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9/28/2006 01:35:00 AM
When Activism And Recruiting Conflict
During sporting events, Chief Illiniwek is portrayed by an Illinois student wearing traditional Titonwan Lakota regalia.
Four controversial letters were sent, by certified mail, from the University of Illinois on Sept. 14. They were addressed to each of the recruits who had made a verbal commitment to play basketball for the Illini in 2007-06: Bill Cole, Mike Tisdale, Demetri McCamey and, most importantly, Eric Gordon, the No. 2-ranked player in the nation (whose recent flirtations with Indiana have been cause for much lost sleep among U of I diehards). The correspondence originated from an employee of the school, but it did not classify as recruiting material. It was anti-recruiting material.
The letter began:
"Dear Mr. (recruit's last name):
"We understand that you are considering coming to the University of Illinois as a student athlete. If that is still the case, we believe you should be aware of one particular issue that is of concern on this campus -- the use of a fictitious Native American, named Chief Illiniwek, as the University’s sports mascot."
It then explained how, in August of 2005, the NCAA put Illinois on its list of schools using "hostile and abusive" mascot imagery; because U of I has yet to change its mascot, it is barred from hosting postseason events. (A true statement.) The letter also said that the longer the school refuses to ditch the Chief, the more likely that problems such as BCS or NCAA tournament exclusion could arise. (Possible, but a real long shot.) It reached its crescendo in the third-to-last paragraph:
"In spite of what you may have recently read or heard in the media, after 16 years of debating this issue, the UI Board of Trustees still refuses to take the necessary action and no end appears in sight. Thus, you may want to think twice about whether the University of Illinois is a good environment for you to further your education and athletic career. Do you want to play at a school that refuses to commit to equality for all races and that places more value on an outdated and divisive mascot than on a winning athletic program?" (Read the full letter here.)
The signees were 14 current and former faculty members at the university, led by Stephen Kaufman, the letter's author and an emeritus professor of cell and developmental biology. Kaufman, a former season-ticket holder in men's basketball and football, acted despite anonymously sourced rumors (as reported in the Chicago Sun-Times on Aug. 31, and denied by the school earlier this month) that suggested UI would abandon Chief Illiniwek by the end of this school year.
Tired of other means and possessing little faith in the Sun-Times report -- "All of the other arguments have been made, for years, and the university still doesn't have the backbone to do what it knows is right," Kaufman said -- the professors resorted to the letter campaign. It is a strategy they attempted once previously, in February 2001, but were blocked by the school's then-Chancellor, Michael Aiken, in March of that year. They won an ACLU-aided lawsuit against U of I in May 2002, clearing them to freely contact prospective student-athletes, but did not pursue that route until this September.
On Wednesday, a spokesperson for the Illinois athletic department said it "had no public response" to the letter. Meanwhile, Tom Hardy, a spokesman for the school, said, "They're activists, and they're expressing a point of view and exercising their freedom of speech to do so. They have pretty much done whatever they've wanted to do, whenever they've wanted to do it."
The knee-jerk reaction to this, from a sporting vantage point, would be to call the faculty group's actions reprehensible, especially during an open basketball recruiting period. (One irked Illini alum e-mailed Kaufman on Wednesday to call him "a despicable human being," and the response on fan message boards was largely, but not entirely, negative.) How could, many fans asked, these profs attempt to undermine the recruiting efforts of an innocent like basketball coach Bruce Weber, when -- if you're in the crowd that supports retiring the mascot -- the real villain is a stubborn board of trustees?
The more I thought about the letter campaign, though, the less I found it objectionable. For one, I don't think this is a make-or-break issue for recruits; Gordon's high school coach said the player had not even seen the letter yet, and I doubt his decision between the Illini and the Hoosiers will hinge on a mascot. Also, it's been 13 months since the NCAA ruled on Native American mascots, and five months since Illinois exhausted all of its appeals, yet it's still sticking with the Chief. The school said nothing to support the rumor that the mascot would soon be performing its last dance. If moving the protest to the intensely followed sphere of basketball recruiting puts enough heat on the trustees to enact change -- mind you, not radical change, but simple compliance with the NCAA's ruling on mascots -- then it's much easier to view the letters in an acceptable light. And really, how different is the profs' message than the one uttered by athletic director Ron Guenther in April, when he said the NCAA's ruling will have "an unbelievably negative effect" on U of I athletic teams?
Many of the profs behind the letter don't see it as anti-athletics or anti-recruiting, but rather a medium for activism against a symbol of racism. Carol Spindel, an English lecturer who signed the letter and has also written a book (entitled Dancing At Halftime) on the subject, said, "I consider myself a civil rights activist, and it's important to inform people that you are joining a program that chooses to be an outlaw as far as civil rights goes."
Even if those being informed are, like Gordon, potentially huge assets for the school's basketball program. In Kaufman's mind, especially if they're like Gordon. "This may give Ron [Guenther] and the coaches more fuel," Kaufman said, "to go to the board and say, 'We need to get this done sooner.'"
In a perfect world, the mailings will cease, the school will find a respectful way to retire the mascot (presumably into the hands of a group of former Chiefs) in 2007, and Weber's program will feel no ill-effects of the profs' actions. But in the meantime, Kaufman said he is planning on sending out more letters.
Chris Lofton was the Vols top man last season and will be again this year.
(This is the fourth in a series looking at the new identities of highly ranked teams from 2005-06.)
OLD IDENTITY: Shockingly successful. The Volunteers were the biggest surprise of the regular season, finishing first in the SEC East in Bruce Pearl's inaugural year as head coach. Their small lineup -- backup point Dane Bradshaw was considered UT's starting power forward -- thrived in Pearl's fullcourt, 1-2-1-1 pressing system, ranking No. 20 nationally in tempo and 27th in percentage of turnovers forced. The savvy play of point guard C.J. Watson kept them in control on offense (they ranked No. 16 in turnover percentage), and two-guard Chris Lofton's lights-out shooting made the Vols one of the country's most dangerous teams from the perimeter.
NEW IDENTITY: Tennessee is the exception in this series (which also included Duke, UConn and Washington) because its No. 1 option, Lofton, is still around. But the Vols did lose a point guard (Watson) and a center (Major Wingate), and six of their 11 scholarship players will be appearing in their first college game … so they're worth investigating. Here's what was gleaned from a conversation with Pearl, as well as from recent reports out of the Tennessee camp:
• After the dismissal of the 6-foot-10 Wingate on Sept. 6, all thoughts were abandoned concerning combating the SEC's size surplus (Florida's Joakim Noah and Al Horford, Alabama's Jermareo Davidson, LSU's Glen Davis, Arkansas' Darian Townes and Vincent Hunter) . "We played small last year," said Pearl, "and we'll have to play small again this year." That means Bradshaw, a 6-4 workhorse (and member of Seth Davis' Glue Guys squad), will be back at power forward. True freshman power forward Wayne Chism, a four-star recruit out of Bolivar, Tenn., is now the tallest player on the team at 6-9 -- and will have to play the majority of his minutes at the five.
