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Meet the college basketball coach with more recruiting heartbreak than anyone

Rick Stansbury once again lost a five-star recruit in heartbreaking fashion.

NCAA Basketball: Western Kentucky at UAB Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

Mitchell Robinson put an end to college basketball’s most bizarre recruiting saga this week when he announced he would forgo his commitment to Western Kentucky to begin training immediately for the 2018 NBA draft.

For Hilltoppers head coach Rick Stansbury, the news must have triggered a familiar feeling of dread.

Stansbury is a coaching lifer with a long history of losing out on elite college basketball recruits who decide to jump straight to the NBA. Robinson very much fits the profile as an athletic 7-foot center ranked as the No. 11 overall player in the class of 2017 by ESPN.

From the outside, it was a wonder how a middling Conference-USA program like Western Kentucky could land a commitment from a legit five-star big man and potential lottery pick like Robinson. But this is what Stansbury does: He’s been one of college basketball’s most feared recruiters for two decades, dating back to his 14-year stint as head coach at Mississippi State.

Just about the only thing more predictable than Stansbury getting a commitment from a five-star recruit is that he eventually lost him. Here’s a brief history of Stansbury’s most painful near misses on the recruiting trail.

Jonathan Bender

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“I had just gotten married and was falling asleep, thinking about Jonathan Bender.”

The quote above comes from Jonathan Abrams’ 2016 book Boys Among Men, which chronicles the NBA’s prep-to-pros fad from 1995-2005. Stansbury has an entire chapter dedicated to him in the book as an example of how the trend impacted college coaches.

Bender was supposed to be Stansbury’s first savior at Mississippi State. He began recruiting him in middle school. The two took “hours long” fishing trips together. Bender committed to the Bulldogs and looked to be on his way there ... until a record-breaking performance in the McDonald’s All-American Game swayed him to turn pro. Bender was eventually selected with the No. 5 pick in the 1999 NBA draft by the Toronto Raptors.

“It was one of the most crushing blows I ever had,” Stansbury recalls to Abrams. “For about two weeks, all I wanted to do was crawl into a hole. I put so much into that thing for five years. It was absolutely just a killer.”

Travis Outlaw

Portland Trail Blazers v New Orleans Hornets Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Travis Outlaw grew up in Starkville, Miss., just miles away from the campus. He committed to Stansbury and the Bulldogs as they were coming off back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances. The athletic 6’9 wing was thought to be the missing piece for a team with Final Four aspirations.

Instead, Outlaw decided to turn pro after graduating high school in 2003. He was taken No. 23 overall by the Portland Trail Blazers, making him the second high school player selected in the draft behind LeBron James.

Outlaw never made a huge impact in the NBA, but he did enjoy an 11-year career that netted him more than $44 million in earnings. Meanwhile, Mississippi State would lose in the second round of the NCAA tournament as a No. 2 seed after finishing the year 26-4.

Monta Ellis

Memphis Grizzlies v Golden State Warriors Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

Ellis was a legend at Mississippi’s Lanier High School back in 2005 as a scoring dynamo who once dropped 72 points in a game. He committed to Mississippi State as a junior, with Stansbury beating out blue bloods like North Carolina to get him.

Ellis didn’t look like the typical prep-to-pro candidate as an undersized 6’2 guard. But 2005 was the last year high school players could enter the NBA before the advent of the one-and-done rule, and a record number of them declared. Ellis was one of them. He was the sixth high school player taken and the No. 40 overall pick by the Golden State Warriors.

Ellis is currently unsigned at 31 years old, but there’s no denying he had a great professional career. His total earnings are over $94 million.

Renardo Sidney

Mississippi State v Vanderbilt Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Renardo Sidney was the only player of this group to actually play a game for Stansbury, but his story is just as painful as the others.

There was a time when Sidney was considered the best high school player in the country within a class that also included John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Avery Bradley, and Lance Stephenson as five-star recruits. Sidney was a 6’10 big man with soft hands whose ability to handle and pass put him on NBA radars from an early age. He likely would have turned pro out of the high school if not for the existence of the one-and-done rule when he graduated in 2009.

The NCAA investigated Sidney’s eligibility as soon as he arrived at Mississippi State. He would eventually be ruled ineligible for all of what would have been his freshman season and also the first nine games of the next year. All the while, Sidney’s weight ballooned. When he finally did become eligible, Sidney immediately got into a fight in the stands and was suspended again:

Sidney went undrafted when he turned pro in 2012.

Mitchell Robinson

High School Basketball: 40th Annual McDonald's All-American Games Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

Stansbury worked for years to foster his relationship with Robinson. It started when he was an assistant at Texas A&M, where Robinson committed at the onset of his junior year. When Stansbury left to take the head coaching job at Western Kentucky, Robinson quickly reopened his recruitment and pledged to the Hilltoppers.

Robinson’s allegiance to Western Kentucky appeared to wain when his godfather, Shammond Williams, a former UNC star, left Stansbury’s staff as an assistant coach. Still, Robinson enrolled in school at the start of the summer before leaving campus without telling anyone in late July.

Robinson visited Kansas and University of New Orleans before ultimately deciding to re-enroll at WKU. Three weeks later, he announced he was leaving again to train full-time for the NBA draft.

Rick Stansbury has had as much recruiting heartbreak as anyone in college basketball. Mitchell Robinson is only the latest example.