PADUCAH — Villa Angela St. Joseph Coach Babe Kwasniak spoke to the Herald-Leader on Friday about his team’s upcoming weekend at the Mustang Madness showcase at McCracken County High School.
VASJ — led by Class of 2015 recruit Carlton Bragg — will take on Curie High School (Ill.) and Arsenal Tech (Ind.) on back-to-back nights. Those teams are led by Kansas signee Cliff Alexander and UK signee Trey Lyles, respectively.
Bragg scored just nine points in VASJ’s loss to Bishop Gorman (Nev.) last week in a game that was televised on ESPNU and attended by UK Coach John Calipari.
Kwasniak talked about that game, his team’s season so far and the evolution of Carlton Bragg as a five-star basketball prospect and UK recruiting target.
Q: What are you hoping to get out of this event?
A: “We won five state championships at the school I went to. And we did this back in the ’90s. We played (the best teams in the country). And we always found that a lot of times we got our tails kicked in, but it always made us better for the tournament. Our end goal is to be ready in March. We won a state championship last year. We start five juniors this year, so we’re a young team. But we just found that playing the best can do absolutely nothing but make you better. We know both of these teams are dynamite.”
Q: Carlton is being recruited by pretty much everybody. How has his season gone so far?
A: “He’d probably tell you that he’s been a little disappointed in his last two games. But the thing that I’ve been most proud of is that he’s trying to not let how he shoots the ball dictate how he plays. He comes from a storied program. We’ve got Clark Kellogg, David Lighty, London Fletcher, Desmond Howard, Tony Miller, Mike Golic. We’ve got a lot of big-time pros — a lot of high-profile people come from our institution and I think it’s because we teach them the right way. Carlton isn’t looking for ways to stick out. He’s looking for ways to fit in with his teammates.”
Q: Has he had contact with any of those former professional players you mentioned?
A: “All of them, especially Clark. That’s kind of what our school is all about. And I think we learned our lesson last week — not just Carlton, but all of our guys. If you’re playing just to get recruited; if you’re playing just so Calipari or whoever is watching you, you’re going to struggle. And this is coming from a military guy, but if you play for each other and you play to win a state championship, those things kind of have a way of working themselves out in the end. Our case in point is our kid at Evansville (Duane Gibson). He had no Division I offers, nobody was really looking at him. And then he was the player of the year in Cleveland — won every award. He was kind of the epitome of team-first, me-second.”
Q: Speaking to that, Carlton said he was maybe a little nervous playing in front of Calipari. Is that something that maybe he got caught up in and learned a lesson and can move on from it?
A: “I think they kind of pushed him into that comment, to be honest. I’ve known him for a long time, and he’s not the nervous type. I said to him, ‘Sometimes you just have to own it.’ And it’s not like he played bad. He had 14 rebounds, five or six assists. So he played OK. He just missed shots he normally makes. And that’s part of the learning process.”
Q: What does he need to do to improve on the court?
A: “I think he definitely needs to get stronger. They’re going to try and be real physical with him. … As high-profile as he is, I think we’re a pretty complete team. He gets to play his natural position, because we have a 6-8 player named Derek Pardon who has been offered by Northwestern and Michigan State is looking at. And another young man named Brian Parker who is going to be at least a mid-major. So I think Carlton is going to be college ready because he’s going to learn how to trust his teammates. Because he’s not playing with a bunch of bums, he’s playing with some really good players. The thing I always talk to him about is learning how to lead by example. Learning that — if you’re not having a good game shooting the basketball — you still be a good teammate and a great leader.”
Q: Michael Graves has been kind of a mentor for Carlton and is helping with the recruitment. What has been his role?
A: “Mike has just done an incredible job. He was my (high school) teammate. He’s just done an unbelievable job of teaching him life skills. Not just being a basketball player, but how to look people in the eye. … You talked about the distractions — there’s just so many for these young guys. We’re not sheltering him from it. We’re just trying to put what’s first first. And the priority is — if he doesn’t learn how to interact with people and he doesn’t get his books right — being recruited by Calipari or Thad Matta or John Groce is irrelevant. We’re trying to prioritize. Teach the young man how to be a man and how to take care of himself. And Coach Graves deserves all of the credit.”
Q: You mentioned his grades. Is that something that’s been an issue in the past?
A: “I wouldn’t say it’s been an issue, but he’s gotten way better. His turnaround in his study habits has been (amazing). He carried a 3.7 last quarter and he’s at a 3.4 this quarter. Let’s just say he wasn’t getting into Princeton or West Point on the path he was on. And he’s had to change that, he’s had to change his study habits. And that’s hard to do. That is by far the thing I’m most proud of him for.”
Q: How is he handling the recruiting part of all this and all the attention?
A: “I try to explain to him, ‘It’s an ROI, Carlton. They’re looking for return on investment.’ When colleges coaches talk to me, I try to explain to him: ‘It’s not because they like me. It’s because they want you. So you need to understand how to cipher through that. Good businesses don’t hire you because they like you. They hire you because of the value you bring.’ … When you’re that age and you have everyone telling you how good you are — I don’t care how humble you are, that’s tough to deal with.”