• The bright side: The Vols may be tiny, but by adding Chism, Duke Crews, Ramar Smith, and another four-star freshman, Marques Johnson, they'll be far more athletic than they were in '05-06. Pearl re-tooled Tennessee's existing personnel to fit his pressing system last year, and all they managed to do was earn a No. 2 seed in the NCAAs (before losing to Wichita State in the second round). Neither in his previous stint at UW-Milwaukee, nor last season in Knoxville, has he had a group of athletes like this incoming class.
• Expect UT's starting lineup to look like this: 6-9 Chism at center, 6-4 Bradshaw at power forward, 6-7 freshman Crews at small forward, 6-2 Lofton at shooting guard, and 6-2 freshman Smith at the point. (Read last week's post on Smith's late arrival in Knoxville.)
• Pearl wants to see a more well-rounded Lofton this season. The all-SEC sharpshooter averaged 17.2 points per game, shooting 43.7 percent from long distance. Of his 174 field-goal attempts, 114 were from beyond the arc. Pearl said recently that he has Lofton working on "driving to the basket more and getting to the free-throw line" -- where he shoots at a 91.7 percent clip. Lofton shot only 60 free throws last season. MATHEMATICAL IDENTITY: In the event that Smith, who played combo guard throughout high school and AAU ball, doesn't work out as a true point guard -- Pearl said last week that "it's still to be determined if he's got the right mentality" for the position -- the Vols have other options. Like last year's backup, Jordan Howell, or freshmen Josh Tabb and Johnson. The numbers, though, suggest they should consider something else: moving Bradshaw back to his natural position. Last season, according to kenpom.com, he actually had the highest assist rate on the team -- 22.7 percent, compared to Watson's 21.3 and Howell's 13.6.
Readers, now it's your turn: Where should the Vols be ranked in the preseason? Fire off your responses in the comments section.
Lorenzo Romar will send a balanced team on to the court this season..
John W. McDonough/SI
(This is the third in a series looking at the new identities of highly ranked teams from 2005-06.)
OLD IDENTITY: The Huskies were the anti-UCLA in the Pac-10, playing a fast-paced brand of ball that made them the highest-tempo team to reach the NCAA tournament. Their lineup was headlined by a trio of mid-sized athletes; the UW's top three scorers, all seniors, were 6-foot-6 guard Brandon Roy, 6-7 small forward Bobby Jones and 6-6 power forward Jamaal Williams. The Huskies were carried by Roy, a do-everything, first-team All-American who took the majority of their biggest shots and averaged 20.2 points, 5.6 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game.
NEW IDENTITY: Three of five starters are gone from a UW squad that was a controversial finish (against UConn) away from reaching the Washington D.C. Regional final. I spoke with head coach Lorenzo Romar to get the scoop on what the Huskies will look like in 2006-07. Here are four clues:
• Romar expects a reversion to retro Washington. Retro, as in before Roy turned into a Lottery Pick and became the focal point of the offense. The hallmark of the successful Husky teams prior to '05-06 was a balanced, multiple-option attack. "Last year was the first year where we had one main guy," Romar said. "In years past, we'd have five guys in double figures, or close to it. On one night, Nate Robinson would get 25; the next, Tre Simmons would get 25; and then Bobby [Jones] would get 20. This team is going to be more like that -- different guys are going to step up."
The candidates to emerge as the Huskies' new leading scorer are sophomore forward Jon Brockman (8.4 ppg), sophomore guard Justin Dentmon (8.3 ppg), junior guard Ryan Appleby (7.9 ppg) and heralded true freshman center Spencer Hawes, but when asked who he thought would be No. 1, Romar said, "I couldn't tell you. It's too hard to predict."
• This is Brockman's year to become a household name. As a freshman, the hard-nosed, bullish forward started all but one game and led UW in rebounding (6.5 rpg). As a testament to his work ethic, he was named team captain -- as a true sophomore -- this offseason. "I think Brockman will make as big of a jump from his freshman to sophomore year as anybody in our conference," Romar said. "People didn't understand how good of a player Brandon Roy was for the first three years, because he deferred to other guys who scored more. And I think Jon, like Brandon used to do, deferred a lot last year. Now Jon is going to step up and be more of a focal point."
• The best part of this team, for once, is in the post -- but don't assume that means the Huskies will play significantly slower. The arrival of Hawes, a homegrown, 6-11 center who would probably be in the NBA if the rules allowed, had some wondering if UW would heavily adjust its offense to a halfcourt, inside-out arrangement and simply bang the ball in to Hawes and Brockman.
That's not happening. Romar still plans to run. "We're going to play uptempo," he said. "Our emphasis will probably be more inside than it has been in the four years I've been here, because [in the past] our strength wasn't necessarily scoring on the blocks."
Romar is confident that Hawes can operate in the open court -- "he can run the floor, has great hands, can pass the ball, and has scoring touch from outside, too" -- and the blue-chip center clearly has a taste for transition basketball: His college decision came down to UW and North Carolina.
IDENTITY T.B.D: After Brockman, Dentmon and Hawes, the Huskies' other two starting spots -- the two-guard and small forward positions -- are up for grabs. Appleby is the Huskies' best 3-point gunner (he was 70-of-165 last season) and should see plenty of P.T. Fellow junior Joel Smith, a 6-4 athlete, and redshirt freshman Harvey Perry, also 6-4, are also in the running in the guard rotation. The real intrigue is around the three other true freshmen who arrived with Hawes. Six-foot-three Adrian Oliver, according to Romar, is a "crafty offensive player" who can play the 1 or 2; and Quincy Pondexter (6-7) and Phil Nelson (6-8) were both major recruits who can score on the wing.
MATHEMATICAL IDENTITY: Roy wasn't just a go-to-guy; he was also incredibly efficient. According to kenpom.com, of players who used at least 24 percent of their teams' possessions, Roy (who used 27.5 percent of Washington's) was the No. 1 most efficient scorer in the nation. Romar expects the Huskies to collectively fill Roy's void, but by the numbers, Appleby is the most efficient returnee. His rating of 114.9 from last season -- impressive because of his 3-point accuracy -- was actually second-best on the team last season. Even if Appleby doesn't start, it would be wise to make him a big part of the UW offense.
Readers, now it's your turn: Where should the Huskies be ranked in the preseason? Fire off your responses in the comments section.
Hasheem Thabeet stands 7-foot-3 and will be a presence in the middle for the Huskies.
