LAWRENCE — Two stories caught Jonas Shaffer’s eye when the Baltimore Sun sports reporter glanced at his organization’s web traffic numbers Thursday.
As is the case at countless newspapers across the country, up-to-the-minute page view data is displayed on a video board in a centralized location at the Baltimore Sun, giving journalists real-time feedback on top-performing stories. For Shaffer, two of those posts featured his byline, and the first wasn’t really a surprise — his look at Robert Griffin III was extensive and timely with the newest Ravens quarterback holding his introductory news conference Wednesday.
The second story, though? That honor belonged to an eight-month-old, 291-word blog post on a college basketball recruit that appeared to be in Maryland’s grasp until, suddenly, he committed elsewhere. It was old news, but the story of how it gained newfound life is both relevant to Kansas basketball fans and a situation perhaps best described as, well, a surprise.
“It was kind of a weird coupling of this very fresh story and something you didn’t expect to see resurface in any way,” Shaffer told The Topeka Capital-Journal, “especially in the context of an indictment.”
In the Aug. 30, 2017, blog post, Shaffer detailed that day’s oral commitment from Silvio De Sousa, a four-star forward in the Class of 2018 who chose KU, eventually joined the program early and played a key role in the Jayhawks’ run to the Final Four. The news was relevant to the Baltimore Sun’s audience because most expected De Sousa to land with the Terrapins.
“Obviously several Maryland fans were like, ‘What the hell, man? We thought we had this one in the bag,’ ” Shaffer recalled. “You can look at the crystal ball prediction on 247Sports.com and it’s still 100 percent for Maryland in six predictions. Obviously six isn’t a huge sample size, but it’s not like it’s one or two. There are enough people who know enough about recruiting to stake each of their reputations on something like that. It was definitely a surprise.”
Surprise, indeed — and that’s exactly the word Shaffer used in his blog post.
“In surprise, Maryland forward target Silvio De Sousa commits to Kansas” read the headline for the story, which resurfaced this week in the latest twist in the probe into corruption in college basketball. The story is apparently cited by the U.S. District Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York in a Tuesday indictment of Adidas executive James Gatto, evidence for the atypical nature of De Sousa’s commitment.
Gatto is alleged to have steered a pair of unnamed athletes to KU through under-the-table payments to their families, a situation the indictment says “defrauded” the university, which was accused of no wrongdoing in the document. The timeline of the second athlete matches up almost perfectly with De Sousa, right down to the exact date of the commitment and apparent rejection of Maryland.
"In what media reports called a ‘surprise’ decision,” the indictment read, “the student-athlete announced he would not attend the school sponsored by the rival apparel company but would instead enroll at the University of Kansas.”
A simple Google search identified the article, which saw its traffic skyrocket.
“Yeah," Shaffer said, "you don’t expect a half-year-old article about a kid Maryland was involved with for a year or so to become one of the most-read things.”
So how much of a surprise was De Sousa’s commitment, and given the context of Tuesday’s indictment, should KU fans look at the situation any differently? The Capital-Journal spoke with two of the recruiting experts who unanimously projected De Sousa to land at Maryland.
“If you look at those picks for him, those were some pretty solid predictors, guys that had a pretty good track record,” said Jerry Meyer, director of basketball scouting for 247Sports. “So it kind of feeds into the story.”
Meyer cited what he was hearing from his sources, the Terrapins’ aggressive and lengthy pursuit of De Sousa and the Under Armour ties of the recruit’s high school as reasons why he felt confident in the Maryland pick. Jeff Ermann, publisher of InsideMDSports.com, listed similar reasons as well as De Sousa’s relationship with childhood friend and then-incoming Maryland freshman Bruno Fernando — the Angola natives both had the same guardian, Fenny Falmagne.
Both Meyer and Ermann stressed the crystal ball isn’t an exact science, though.
“The crystal ball a lot of times is a domino effect where one or two people will pick a school and then you have a lot of people following along,” Ermann said. “It’s a really good predictive tool, but there have been plenty of other times where it’s been wrong when it’s been 100 percent to one school. This one was really abrupt because no one even knew he was visiting Kansas.”
De Sousa made an unpublicized official visit to KU on Aug. 25, 2017, less than a week before his oral commitment. He never made an official visit to Maryland. As Ermann recalled thinking at the time, the whole situation “looked a little strange when it happened.”
That surprise-visit-turned-quick-commitment may remind some of the circumstances surrounding the recruitment of DeAndre Ayton, only in a role reversal of sorts. The five-star forward was an 87-percent pick to sign with KU until his commitment to Arizona, a school unlisted by any of the 15 experts in Ayton's crystal ball.
An ESPN story in late February cited FBI wiretaps and intercepted phone calls in reporting Arizona coach Sean Miller discussed paying Ayton $100,000 to sign with the Wildcats, though Miller has denied those allegations.
“It’s brought that to mind to me, (and) the Brian Bowen situation,” Meyer said. “In this business there will be ‘surprises’ that are surprises more just because people were wrong or we were wrong in our speculation and the recruit kept it very quiet, like say a Jaylen Brown when he picked California over Michigan and Kentucky. Zion Williamson was a surprise of that nature. And then you have other ones, surprises that seem a little fishy.”
So which category does the De Sousa commitment fall under? Given Tuesday’s news, Meyer labeled it a “no-brainer.”
“It’s obvious,” Meyer said. “A lot of that is when decisions come out of nowhere, timing-wise, that typically raises eyebrows. Doesn’t always mean something shady or sketchy was going on, but it does typically raise eyebrows.”
Both veterans of the recruiting world, neither Meyer nor Ermann called the details in Tuesday’s indictment surprising, and both said their perception about the sport remained unchanged even in the wake of the late-September indictments of Gatto and nine others, an event that kick-started the corruption scandal.
“You hear about it more with some schools than others. I can’t say I was surprised when Kansas was named, to be honest,” Ermann said. “People who follow this stuff closely, a lot of them texted me during the whole FBI probes thing; they were surprised Kansas wasn’t one of the schools that had been brought up. So no, it doesn’t shock me really.”
Meyer simply doesn’t buy into the idea any of the universities named Tuesday were, as the indictment asserted, defrauded — “For every kid you lose you get a kid or more typically, if you’re a big boy,” he said. Rumors swirled during the recruitments of Billy Preston and N.C. State’s Dennis Smith Jr. — more so than normal, Meyer said — so he wasn't surprised to see those players, and the programs they eventually chose, pulled into the scandal.
“Any school, any big Adidas school, I was expecting them to eventually get named. I was kind of surprised this hadn’t happened sooner. … The NCAA really didn’t want to deal with it because you’re eating yourself,” Meyer said. “I guess the only surprising thing is no one really thought people might go to jail. That, I think, opened up a lot of eyes, including mine, but especially assistant coaches and college coaches. It really opened theirs, and I think it’s going to change the game some.”