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SI FOR KIDS
Inside College Basketball
Posted: Tuesday November 03, 1998 04:06 PM
By Seth Davis
The early-signing period has increased, not eased, pressure on recruits
An unprecedented number of top-flight prospects will sign national letters of intent during this Nov. 11-18 period, and that seems to have increased the pressure on high school stars to commit earlier and earlier. Eighty-one of the top 100 players ranked by Bob Gibbons, publisher of the recruiting newsletter All Star Sports, had made verbal commitments to schools by Oct. 28. Many of those commitments were given before the school year even began. "It's like a stampede," Gibbons says. "One ACC coach called me recently and said, 'I need to sign some players. Who's left?' I said, 'There is no one left. If you don't have them by now, you'd better start scrambling.'"
The trend reflects changes in the recruiting process that have focused attention on younger kids with each passing year. "You open up these basketball magazines and you see a list of the best sixth-graders in the country," says Providence coach Tim Welsh. "It's just not healthy, and coaches have created a lot of it. I'm complaining about it, but if I don't put pressure on a kid to commit early, I'm going to lose out."
Recruits such as Tony Robertson, a top-rated 6'3" point guard from East Providence, are feeling the heat. Robertson took a visit to Connecticut at his own expense on Aug. 15, saw the lay of the landthat UConn coach Jim Calhoun was courting three other top-ranked point guardsand gave a verbal commitment to Calhoun on Aug. 20. "I just wanted to make sure I had my Number 1 choice before someone took my scholarship," says Robertson, who claims the Huskies had been at the top of his list for some time. Still, he might have changed his mind had he taken his planned official visits to Kansas, Kentucky and Florida in September and October.
Robertson's signing caused other dominoes to fall. Robertson informed his friend Majestic Mapp, a 6'2" point guard from New York City who was also considering UConn, that he had committed. "He was kind of shocked," Robertson says. A week later Mapp scheduled an unofficial visit to Virginia, which prompted Cavaliers coach Pete Gillen to call another recruit, 6-foot Todd Billet of Lincroft, N.J., to try to press Billet to make a decision. Billet decided to make like a point guard and pass. "I just didn't feel that [choosing under pressure] was a good way to decide on a college," he says. Mapp committed to Virginia on his visit. Billet is still sifting through offers from five other schools.
The way coaches and recruits are forced to make increasingly hurried decisions might help explain why there appears to be an increase in transfers the last few years, especially among elite players such as Jason Collier (who moved from Indiana to Georgia Tech), Mike Chappell (Duke to Michigan State), Luke Axtell (Texas to Kansas) and Loren Woods (Wake Forest to Arizona). "The early-signing period is kind of obsolete now with all these [verbal] commitments," Billet says. "The system needs to be altered somehow so we can see the schools and get more comfortable with the coaches."
Because very few top high school seniors will be available when the April signing period begins, college coaches will try next week to get as many as they can while the gettin's good. Here are the schools that apparently will clean up during the early-signing period:
1. Kentucky. The Wildcats locked up commitments from two players who will be on most top 10 lists: 6'4" Keith Bogans from DeMatha High in Hyattsville, Md., and 6'10" Marvin Stone from Huntsville, Ala. The Cats also expect to have the services of 7-foot, 290-pound John Stewart from Indianapolis, who could thrive once he loses some weight.
2. Duke. The Blue Devils have commitments from 6'2" Jason Williams of Metuchen, N.J., who blends an explosive first step with superb court vision, and 6'10" Casey Sanders of Tampa, a slashing power forward in the Marcus Camby mold. If Duke can add either 6'5" Michael Dunleavy Jr. from Portland or Alaska's 6'8" Carlos Boozer (who says he'll wait until spring to sign), many experts will rank this the No. 1 class in the nation.
3. Kansas. A year after missing out on several top targets, coach Roy Williams scored with 6'9" Nick Collison from Iowa Falls, 6'9" Andrew Gooden from El Cerrito, Calif., and should also sign 6'3" Kirk Hinrich from Sioux City, Iowa, who originally committed to Iowa State.
Florida, Virginia and Connecticut are also poised for first-rate recruiting hauls. North Carolina will move up the charts if Dunleavy and 6'4" Joe Forte, Bogans's backcourtmate at DeMatha, opt for Chapel Hill.
Iona senior forward Kashif Hameed swears he is telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, but he is wilting under cross-examination. His coach and prosecutor, Jeff Ruland, is grilling Hameed about a report Ruland received that the player has been insufficiently diligent about attending class. "You're scamming me," Ruland says, as Hameed attempts to draw a Clintonesque distinction between late and absent. Then Ruland abruptly cuts off the questioning. "Let me put it this way," he says. "I'm gonna get you." Just like Rambo, only Ruland has bigger biceps.
What makes this scene noteworthy isn't so much the inquisition as it is the inquisitor. Ruland was a two-time All-America when he played at Iona from 1977-78 to '79-80, but he is the first to admit that he majored in cutting class (with a minor in bar-hopping). "I hated school, I really did," he says. Entering his first year as head coach at his alma mater, the 6'10", 290-pound Ruland is giving no slack when it comes to his players' academic obligations. During the first week of practice he kicked 6'5" guard Devonaire Deas, a blue-chip transfer from Florida State, off the team because Deas kept blowing off classes. "I'm just trying to get these guys to skip some of the mistakes I made," Ruland says. "If somebody had said to me, 'If you don't go to class, you're not going to play,' that would have gotten my attention."
That isn't lip service. Ruland played for six years in the NBAmaking the All-Star team twicebefore injuries forced him to retire at age 28, but when he decided to get into coaching, he hit a snag. He didn't have a degree, having bypassed his senior year to turn pro. So in January 1990, Ruland, who lives in Medford, N.J., with his wife, Maureen, and their three daughters, reenrolled at Iona. For the next 18 months he sat in class with other undergraduates and worked to earn the 70 credits (out of 120) he needed to get his sheepskin. He graduated in June 1991.
"I still hated going to class," he says. "But for all of the things I achieved in basketball, getting my degree has been, next to my family, my greatest accomplishment." Ruland served three years as an assistant at Iona before assuming the top spot last April after Tim Welsh left to become coach at Providence.
As an assistant Ruland used to put the entire team through 6 a.m. wind sprints if one player so much as missed a class. He's still very much the enforcer, peering into classrooms, staying in touch with teachers, monitoring study hall. With the Gaels bringing back two all-league selections, Hameed and junior forward Tariq Kirksay, from last year's MAAC champions, Ruland has every reason to look forward to his inaugural season as coach. "I'm right where I want to be," he says.
No doubt his players will be where he wants them to be, too.
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