(This is the second in a series looking at the new identities of highly ranked teams from 2005-06.) OLD IDENTITY: With four NBA first-rounders and one second-rounder in its starting lineup, UConn was the equivalent of a college All-Star team: Loaded with talent, and at times dominant, winning the Big East and earning a No. 1 seed in the NCAAs, but lacking a truly defined identity. The Huskies wanted Rudy Gay to be a take-over-the-game scorer, but that never happened with consistency; stellar point guard Marcus Williams ran a highly efficient offense (ranking No. 2 nationally) whose leader seemed to differ from game to game. UConn relied on a sagging, man-to-man defense that was tailored around its size advantage on the front line, which featured 6-11 Hilton Armstrong, 6-10 Josh Boone, and 6-9 Gay.
NEW IDENTITY: Every starter is gone, as is sharpshooting sixth man Rashad Anderson. I turned to associate head coach Tom Moore for the scoop on the next wave of Huskies. Here are four clues:
• Hasheem Thabeet is the most intriguing freshman to arrive in Storrs in years. The 7-foot-3 Tanzanian center, who played his high school ball in Houston, is expected to be a shot-swatting presence in the lane that was previously patrolled by another H-town product, Emeka Okafor, and after that, Charlie Villaneuva, Boone, and Armstrong. "Hasheem has really long arms, and the 7-3 is no embellishment," said Moore. "He has such good feet and coordination already. Those are great starting points to becoming a dominant shot blocker."
• The Huskies would be in a bind if A.J. Price weren't returning -- or, technically, debuting -- at the point. The 6-2 sophomore suffered a horrific brain injury (he had internal bleeding in his skull) as a true freshman, putting his basketball career on hold for two years, and was also suspended from the team for all of last season due to his involvement in Laptopgate. Now, he's expected to be the focal point of the entire squad. Not just by fans -- by the entire coaching staff. "We're going to throw as much responsibility at [Price] as he can handle," said Moore. "Leadership stuff. Point guard stuff. Scoring stuff. Defensive stuff. Everything. I think he could potentially become a Troy Bell-type of guy in the way he can fill a stat sheet."
• The Huskies may experiment more defensively. Beyond Thabeet, they aren't huge, so they need to adapt. Moore said this could come in the form of mixing in the 2-2-1 zone that head coach Jim Calhoun used in the days before Okafor arrived. "Since we had Emeka, we've played pretty straight up -- and we led the country in blocked shots for five straight years," Moore said. "Now I think we might be willing to take more chances and trap."
• Marcus Johnson could become a key offensive weapon. UConn is high on incoming freshman guards Doug Wiggins and Jerome Dyson, but Johnson, a sophomore, showed flashes of offensive productivity when UConn regulars were injured. During a four-game stretch in December while Denham Brown was hurt, Johnson averaged 16.0 points per game, albeit against soft competition. The problem: There was simply no room for him in UConn's loaded rotation. Moore said Johnson did, however, plant the seed for future playing time, and it appears he's the frontrunner to start at the two alongside Price.
• Need evidence of the Huskies' intentional lack of interest in gambling on defense last season? They ranked 315th in the nation in turnover percentage at just 18.1 percent. The fact that they had four players with block percentages above four -- Armstrong (at 10.3), Boone (6.8), Gay (4.7) and Jeff Adrien (4.2) -- made UConn's conservative approach not only possible, but smart. Expect their block percentage to drop drastically, and if they do opt to employ the trap, the turnover figure to break 20 percent.
• The 6-7, 245-pound Adrien was viewed as somewhat of an enforcer last season, but he's also a statistical monster who could be primed for a breakout sophomore year. Check this: In terms of production, Adrien had the highest personal offensive efficiency on the team (122.3), the second-highest effective field-goal percentage (61.0), and the second-highest offensive and defensive rebounding percentages (14.1 and 17.2, respectively).
Readers, now it's your turn: Where should the Huskies be ranked in the preseason? Fire off your responses in the comments section.
We've been debating rankings lately in the house of SI, throwing our personal top 20s into a pool that will eventually yield the list for the magazine's preview issue in November. While everything that's been discussed is top secret, not-to-be-released-'til-publication information, it did get me thinking about a tangential topic:
There are a number of heavyweights from last season that will have completely new identities, and yet could very well begin the year ranked in the preseason polls. The four teams in that category that most intrigue me are Duke, UConn, Tennessee and Washington -- because any of that quartet could be slotted as high as 10 or as low as 30, depending on how much faith one has in its radically different roster.
What will the Blue Devils, Vols, and Huskies (twice) look like in 2006-07 -- and are they still legit? To satisfy my curiosity, I called coaches from each of the schools to get a handle on the new identities. I'll break one team down on each of the next four weekdays (starting Thursday, concluding Tuesday), so keep checking back to the site. First up ... is Duke.
Greg Paulus has spent the offseason getting into better physical shape.
(This is the first in a series of looks at powerhouse teams from last season that will have all-new identities in 2006-07.)
OLD IDENTITY: The Blue Devils played a two-man game, either running a pick parade to free J.J. Redick on the perimeter or forcing the ball into the paint to Shelden Williams. That duo was drafted in the 2006 NBA lottery, and though the team spent much of the season ranked No. 1, Duke had a thin bench (a seven-man rotation) and lacked the athletes to stack up against a team such as LSU. It was no fluke the Tigers knocked the Devils out of the NCAA tournament in the Sweet 16.
NEW IDENTITY: Ten of the Devils' 11 scholarship players are freshmen or sophomores, and they haven't experienced this kind of overhaul since 2002, when Redick and Williams entered as freshman. I turned to Blue Devils assistant Chris Collins to get a better idea of Duke-ball, version '06-07. Here are four clues:
• A lot is riding on Josh McRoberts' shoulders (and back). The 6-10 sophomore forward, who passed on the NBA Draft and recently had offseason back surgery, will, Collins said, "be our go-to guy." Duke considers McRoberts, point guard Greg Paulus and off-guard DeMarcus Nelson to be its big three, but McRoberts will need to be an interior presence in a space that Williams previously owned. "Josh is definitely our most talented player," said Collins. "Whether that means he's the leading scorer every night or not, he's still going to be the guy that makes everything go for us." McRoberts averaged 8.7 points per game and was often deferential to Williams last season; this year, there's no one else to yield to in the paint.
• This team may win fewer games than last year's squad, but it'll be far more athletic. That starts with the return of a healthy Nelson, but the biggest additions are two freshmen: 6-foot-5 Gerald Henderson and 6-9 Lance Thomas, both wing players who were five-star prospects. Collins said Henderson, from Merion, Pa., "gives us a powerful athlete that we've really lacked since we had Dahntay Jones." The coach said Thomas, from Newark, N.J., will be expected to contribute immediately on the front line. "He's very active player -- the kind of forward who is going to create a lot of mismatches," Collins said.
• The sleeper freshman is Brian Zoubek. The New Jersey 7-footer is the least-publicized recruit in a class that includes Henderson, Thomas and Jon Scheyer, but given Duke's size deficiency -- McRoberts and Thomas are its only other players over 6-7 -- Zoubek will get minutes out of necessity. "With Shelden gone, we need help manning the middle," Collins said, "and Brian is a true center with very good hands. He may surprise some people."
