suspension and fighting with a teammate as a sophomore that marred the rest of his career.
Maybe Mitchell Robinson will be different. Scouts see him as raw but incredibly talented. He's played well on Nike's EYBL circuit so far this year, averaging 15.5 points, 11.6 rebounds and a league-leading 4.1 blocks per game for Pro Skills. Stansbury was going to do absolutely everything in his power to make sure he didn't lose him.
Robinson originally committed to Texas A&M, but ditched that commitment as soon as Stansbury took the Western Kentucky job. One of Stansbury's first moves with the Hilltoppers was hire Shammond Williams as assistant coach. College basketball fans might remember Williams running next to Antawn Jamison and Vince Carter on North Carolina's back-to-back Final Four teams in the late 90s. He's also Robinson's godfather.
Stansbury's work isn't done. He's already added grad transfers Que Johnson of Washington State and Junior Lomomba of Providence. He's working on another top 100 prospect in guard Galen Alexader, who has the Hilltoppers in his final seven.
A Western Kentucky team that ended last year 18-16 suddenly has hope. A roster that only had seven players when Stansbury took over now looks formidable in Conference USA. In Robinson, Stansbury could have the superstar he's been chasing his entire career. This time, he might finally be due.