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A whole new ball game

Thirty top stars vie for a spot on Pan Am games squad

Posted: Monday July 16, 2007 12:39PM; Updated: Monday July 16, 2007 1:35PM
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Last weekend in Philadelphia, 30 of the top college basketball players in America came to Haverford College in hopes of becoming one of the lucky dozen who will get picked to play for the U.S. at the Pan American Games from July 25-29 in Brazil.

Think about that for a moment. Every one of those guys is the best or second-best player on his team. In high school, each was the best by a long shot. All their lives, they've been stars. Yet there they were, scrapping and clawing just to get a jersey. It was unfamiliar territory, to say the least.

"I can't even think the last time I had to fight like this," said Indiana senior forward D.J. White, who will enter next season as one of the favorites for Big Ten player of the year. "I made my varsity as a freshman in high school. The only other sport I played is baseball, and that was Little League, where everybody plays."

During the three two-hour sessions I watched Thursday and Friday, White was one of the most consistent rebounders and post scorers, so I wasn't surprised that he was among the 14 who survived the first cut late Saturday night. (The roster will be trimmed to 12 later this week.) LSU forward Tasmin Mitchell, on the other hand, did not survive. Neither did Tennessee guard Chris Lofton, Kansas guard Mario Chalmers and Washington forward Jon Brockman. All of them have a chance to be first team all-league next season and all will have a chance to play in the NBA. Yet none was good enough to stick around.

You really learn a lot about players by watching them in this kind of setting. That's why some two dozen NBA scouts were on hand, as were a handful of college coaches. "This is invaluable for scouting," said Marquette coach Tom Crean, who jotted notes while watching two of his players, junior guards Wes Matthews and Jerel McNeal, compete. (Both of them were cut as well.) The most interested observer, naturally, was Villanova coach Jay Wright, who is serving as head coach for the team.

"This is my third time being involved with one of these teams, and this is by far the hardest," Wright said. "All the coaches are meeting and we're saying everybody's so equal. Obviously, the one guy who's just so unique is [Roy] Hibbert [Georgetown's 7-foot-2 senior]. Other than that, everybody brings a lot to the table. At the end, you know you're going to leave a guy home who could do just as good a job."

Wright and his two assistants, Alabama's Mark Gottfried and Yale's James Jones, had input on who was chosen, but the final decisions were made by a selection committee chaired by Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim. The fact that no player seemed to be separating himself from the pack led most of the onlookers to surmise that this group will have a tough time winning the gold against teams comprised of older, professional players.

Since the Pan Am Games is an international competition, the criteria for selection was different than that which would apply to the NBA Draft. For the guards, premiums were placed on size, strength and experience. (That's why Michigan State senior Drew Neitzel made it while Kansas' Sherron Collins didn't.) For the big men, skills were more important than bulk. (Oregon's Maarty Leunen was selected over Alabama's Richard Hendrix.)

After just five practices over a three-day span, it's no easy task to pick a team. Do you go with how a guy does at the trials, or do you make a decision based on what he did during the college season? For example, Lofton averaged 20.8 points last season for the Vols, he's a career 43.8 percent three-point shooter and he will probably be SEC preseason player of the year. But at UT, he has the advantage of playing in a system designed to get him shots. Without Bruce Pearl on hand to draw up plays for him, the 6-foot Lofton had a hard time creating his own shot and was largely invisible.

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