• Greg Paulus -- who played major minutes but had a high turnover rate -- will be in better shape to run the team. Collins said the second-year floor general took a cue from what J.J. Redick did the previous summer and got into prime cardiovascular condition. "The biggest jump J.J. made was getting into tip-top shape so he could run all day and wear down opponents," said Collins, "and Greg has taken on that same kind of regimen."
• There's talk around the Duke team that its athleticism will allow it to play more in transition this season. While the common perception is that the Blue Devils were a slow, half-court team in 2005-06, they actually ranked No. 29 in the country in adjusted tempo at 72.2 possessions per 40 minutes, according to kenpom.com. If they speed up by just one half of a possession per game, they'd surpass the pace at which North Carolina played last season (72.6 poss./40 min.). That's a strange thought.
• One reason to have confidence in McRoberts as the No. 1 offensive option: His freshman year scoring average was in single figures, but his personal offensive efficiency was higher than Shelden Williams' (117.3 to 117.2), as was his effective field-goal percentage (61.8 percent to 58.0). McRoberts' numbers may have benefited from freebees when defenses collapsed on the Landlord, but they do project well for future stardom. Readers, now it's your turn: Where do you think Duke should be ranked in the preseason? Fire off a response in the comments section.
Ronald Steele was an honorable mention All-America pick in 2005-06, and a first-team All-SEC point guard.
As part of the blog's series of summer (or now, just offseason) Q&As, I chatted with Alabama's Ronald Steele, who returns for his junior year as one of the nation's most talented point guards. In 2005-06, Steele averaged 14.3 points and 4.3 assists per game as the Crimson Tide lost in the second round of the NCAA tournament to eventual runner-up UCLA.
Luke Winn: You had to make a quick transition last season from being a pass-first point guard to, after Chuck Davis got hurt, a guy who was counted on to score. Was it a tough switch, and how did you make it happen?
Ronald Steele: I was always a pass-first guy, but I want to win more than anything, so after talking to coach, and knowing my teammates were encouraging me, I started looking to score more and be more aggressive. It made it easy when I knew I had the support of the coaches.
LW: And were you always comfortable with that?
RS: Honestly, I kind of felt selfish at times, because I always looked to distribute first. To have to have the ball and be offensively aggressive as far as scoring, I had to take a different mindset. Once we started to win [the Tide finished 10-6 in the SEC] I got more accustomed to it, and just rolled with it.
LW: Another part of that added load was an insane amount of minutes. You're known as an Ironman now -- you played at least 39 minutes in 20 of your last 21 games. Is this a pride thing for you, or is it strictly out of necessity?
RS: Well, it started because that's what we needed at the time. We didn't have a lot of depth, and I just grew into that Ironman thing -- I knew it had to be my role. But I enjoy playing out there, and I'm sure there are other people who would be happy to be playing, so I'm gonna stay on the court.
LW: And you don't get exhausted?
RS: We probably have the best conditioning program in the country, so I don't get that tired. A lot of it is about being mentally tough, too. Pretty much my whole life, I've had to play a lot of minutes, so I've learned some stuff, like knowing when to pick my spots to be aggressive on offense; knowing when not to push it; or maybe trying to get to the free-throw line more often to slow down the game.
LW: So you'll intentionally try to draw fouls when you need a rest -- kind of an on-court time out?
RS: You have to try to gain any advantage. If I know we need a rest, or if I'm getting tired, I might try to get the ball inside more, where we'll get fouled. Coach [Mark Gottfried] does a good job of calling timeouts and playing the game smart, too.
LW: There's a legend about how you used to carry around a basketball at all times -- to class, at home, pretty much everywhere -- but I've heard you've switched to a tennis ball now?
RS: That's true. I heard that it was something Steve Nash did in college, and he's one of my favorite players. It's a little more convenient than a basketball, and it probably works better. If you can dribble a tennis ball, you can dribble a basketball -- and if the best point guard in the league did it, then I figure I should do it.
LW: How did you find out about Nash doing it?
RS: I read about it in a magazine a while ago [ed: SI had it in 1995 and 2001], but it really started when my teammate Jermareo Davidson pointed it out to me. He saw it on NBA Live, the video game -- it was one of the facts they had on there about Nash. And I just went with it from there.
LW: You got a chance to play at Michael Jordan's Flight School (in Santa Barbara, Calif.) this summer -- and MJ talked to you a little bit. What did he say?
RS: Basically, he just told me a lot of basketball stuff: Being a point guard, that I was in control, and that I had to not only play for myself, but play for the four other guys on the court. The biggest thing I took away from it, though, was how competitive he was on the court. Every game -- even pickup stuff -- he wasn't out there just playing, he was trying to win. He was always competitive, and it brought the best out of everybody on the court.
LW: I read an old quote from you, from last season, where you said graduating from college was a big priority of yours. You passed on the Draft this year, but given the reality that you're a first-round NBA prospect, how committed are you to staying at Alabama for four years?
RS: That's important to me, graduation. It's important to me and my family. I'll talk to my coaches and everything when we come to that point -- and unless it's an opportunity that I can't pass up, I'll stay. But really, it's not on my mind at all right now. It's going to be a judgment we'll make at the end of the season.
LW: How easy -- or difficult -- was it for you to decide to stay this year?
RS: This was the smart decision. I looked into [turning pro], but I wasn't going to do it unless it was a great situation, and knowing the team we had coming back, and the season coming up, I wasn't going to take that risk.
LW: How did your conversations with coach Gottfried go when you were mulling it over?
RS: [Gottfried] was supportive of whatever decision I made -- he was just trying to give me the best information. It was a good situation; he was giving me feedback, and talking to my parents. We looked at what happened with Kennedy Winston, who left early the year before that, and all of that played a part.
LW: The fact that Kennedy went undrafted when he came out, did that weigh heavily on your mind?
RS: Even though his decision was a totally different situation than mine, I'd be lying if I said it didn't play a part in my thinking. I talked with him all during last season, and he gave me good advice. He let me know how hard it was for him playing overseas, and told me some of the things he didn't evaluate as he was coming out. He didn't try to persuade me one way or the other, but he gave examples.
LW: Speaking of another former teammate, how do you feel about the NCAA's decision this summer to not grant Chuck Davis another year of eligibility?
RS: We were all pretty hurt by it. Because a lot of people were saying we were a better team without him [when he got hurt last season] and that was a lie. We just matured as a team after he went out. For how much he meant to our program, for his great career to end on a bad note like that ... it would have been good to let him go out the right way.
LW: You beat Florida 82-77 the only time you faced them [on Feb. 26] last season. How did it feel to watch the Gators go on and win the whole thing?
