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Friends go head-to-head in recruiting battles

PHILADELPHIA -- From afar, the blue golf shirts looked so similar at Monday's RBK U event at Philadelphia University. But you had to look closely to see the difference, to recognize those familiar Kansas and Kentucky logos.

Sitting next to each other, looking as chummy as ever and dressing nearly like twins, were Bill Self and Billy Gillispie, two of the most powerful coaches in the sport.

They are, have been and plan to remain close friends after spending time together at Tulsa and Illinois while Self was the head coach and Gillispie one of his top assistants.

It would be great for college basketball. There wouldn't be as much at stake, but the stakes are always high to win every game. ... I'd rather stay away from [playing Gillispie] in the postseason unless it was for the championship.

Bill Self


Yet for the first time in their careers, Self and Gillispie are heated competitors in the unforgiving sport of recruiting.

Sure, for the past three seasons, Self and Gillispie competed against one another in the Big 12. It all culminated in a race for the championship this past March, with KU edging the Aggies by one game even though Texas A&M beat the Jayhawks in the lone regular-season meeting. But, as both coaches said Monday, playing against each other was a safer way to test the friendship than going against each other in recruiting.

"I'd rather play a friend than recruit against him," Self said. "You play your friend and it's over. You recruit against him, and it could last for 18 months or two years. It's going to happen. I can understand why people don't enjoy doing it."

Even though Kansas and Texas A&M are in the same league, the two schools have been at different levels in recruiting. Until the signing of DeAndre Jordan last year, the Aggies were looking for hidden gems, while Kansas knocked on the door of most nationally ranked players.

Traditionally, although it wasn't always the case under Tubby Smith, Kentucky has found itself in the same sentence with Kansas when the discussion centers on national recruits.

Now, with Gillispie -- arguably one of the hardest-working head coaches on the circuit -- the Wildcats expect to be butting heads with Kansas for national players.

Regarding the coaches' Big 12 rivalry, Gillispie said, "We both handled it fairly well, but it's a different kind of competition, and now we're recruiting the same players. ... We're competing more regularly, so it may be harder because we weren't recruiting the same players at Texas A&M.

"We're trying to get the best players, and they're trying to get the best players, and the final results won't always be fun. If you do get the player, you'll feel bad for your friend, but if you don't get him then you'll feel worse. It will be interesting to see how this evolves because it will always be competitive."

Self knows firsthand how aggressive Gillispie is on the recruiting trail. Gillispie credits his work habits to Self, who he called the best closer in the recruiting business.

Still, the two can't help but take shots at each other, always in jest.

"If he had stayed [in the Big 12], the term 'close friend' would have become just 'friend,'" Self said with his usual wit. "He had elevated the program to where they were going to contend for a conference championship on a yearly basis, so it was going to continue to be competitive."

And then the two mulled the possibility of having their powerhouse schools play an annual regular-season game. Kentucky and Kansas did play a home-and-home series in 2004-05 and 2005-06, with Kansas sweeping the series.

"It would be great for college basketball," Self said. "There wouldn't be as much at stake, but the stakes are always high to win every game. You think nonconference games are important until the conference season. You think conference games are important until you get into the postseason. I'd rather stay away from [playing Gillispie] in the postseason unless it was for the championship."

Self couldn't resist giving Gillispie a lighthearted shot over the Wildcats' recent commitments from players in the classes of 2009 (one) and 2010 (two).

"We can't get ahead of him, so to keep up we've got to get the best elementary kids," Self said in jest. But on a more serious note, Self said, "If he works now like he did then, they're always going to get guys."

Gillispie said getting the early commitments from players two to three years out will benefit Kentucky, but "only time will tell. I don't think anyone would try to get someone to commit to create a buzz. If you think he's a really good player, you should try. Anytime a new coach goes into a new situation, there is a little bit of a buzz anyway."

How can Gillispie, or any other coach for that matter, get commitments to stick two to three years out?

"You just hope you recruited the right guys," Gillispie said. "It's all about maintaining relationships."

And, judging by how much Gillispie and Self have continued to cultivate their relationship as league rivals and now as national recruiting foes, there's no question that they've figured out how to keep their friendship above the fray.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.