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New Owls coach Jakus ready to make his mark

John Jakus made his way off the basketball court Friday afternoon at The Elly, stopped to greet and pose with a final few knots of well-wishers, and then disappeared down a closed hallway.

He was not headed to the Florida Atlantic locker room to spray champagne—although he would have been entitled after his 20-minute masterclass in winning an introductory event.

Instead, he was diving into meetings.

There’s a lot to do in a short while if a new basketball coach wants to stay for a long while. Especially if he wants to stay for a long while. And clearly that’s the plan with Jakus, introduced Friday as the 10th coach in Owls program history.

“I actually love this place,” Jakus (pronounced JAY-kus) told an assembly of team members, family, friends, donors and fans. “I told Brian the first time we talked, I’m gonna retire here, so if you’re gonna bring me here 20 years earlier, let’s just do it.”

He smiled as he spoke, but he wasn’t joking. FAU Vice President and Director of Athletics Brian White hired him to a job that offers an appealing lifestyle. He’s spent time in Boca Raton, visiting relatives and years ago even enjoying spring break. But White also hired him to a job that offers a recruiting tool not available at his previous two stops in college basketball.

“I think we can build what Baylor and Gonzaga have done,” he said, “but I think we can build it in a better way because right outside this door is the beach.”

NIL also could raise or lower the ceiling for the success of his new program—more on that later—but the breezy ocean lifestyle among other selling points could help at least establish a comparable floor. His predecessor saw that, too.

Dusty May had his own plan when he was in Jakus’ position six years ago. He studied everything about the Gonzaga program built by Mark Few and assisted by Tommy Lloyd and modeled his program after what he learned. His intent was to create something every bit as durable and sustainable in Boca Raton as it has been in Spokane. The European influences on player and ball movement. The 3-point shooting. The international component to recruiting. And a new piece last season, ambitious but calculated pre-conference scheduling necessary for a mid-major program to game the NET metrics in its favor. May credited all of that to the Gonzaga blueprint.

And now the FAU program is in the hands of a coach who as director of basketball ops at Gonzaga from 2013 to 2017 lived—and enhanced—that plan. Not to mention more recently enhancing Scott Drew’s equally elite Baylor program for the past seven years as an assistant coach.

“I did call Dusty (on Thursday) and I thanked him,” said Jakus (pictured via Rick Henderson) in his introductory remarks. “… What that staff did for this place is real similar to what Mark and Scott did for Gonzaga and Baylor.”

Jakus is straddling parallels between Gonzaga’s early success and FAU’s that, while not exact in detail, are still striking.

In 1999, the Bulldogs, in just their second NCAA Tournament and seeded 10th, upset Minnesota, Stanford and Florida before nearly taking down eventual champ UConn in the Elite Eight. Their coach, Dan Monson, left after that season to coach Minnesota. Few took over the following season and one year later promoted Lloyd, now head coach at Arizona, from volunteer administrative assistant to assistant coach. Excluding 2020 when there was no tournament because of COVID, Gonzaga has made the NCAA Tournament in all of Few’s 25 seasons. They’ve emerged from the West Coast Conference—a league that finished empirically lower than FAU’s American Athletic Conference for at least the past five seasons in the Ken Pomeroy Ratings—since 2000 to reach 14 Sweet 16s, six Elite Eights and two national runner-up finishes.

Jakus was present for both Gonzaga Final Fours, but on opposite benches. In his final year on Few’s staff, Gonzaga lost the title game to North Carolina. Four years later, he was Scott Drew’s offensive coordinator when Baylor defeated the Bulldogs in the final.

May stayed at FAU one season longer after leading the Owls one tournament win farther, but eventually also left for a Big Ten school, Michigan.

And now Jakus hopes to build on the two-year NCAA streak he is inheriting from May. Some of the infrastructure in place could help continuity—not to mention the players he will inherit if he can keep them.

“Between John and Dusty, I think that’s worked out well for us,” said White (pictured with Jakus via Rick Henderson). “I think the idea of modeling our program after programs that have had a lot of success and have done so with a coach who’s a builder and do things the right way and have a great connection with our players. I definitely think there’s some synergy there.”

So what are the critical boxes Jakus will set out to check in the next few days?

— Finalizing his staff. May already has said some members of his former FAU staff will join him at the University of Michigan, and Jakus said that, to a degree, that determination will influence how he completes his staff here. May assistant Todd Abernethy attended the introduction.