RS: I was happy for them, that they got a chance to win one. I'm really good friends with a lot of those guys, like Taurean [Green] and Corey Brewer. Knowing how close we were with them, though, you do keep thinking about how close you were to making it, too. So it's good and bad.
LW: In your tournament loss to UCLA, you had a few chances to win it in the final minute. How much does that stick with you still?
RS: It's motivation more than anything now. I've had the chance to watch it over and over again, and get over the hurt of it, so it's just a motivational tool for me to know how close I was to getting to that next round.
LW: So how many times do you think you've watched it?
RS: Oh man. I can't count how many times I've watched that last play. I have a copy of it in Tuscaloosa [at school] and in Birmingham [at home]. Every time I go home, it seems like my brother [Andrew, who's younger], is watching that game. I guess he likes seeing it again, but I'm ready to burn that tape.
Police cars mark the scene of the shooting on the Duquesne campus.
Teams that go 3-24 are typically and, perhaps, mercifully ignored in the offseason, and yet this spring and summer, Duquesne found itself almost constantly in the news.
Most of it good, too: New coach Ron Everhart, who was hired at the end of March from Northeastern, which he had rebuilt into a winner in the America East, was cleaning house and building optimism around a program that had experienced just two winning seasons since 1981. Everhart said goodbye to five players (and a host of recruits) from the old regime and brought in 10 new ones, including 6-foot-11 Shawn James, who at Northeastern was the nation's leading shot blocker in 2005-06, and Kojo Mensah, who averaged 16.6 points her game last season at Siena.
In an Aug. 14 Q&A session with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Everhart gushed about how he relished the challenge of turning around a losing program in the Atlantic 10, after doing it at Northeastern and, before that, McNeese State. Near the end of the interview, he was asked, "What's your biggest concern as a head coach?"
Everhart's response was: "I'm nervous every day I walk into the office that I'll get a phone call about one of my players being in trouble or having academic problems. That's the call every coach dreads."
At 2:51 a.m. Sunday -- 28 days before fall practice was to begin in Pittsburgh -- Everhart received a call bearing news far worse than he ever could have anticipated.
Assistant coach Daryn Freedman was on the line. The unthinkable had occurred on campus after a Saturday night out. Five Dukes players had been shot by an unknown assailant -- who wasn't a Duquesne student -- after leaving the Black Student Union "College Bash '06." Everhart left for Mercy Hospital near campus.
The coach has been there for the majority of the time since, holding vigil over the Dukes' two most seriously injured players, 6-7 Sam Ashaolu, a transfer from Lake Region Community College in North Dakota, and 6-7 Stuard Baldonado, a transfer from Miami Dade College.
Ashaolu was struck in the head by a bullet -- witnesses estimate there were between six and 12 shots fired -- and remained in critical condition Monday, according to a team source. Baldonado was shot in the abdomen and listed in serious condition. Both players remain at Mercy, and the suspect is still at large.
Mensah and James, Everhart's two highest-profile transfers (both of whom must sit out the 2006-07 season), were also shot, as was Aaron Jackson, one of the Dukes' two returning players. Mensah, who bitterly departed from Siena this offseason -- after the team refused to release him from his scholarship -- and was covering his own tuition at Duquense, was hit in the shoulder and taken to UPMC Presbyterian Hospital for treatment. James was shot in the foot and has since been released. Jackson was grazed in the hand by a bullet.
The optimism that pervaded the Duquesne program in the summer months has given way to shock and solemnity. Everhart told the Post-Gazette Sunday that the events were "very emotional for me because I recruited these kids. It's a very hard thing to deal with. I am very tired, but very concerned. My only concern right now is for the kids and their families."
The daunting task of elevating a team that hasn't been over .500 since 1994 to respectability in the A-10 has been replaced with something far more difficult: picking up the pieces from a horrific shooting, and counseling a stunned group of players. It will be Everhart's toughest rebuilding project of all.
Early on the morning of Aug. 31, nine days after the fall semester had begun at the University of Tennessee, head basketball coach Bruce Pearl was escorting a freshman to his first college class, an 8 a.m. sociology lecture. The student had arrived on campus the previous day with his uncle. They had left Detroit by car soon after receiving news from the Educational Testing Service: His SAT score, which had become a popular prayer subject in his household, was finally validated. He would be cleared by the NCAA to do what makes him a commodity to Pearl and the university: play point guard.
The freshman's name is Ramar Smith, a 6-foot-2, 200-pound star from the Motor City's Martin Luther King High School who is rated the No. 20 overall prospect (by rivals.com) in the Class of 2006. For Pearl, who lost four-year starter C.J. Watson to graduation after he guided the team to a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament, getting Smith on campus was a matter of utmost importance.
"Ramar met me at the Thornton Center [where the basketball offices are] at 7:30 in the morning," Pearl said. "We had his schedule ready and waiting. I dropped him off at class, and the rest was history."
Here's the previous history on Smith: After originally committing to UConn in August of 2005, he had a falling out with the Huskies in October of that year when he opted to leave South Kent (Conn.) Prep and re-enroll in public school in Detroit. Smith settled on the Vols on April 13, but the coaching staff had to hold its breath until Aug. 30, when his eligibility was, at last, confirmed.
(Smith's passing SAT score of 910 had been under review because signatures did not match on some of his documents; he told the Tennesseanlast month that the problem was cleared after it was revealed his mother had filled out some of the financial aid papers.)
That gave Smith the green light to join a stellar class of incoming freshmen that already included two other top-40 prospects, forwards Duke Crews (No. 26) and Wayne Chism (No. 34) as well as top-150 guard Marques Johnson (No. 130). Pearl said Smith's arrival will create a "competitive situation" at the point; although Smith is technically a combo guard, and Vols have three other options to play the one ('05 backup Jordan Howell, Johnson, and fellow freshman Josh Tabb), the kid from Detroit is rumored to be the frontrunner to take the reins.
"I prefer to play point guard," said Smith, who gave SI.com his first interview since arriving in Knoxville. "And I feel like I'm ready to play in the SEC right away."
While Smith, a former high school cornerback whom Pearl calls a "physically mature guard who does not play like a freshman," may be the Vols' best option at the one, he is not guaranteed to be a standout. "He's never been a full-time point guard -- he's always been a combo," Pearl said. "So it's still to be determined if he's got the right mentality."
Will Smith become a valuable late addition? For a team that dismissed its 10.6-point-per-game center, Major Wingate, last week after he reportedly failed a third drug test, and will be forced to play dangerously small for the second consecutive year in Pearl's full-court system, Tennessee can't afford to have an inconsistent backcourt. It needs someone who can create open looks for returning two-guard Chris Lofton, who is one of the nation's top sharpshooters, and who won't play tentatively against a brutal non-conference slate that includes Texas, Ohio State, Memphis and Oklahoma State.
Pearl said there were times this summer where Smith "looked like the best player" in the entire AAU 19-and-under championships in Orlando, Fla. "Ramar has a different gear than most guards do," said the coach. When asked what that gear was, Smith said, "It means I can lock down a point guard that's giving us trouble, or make sure I score when we need a bucket."
