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Posted: Tuesday November 18, 2008 11:39AM; Updated: Tuesday November 18, 2008 4:45PM
Seth Davis Seth Davis >

Top recruit DeMarcus Cousins playing hardball with UAB

Story Highlights

DeMarcus Cousins wants UAB give him an out if Mike Davis leaves the school

The National Letter of Intent is a one-sided agreement that benefits schools

Arizona won't release Jeff Withey despite the coaching turmoil

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At 6-9, 250 pounds, DeMarcus Cousins has an NBA-ready body and excellent range from the outside.
Courtesy of Kelly Kline Photography
Seth Davis's Mailbag
Seth Davis will periodically answer questions from users in his Hoop Thoughts column.

This is an important time of year in college basketball. The early signing period for high school seniors began on Nov. 12 and runs through Wednesday. There is some debate as to whom is the best high school player in America, but I'm here to tell you that there is no doubt who is the smartest.

His name is DeMarcus Cousins.

You could also make a case that Cousins is the most physically talented player in the country. At 6-foot-9, 250 pounds, he possesses an NBA-ready body with shooting range that extends beyond the three-point line. ranks Cousins No. 2 in the class of 2009. ranks him No. 10. Last March, Cousins, who attends LeFlore High in Mobile, Ala., announced his intention to stay near home and play for UAB.

Cousins is ready to put pen to paper and make his commitment to UAB official, but he's adding one wrinkle: He wants UAB to put in writing that if Blazers coach Mike Davis is not at UAB next season, then the school will release Cousins from his National Letter of Intent (NLI).

"My whole point of committing to the school was to play for coach Mike Davis," Cousins told me Monday. "If he gets another job offer or leaves for his own personal reasons, I want to be able to leave [UAB] without any problems. I need that in writing so there won't be any issues. That's real important to me."

Sounds reasonable, right? Yet, UAB has thus far declined Cousins' request. If he doesn't sign his Letter of Intent this week, Cousins will have to wait until the spring signing period in April and May to sign his letter. Or, he may not sign the letter at all. Either way, UAB's intransigence is putting the school in jeopardy of losing out on the best recruit in school history.

Cousins' predicament shines an important light on the ridiculous charade that is the National Letter of Intent program. As I wrote last year, the NLI is completely voluntarily, yet every year thousands of student-athletes in all sports sign it -- even though it is a one-sided document that has never been negotiated on their behalf. Furthermore, the NLI program isn't even governed by the NCAA. It falls instead under the province of the Conference Commissioners Association, whatever that is.

Signing the NLI may seem routine -- until you read the fine print. The letter commits an athlete to spend one full year at that school. If he wants to leave before the year is up, the school has the option of releasing him without penalty. If the school doesn't release him, the athlete has to sit out a full year at his next school plus lose a year of eligibility. Even though we all know that players choose their colleges based mostly on the coach, the letter explicitly states that a coaching change is not grounds for nullifying the agreement.

The unfairness of the NLI was driven home to Cousins last April, when his high school teammate, 6-4 guard Nick Williams, asked to be released from his commitment to Marquette after Tom Crean left to take the Indiana job. Marquette eventually granted Williams his release but, says LeFlore High coach Otis Hughley, "Ultimately it was up to Marquette, not Nick Williams. I couldn't even get Marquette to return my phone calls for almost a week. How many opportunities slipped through Nick's hands in the meantime?"

Cousins was unsettled by how events had rendered Williams powerless simply because he had signed a letter. "At one point it seemed like he really didn't know what to do," Cousins said. "He was ready to play for that coach, and when it was time for him to do it, things changed. That left him out on the water alone. I mean, it was just a whole other boatload of pressure he had to deal with."

Even so, Williams made out much better than Arizona freshman Jeff Withey. A 6-11 center from San Diego, Withey has asked U of A to release him from his NLI partly because the coach he committed to play for, Lute Olson, is no longer at the school. (Neither are the assistants who recruited him.) Earlier this month, however, Arizona athletic director Jim Livengood informed Withey that the school would not grant him his release. (Withey is currently not practicing with the team while he appeals the decision to a university committee.) Livengood's main concern is that Withey's departure would hurt Arizona's Academic Progress Rate, potentially costing the program a scholarship. "I firmly believe, as the letter of intent states, that he needs to stay a full academic year," Livengood said upon announcing his decision.

And yet, last year, Livengood granted a release to guard Laval Lucas-Perry that allowed him to transfer in December. In June he also released incoming forward Emmanuel Negedu, who then opted for Tennessee. Three other high school players who had committed to Olson were free to change their minds this fall because they hadn't yet signed a Letter of Intent. If they had, would Livengood have released them? Or would he have taken the hard-line stance he is taking with Withey? We'll never know, but the point is, it would have been solely the school's decision.

Part of the reason Cousins' situation is so sticky is that it appears Mike Davis made a promise on which he wasn't prepared to deliver. Hughley told me that when Cousins committed to UAB last March, Davis assured them that the school would promise in writing that it would grant Cousins his release if Davis left. Either Davis foolishly made the deal without clearing it with his bosses, or his bosses have changed their minds, because though athletic director Brian Mackin is prepared to give Cousins a verbal promise, there does not appear to be any kind of written agreement forthcoming. Cousins can play for UAB next season without signing a letter, but for now he is not committing to anything. "I would have to talk everything over with my family and my coach," Cousins said. "Right now, I'm not sure what I'm going to do."

The Conference Commissioners Association handed over the administrative duties of the NLI program to the NCAA in October 2007. NCAA president Myles Brand told me at the time that his organization was only "doing the paperwork," but the NCAA is taking on an increasingly active role. This year, the organization decided for the first time to insert language at the very top stressing that the letter is voluntary. "We want these prospects to know what they're getting into," said the NCAA's Susan Peal, the director of the NLI. "Parents call me all the time [with questions], and I tell them hey, you don't have to sign the NLI. The coach will give you an athletics aid agreement, which has to accompany the NLI anyway. Now, will institutions let you do that? Maybe not, but it's worth asking the question."

They might not do it for an average player, but Cousins has much more leverage than that. "My phone is getting blown apart with other coaches calling," Hughley said. "They're wasting their time because the kid is committed to Mike Davis until Wednesday passes. After that, I don't know. He might open it back up. He's the level of player who can afford to take it slow. People will hold scholarships for him."

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