— Re-recruiting those current Owls. All but three members of this past team—guards Jalen Gaffney, Bryan Greenlee and Brandon Weatherspoon—have at least one year of eligibility left, but the NCAA transfer portal offers them all options to play elsewhere. Other schools also could offer bigger NIL opportunities. Some Owls are rumored to be considering following their old coach to Ann Arbor, but May has only a couple days head start on Jakus in figuring out his own roster needs.

Liam McNeely, a five-star wing from Montverde Academy near Orlando who is the top unsigned high school player in the Class of ’24, told ESPN on Friday that May has been in touch and is making him a priority. The progress of that recruitment could impact playing time for potential upperclass transfer candidates for UM—although plenty of schools would love to pry away assorted Owls.

That’s why Jakus spent much of the last half of his speech passionately alternating between wooing the players in the front row—Vlad Goldin, Alijah Martin, Giancarlo Rosado and Nick Boyd among them—and appealing for an increase in the school’s NIL chest. He pledged to be an active NIL advocate on behalf of his players.

In what amounted to his first NIL pitch, he noted that the Owls’ 2023 Final Four run generated significant TV and donor dollars, funded a standalone practice facility coming “soon,” and played a role in a 34 percent increase in student applicants to FAU. “Everybody can have a different view of NIL,” Jakus told the assembly, “but I’m gonna tell you this, they deserve something.”

And in one of several overtures to the players, he said: “If these guys stay together, FAU is a top 25 basketball team before we even practice one time.”

— Get to know FAU’s four Class of ’24 signees and if necessary re-recruit them. Guards Ty Robinson, Lorenzo “L.J.” Cason and Elijah Elliott and Lithuanian post Mantas Kocanas all have signed national letters of intent, but schools routinely release recruits from commitments if requested after a change in condition such as a new coach. Jakus said he spoke with the three U.S. high school players Thursday night and was lining up a call with Kocanas.

— Identifying prospects in the portal. So far FAU has contacted at least two players, guards Devo Davis of Cal State Fullerton and guard Max Jones of Arkansas. Portal recruiting is far more fluid and unpredictable than high school recruiting, and initial contacts usually are merely about exploring possible mutual interest and fit.

Jakus has had exceptional success as a recruiter. He’s attracted his share of highly rated players to Baylor, most recently 2024 five-star V.J. Edgecomb, but he’s also helped land strong players from overseas such as Finnish guard Miro Little and transfers such as Davion Mitchell, who helped Baylor win the 2021 championship and now plays in the NBA for the Sacramento Kings.

Jakus said his top priority and strong preference is to keep the current Owls roster together.

“We can do it a different way,” he said. “I’m just telling you I don’t want to.”

He had a hand in bringing top-five recruiting classes to Baylor in terms of ratings, but said ratings themselves aren’t necessary predictors of college success.

“I think on the whole, you just have to address needs,” he said. “If you just look at the guards at Baylor for example, the ones who have gone pro or were All-American. Adam Flagler (a rookie on a two-way contract with the Oklahoma City Thunder) had no offers. Maceo Teague (now playing overseas) played point guard at Asheville and had to transfer up. Davion Mitchell was top 50 and had to transfer to find the right place.

“I think more than anything, we’re going to use our analytical models and NBA background checks that we do to pick the highest-character kid, and character means a lot more than ranking. If you look at it, Jeremy Sochan  (2022-23 NBA All-Rookie Team selection with the San Antonio Spurs) wasn’t ranked in the top 100, and so he ended up a lottery pick, but he didn’t start that way. Maybe people thought he was highly ranked, but he wasn’t.

“You can find talent in different places, and I know this. International kids love the beach, and we’re going to use that to bring some in.”

The next few days should be telling about how Jakus goes about assembling the 2024-25 Owls. He asked the players to give him until Monday to persuade them to stay before leaving if they wish. So far, they have respected his wishes.

He’s hoping the Owls will resist the temptations of today’s college basketball culture as they have so far—and for the reasons they have. Right now he’s in the middle of heavy lifting to keep them together.

“In today’s culture, on a challenge scale I think it would be 10 out of 10,” Jakus said. “But if FAU was today’s culture, then the reality is this wouldn’t have happened here. The reality is they were great because they worked through COVID, they stuck together as a class, they stuck together to see who the next coach was. The only reason it becomes easy is because of who they are and what this place is.”

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