Whether he can turn that on in the SEC, we will soon find out.
Kansas State could be welcoming five-star recruit Bill Walker in December.
Michael J. LeBrecht/SI
There is a juicy follow-up to yesterday's Kansas State post: O.J. Mayo's former sidekick, Bill Walker, a five-star small forward from Cincinnati whom Bob Huggins has coveted since his days in the Queen City, could end up in Manhattan as early as this season.
Walker, of Cincy's North College Hill High School, has always been included as a member of the Class of 2007 -- he's ranked No. 6 overall by rivals.com and No. 8 by scout.com -- but the Ohio High School Activities Association ruled this summer his eligibility was exhausted. While Mayo (who is eligible) transferred home to Huntington, W.V., Walker remains at NCH as a fifth-year senior who, after winning two consecutive Division III state titles, isn't allowed to play basketball.
Now, according to reports on rivals.com and scout.com, Walker is attempting to graduate ASAP, take his SAT, pass the NCAA clearinghouse, and enroll in college as soon as December.
That college? Presumably Kansas State.
Connect the dots: Huggins met with Walker's family for an in-home visit this past weekend. Walker is scheduled to visit K-State on Sept. 23. And when Walker needed a lawyer to appeal his eligibility case in August, he used Richard Katz ... who also happens to be Huggins' lawyer.
Walker was unavailable for comment Wednesday (his people said Bill had gone "offline"), but it looks like the Wildcats are a near lock. The real question mark is if Walker can pull off this triple crown of accelerated academia -- graduation, SAT, NCAA -- in three and a half months.
Kansas State got a big-name coach in Bob Huggins and all the benefits of his notoriety.
Bob Huggins arrived in Manhattan, Kan., in March, and shortly thereafter, big things began to follow. National media attention. A 7-foot-3 high school center from Florida, Jason Bennett. Controversy over wresting rivals.com's No. 1 recruit from the Class of 2007, Michael Beasley, away from Charlotte by hiring 49er assistant Dalonte Hill. But the biggest thing of all -- at least for Kansas State's athletic department -- came last week: a $12.3 million contract with Nike.
All-encompassing Nike deals like this one, which supplies all 16 varsity sports at K-State over six years, only exist at about a dozen schools nationwide. While the Wildcats' bounty is not the biggest, by far (North Carolina is in the midst of a $28.34 million, eight-year contract), the progress it represents is staggering. Prior to Huggins' arrival, the shoe revenue for the entire athletic department was a grand total of ... drumroll please ... zero dollars.
Wow. K-State went from zero to $12.3 million on the swooshometer before Huggins even coached his first practice. And according to Huggins' contract, the school only has to give him a $125,000 annual cut of that haul.
K-State officials suggested that the allure of new football coach Ron Prince also played a role in attracting the shoe-bucks, but I'm not buying it. Prince's predecessor, the revered Bill Snyder, strung together 11 straight bowl seasons from 1993-2003 but never raked in a dime from Nike for the athletic department. (Snyder did make his own Nike money, as most I-A coaches, including Huggins, also have personal shoe deals built into their contracts.) According to the Topeka Capital-Journal, K-State had a relationship with Nike dating back to 1995. From '95 to 2000, the shoe company provided free equipment for Snyder's teams. Nothing more. In 2000 it began supplying men's and women's hoops. Still no revenue. In 2003, Nike was so generous as to let the Wildcats' other 13 teams buy products at cost.
Now, every squad from basketball to rowing is on the free-gear gravy train. And the rest of the $2.05 million (on average) per year that doesn't go toward apparel can be pumped back into the school.
K-State knew it risked a hit to its rep by hiring Huggins, given his checkered past. It admitted as much by putting a clause in his contract that he could be fired for committing "an act that causes material injury to the university's reputation." From a business standpoint, however, the hire was no gamble. The Wildcats have already taken it straight to the bank.
Nike's Futures Market
K-State isn't gambling, but Nike is. The company invested a load of cash in Huggins' Wildcats with the expectation they will soon become nationally prominent.
Nike's enthusiasm, no doubt, was buoyed by the recruiting momentum Beasley would create. He'll be an ultra-high-profile, likely one-and-done player at the three or the four position in 2007-08; more importantly, he may pave the way for future five-star recruits to enlist with Huggins and turn K-State into a powerhouse. Recruiting Web sites list Beasley as a K-State commitment, and when I met him at Elite 24 Hoops Classic two weeks ago, he told me he was "positively" headed to Manhattan. "I'm signing," he said. "I'm doing whatever I've gotta do to get there."
If I'm Nike, I'm keeping a close eye on what happens the weekend of Sept. 23. That's when Beasley -- and a host of other big-time recruits -- will make official visits and get their first look at the K-State campus. Louisville will be in town to face the Wildcats in football, and Huggins and his staff will no doubt be pulling out all the stops.
One of the other high schoolers who plans to arrive is 6-foot-6 small forward Bill Walker of Cincinnati (ranked No. 8 overall by scout.com), of whom Beasley said, "If I can get him, we don't need anybody else." Also on hand will be 6-7 power forward DeJuan Blair (No. 44 overall) and 6-5 shooting guard D.J. Kennedy, both of Pittsburgh, and 6-4 point guard Marcus Thornton, a highly touted Texas juco star.
A successful visit could lay the foundation for a hoops revival. Beasley, who had originally committed to Charlotte, took a major leap of faith by sticking with Hill, his old AAU coach and father figure in Washington, D.C., when Huggins shrewdly hired Hill away to Manhattan. Beasley revealed to me he only talked to Huggins once -- "I called the 800 number at the office and talked to him briefly, like three to four minutes" -- before switching his commitment. "I trust coach Hill a lot," Beasley said. "A lot."
The rest of the gang visiting on the 23rd will have to be wooed by more traditional means than the tactical move that bagged Beasley. As one recruiting insider told me, "Nothing is a lock until they get on campus and decide if they actually like Manhattan. And that's a big if." For both Huggins and the swoosh, plenty is at stake.
You were out this weekend, perhaps celebrating the return of college football, while in such distant places as Burnaby, British Columbia, and Nassau, Bahamas, prominent hoops teams were playing actual games. Taking advantage of an NCAA rule that allows as many as 10 pre-trip practices and five games on foreign soil, schools such as Arizona, Florida (as if the Gators really needed extra work), Louisville, Wake Forest and Wichita State got early looks at their squads for '06-07.
None of the exhibitions was on TV. It's likely you didn't even know they happened. But there were things to learn from these sneak previews, such as the stuff in the next six posts ...
WHAT WE LEARNED FROM ... Wichita State's B.C. Tripleheader
A frozen moment (featuring Kyle Wilson and Jai Lewis) from the mid-majors' ultimate showdown, Wichita State vs. George Mason in the Elite Eight.
My apologies for falling into the high-major trap and not posting Wichita State with the other five. Here is the (belated) Shocker report, with thanks to the Wichita Eagle for its excellent coverage of the team's 3-0 run in British Columbia.
1. With imposing center (and Missouri Valley Conference P.O.Y.) Paul Miller graduated, the early favorite to become the Shockers' new leading scorer is forward Kyle Wilson. The 6-foot-8 senior averaged 16 points per game over the Shockers' three wins in Canada. He scored inside and out, hitting 4-of-4 from beyond the arc against Trinity Western on Sept. 2. Wilson finished the trip shooting 66.6 percent (6-of-9) on 3s. Both he and returning shooting guard (and SI cover boy during the dance) Sean Ogirri shot above 40 percent from long distance in '05-06, and figure to provide the bulk of the Shockers' scoring punch this season.
2. With one of the nation's most experienced -- and talented -- backcourts, WSU isn't going to sneak up on anyone this season. Point guard Matt Braeuer, Ogirri and guard/small forward P.J. Couisnard stack up against, with the exception of Kansas, most of the backcourts in the Big 12. But will they be able to overcome the issues the Shockers have on the inside? Miller's dominant presence in the post created scores of open shots on the perimeter, and his departure has also left a large rebounding void. Over the weekend, WSU was outrebounded 38-23 by Simon Fraser, a much smaller opponent, and coach Mark Turgeon experimented using the 6-4 Couisnard at the four -- a sign that the Shockers are at least considering a guard-heavy lineup, a la what Villanova thrived with last season.
WHAT WE LEARNED FROM ... Louisville's Canadian Tour
Derrick Caracter, shown here in the 2005 ABCD camp, is a potential post force for Louisville.
Michael J. LeBrecht/1deuce3
The Cardinals went 3-0 over the weekend in Ontario.
1. While Brandon Jenkins is recovering from a broken leg he suffered in a pickup game in mid-August -- and seriously considering redshirting -- a fierce battle is brewing for the Cardinals' point-guard spot. Freshman Edgar Sosa, a four-star New York recruit whom coach Rick Pitino calls a "smaller Francisco Garcia," is challenging sophomore Andre McGee, who is more of a scorer than a playmaker. The duo combined for just seven turnovers in 100 minutes played in Canada; Sosa had just three in 46 minutes and McGee had four in 54 while looking like an effective leader. "What's made Andre a much better basketball player -- better shooter and better shape -- is the arrival of Edgar," Pitino told the Louisville Courier-Journal. "They both know they're very close. They do different things, so it brings out the best in them."
2. Five-star freshman Derrick Caracter -- a massive forward in the Big Baby mold -- had to be held off the trip due to what Pitino deemed a "very minor" amateurism issue. Pitino has said Caracter can be "the most dominating high school player I've ever had" -- as long as he gets his weight down and learns to play defense. Caracter arrived at Louisville this summer around 318 and has since dropped to 295, but Pitino wants him down to 275 for the season. If Caracter is in shape, he's enough of a dominating force on offense that the 'Ville will frequently play Juan Tello Palacios at the three to make room for their gigantic rookie at the four.
WHAT WE LEARNED FROM ... Florida's Ontario Doubleheader
Walter Hodge was a bright spot for the Gators in their trip to Canada.
The Gators cruised to a pair of Labor Day weekend wins over Brock University of the Guelph All-Stars.
1. On a team loaded with junior stars, the most improved player this offseason may be a sophomore reserve. Guard Walter Hodge played 19.2 minutes per game as a freshman but averaged just 3.8 points and finished with more turnovers (49) than assists (47). When I visited Gainesville in August, Hodge's teammates were raving about his play in pickup games. Coach Billy Donovan indicated before the tour that Hodge was going to see more time at the point in '06-07. In the second game of the trip, an 84-55 win over the Guelph All-Stars, Hodge shot 6-of-8 from the field and dished out five assists against zero turnovers. Taurean Green's job is not in jeopardy. He'll just have a better backup.
2. The Gators' early games in November -- everything leading up to their showdown with Kansas in Las Vegas on the 25th -- are going to get ugly. Granted, the Guelph All-Stars are a step below even Samford or Chattanooga, but with its starters on the floor, Florida went on a 10-1 run to open the first half and an 18-3 explosion to open the second. Facing a such a talented, cohesive unit -- especially trying to combat the size of Jo Noah and (the bulked-up) Al Horford -- will be overwhelming for about 85 percent of the teams in D-I this year.
WHAT WE LEARNED FROM ... Wake Forest's Weekend At The Beach
Will forward Kevin Swinton (right) step up as a scorer for Wake in 2006-07?.
The Deacs won two blowouts over Bahamas-based pro teams.
1. Freshman Ish Smith, the kid who's expected to cure the Deacons' miserable point guard situation, is going to be part of the solution in '06-07. How much is still to be determined. Shamaine Dukes, one member of the ineffective PG-committee from '05-06, isn't going down without a fight. Dukes flirted with a triple-double -- eight points, 10 boards, eight assists -- in Wake's second Bahamanian blowout, a 106-63 victory over a local pro team named the Rockets. Smith, in the previous game, scored 12 points and dished out seven assists against just three turnovers. Coach Skip Prosser told the Winston Salem-Journal that while Smith "maybe sometimes erred on the side of being too aggressive," he was happy with how well the freshman pushed the ball. "I'd rather try to throttle him back a little bit than try to inject some adrenaline in his heart," Prosser said. And he'd rather have two competent point guards rather than ... well, zero.
2. Kevin Swinton came to Wake last year as a four-star recruit with the nickname "Franchise." After an early suspension for a keeping a paintball gun in his dorm room, he never became more than a bit player in the Deacs' rotation. In the Bahamas, however, he led the team in scoring with 11.5 points per game. On a team that lost its big three -- Justin Gray, Trent Strickland and Eric Williams -- to graduation, Swinton could step in and fill the void as a sophomore.
WHAT WE LEARNED FROM ... Arizona's British Columbian Expedition
Daniel Dillon is fighting for playing time in a crowded Arizona backcourt.
The Wildcats went 5-0 against a slate of Canadian teams, with the final game at 9 a.m. PT on Monday.
1. We didn’t learn jack about three of the Wildcats' most intriguing players. Jawann McClellan was hurt. True freshman sensation Chase Budinger was sick. And Serbian Ivan Radenovic, unfortunately, couldn't come along on the Canadian tour due to problems with his visa. Those absences, and the fact that the team played five games in five days -- I guess -- provided a decent excuse why 'Zona trailed the University of British Columbia late in the second half of their final contest, before rallying for an 87-76 win. Or you could take that as an alarming sign for a team that was on the NCAA tournament bubble in March. It'll chalk it up more to exhaustion.
2. Guard depth will not be a problem on Lute Olson's bench. Point-man Mustafa Shakur, who wisely pulled out of the NBA Draft in June, and McClellan are Nos. 1 and 2 in the lineup, no question. But the Canadian stretch was highlighted by the play of junior backup Daniel Dillon, the Aussie who averaged 12.5 points on 56.4 percent shooting and was called "the best guard on the trip in terms of consistency" by Olson. Freshman Nic Wise, who was the 'Cats' top 3-point shooter in their preseason practices, got off to an inauspicious start by showing up late for the team bus prior to game two and getting benched. On the last day of the trip, however, Wise was the Cats' shooting star, helping them avoid an upset at the hands of UBC by scoring 21 points (including four 3s) in 24 minutes. Perhaps it was the forced rest that kept him fresh.
WHAT WE LEARNED FROM ... Wisconsin's European Vacation
Guard Michael Flowers (bottom, right) and the Badgers visited Pisa in August.
The Badgers went 5-0 in a tour of Italy in late August (not Labor Day weekend).
1. Michael Flowers, the returning Badger guard who is not Chris Rock's doppelganger, could turn into a featured gunner in the swing offense ... as long as he maintains the shooting stroke he flashed in Italy. There, the junior guard shot 69.2 percent (9-of-13) from beyond the international arc. Thirteen shots and five games is a small sample size, but his accuracy should be regarded as a sign of improvement after shooting 39.1 percent (27-of-69) last year as a reserve.
2. Junior center Brian Butch is dangerous. Not like, criminally dangerous, but one would be wise to stay away from the Polar Bear's elbows. Badger associate SID Brian Lucasblogged the tour at uwbadgers.com, describing a rough-and-tumble game against MPV Virtus Siena on Aug. 22 that featured 89 free throws, two technicals and one ejection. In that contest, Butch's flying elbow apparently connected with an MPV player's mouth. The next day, against Pool Firenze, Butch accidentally poked former Pitt (and current Firenze) player Brian Shorter in the eye. Later in the game, Shorter retaliated by punching the Badgers' Greg Stiemsma during a scramble for a rebound. Good to hear you're alive and well in Italia, Brian. (For a pic of the Badgers at work -- in what appears to be a nine-row gym, click here.)
Brandon Jennings, 2008's top point guard prospect, has already generated plenty of buzz.
Michael J. LeBrecht/SI
HARLEM, N.Y. -- It's Friday night at Rucker Park, and a slim, lefty point guard -- one of the youngest players in the game -- is effortlessly navigating the open asphalt. Lobbing alleys. Dropping dimes. Coasting for layups. And the emcee, Bobbito Garcia -- perhaps you know him as the voice of the NBA Street 2 & 3 video game -- is letting everyone know about it.
"This kid is problems," Garcia exclaims into the mic, "and he ain't even started drinking milkshakes yet!"
Translation: The kid is an assist-machine despite being 16 years old, 6-foot tall and rail-thin. He later sends a blind, backwards bounce pass through his legs on the break that results in a dunk, and will finish this game -- not a pickup affair, but the Elite 24 Hoops Classic, a national prep all-star showcase -- with 12 points and 15 assists while pros Jason Kidd and Steve Nash are watching. Garcia has given the kid the nickname "Dooby-doo" and proclaimed, "You're my favorite out here! Any chance you can move to New York next year?"
Dooby-doo, who is also the favorite point guard of more than a few college recruiters, is known on the dotted line as Brandon Jennings. The No. 1-ranked point guard in the Class of 2008 by scout.com, he is headed to Mouth of Wilson, Va. -- not NYC -- this season as the latest five-star floor general to guide powerhouse Oak Hill Academy.
Previously this decade, Oak Hill has been led by Marcus Williams (UConn) and Rajon Rondo (Kentucky), both first-round NBA Draft picks in June, and Tywon Lawson, who will be running the show at North Carolina as a freshman this winter. There is no drop-off expected with Jennings, who hails from Los Angeles and has made his name playing with the loaded Southern California All-Stars on the summer AAU circuit.
I talked with Jennings in the VIP area (translation: a tent over a handball court behind Rucker) after his team lost 141-139 in a defense-less contest. With a gray hoodie nearly enveloping his whole body on a cold night, Jennings -- who said his four front-runners are UConn, USC, Texas and Arizona -- gave an inkling of just how heated the battle for his recruitment may be. When asked why he was leaving Compton's Dominguez High for Oak Hill for his final two seasons, his primary reason was not the quality of hoops. "It's away from everything," he said of Oak Hill's remote campus. "There, I won't have any distractions. There are a lot of coaches calling me and texting me, and people trying to get in my ear, telling me I should do this and do that. I have to get away from that and just focus on school and basketball."
The hype surrounding Jennings is understandable. He flourishes in the fast-breaking style of ball that's prevalent in All-Star games and summer tournaments. But, at 16, The kid they called "Young Money," before Garcia audibled to Dooby-doo, still needs to hone his halfcourt skills and bulk up his frame.
Fellow five-star recruit Kyle Singler -- who, along with Kevin Love, Michael Beasley and Jerryd Bayless, were the Elite 24's Class of 2007 headliners -- said that Jennings simply "loves to create shooting opportunities" for other players. "He's flashy," Singler said of Jennings, "but he keeps control of the ball and doesn't really make mistakes with it."
Hometown USC is making a serious run at Jennings. His S.C. All-Stars teammate Daniel Hackett (pending eligibility issues) could be the Trojans' starting point guard this season, and top Class of '07 prospect O.J. Mayo is likely on the way. "Mayo is only probably going to be there for seven months; if he builds the program up and then leaves, I could come in and do my thing," Jennings said.
I would, however, think UConn has a sizable edge. Jennings' favorite point guard is Kenny Anderson, but his mentor is a much younger lefty: fellow L.A. product Marcus Williams, who piloted the Huskies for the past two seasons. The two met when Jennings was 10 or 11, and, he said, "We talk almost every day."
Jennings came to the NYC area earlier this summer to hang out with Williams, accompany him to the NBA's rookie photo shoot, and work out at the Nets' practice facility. He says that Williams, who was drafted at No. 22 by New Jersey after taking UConn to the Elite Eight, doesn't push him hard toward Storrs. He merely tells Jennings "to make the right decision, and tells me which schools are good and which schools aren't." I'd assume the school that controversially forgave Williams for his laptop-theft incident, gave him a second chance, and got him to the NBA rates well in those discussions.
Jennings said he and Williams have never played together, only against each other in pickup games. "I'd get mad, because [Williams] always used to beat me," said Jennings. "But you know, now, I think I can probably take him."
Strong words for a high school junior. On the last play of the game at Rucker, however, with the loss an inevitability, an unguarded Jennings drove to the rim, leapt and ripped off a picture-perfect windmill jam before the buzzer sounded. Jennings' mentor, now a pro, was never capable of throwing down a parting shot like that.