The Big East was the big winner in attracting and retaining top talent
When Darius rice, a 6'10" McDonald's All-America from Jackson, Miss., announced on May 2 that he'd signed to play at Miami, recruiting aficionados reacted with surprise. After all, Rice was said to have narrowed his choice to Arkansas, Kentucky, Memphis or Mississippi State. He had even called an April press conference, reportedly to say mat he was going to Kentucky, before canceling it. While some observers were puzzled as to why Rice would want to play for the Hurricanes, who draw the sparsest crowds in the Big East—they averaged 3,995 fans per home game last season—Rice, who ranks first academically in his class at Lanier High, believes he made the smart choice. "[Hurricanes coach] Leonard Hamilton has a good track record," says Rice, the nephew of San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Jerry Rice. " Miami has been to the NCAA tournament the last three years, and I like the way he develops players. That they lost three starters doesn't hurt, either."
Indeed, as any coach will tell you, roster turnover is a big part of the game, especially in an era when the nation's top recruits rarely plan on staying in college more than a year or two—if they decide to go at all. The most successful programs are the ones that can keep the talent pipeline flowing, and no conference is navigating the changing tides more adeptly than the Big East (chart, page 78). Even though it is losing 12 of the 15 players named to its all-league teams, the Big East will likely be the strongest conference in the U.S. next season. Consider:
? Seton Hall and Connecticut have the two top-ranked recruiting classes in the nation, and St. John's also is bringing in a highly rated group. (The Red Storm might have had the strongest class of all had signee Darius Miles, a 6'9" forward from East St. Louis, Ill., not entered the NBA draft.) Many of the incoming freshmen won't stay long, but player defections have long ceased to be an acceptable excuse for a program's taking a downturn. "Everybody's losing guys. You can't cry over it," says St. John's coach Mike Jarvis, who also lost sophomore point guard Erick Barkley to the pros and who himself is a candidate for a job in the NBA with the Wizards.
?Several Big East teams that failed to make the NCAA tournament last season appear poised to step up next year. NIT runner-up Notre Dame keeps its top six scorers—including league MVP Troy Murphy—and adds 6'8" junior Ryan Humphrey, a burly transfer from Oklahoma Georgetown has an emerging star in 6'11" center Lee Scruggs, who will be a senior, and the Hoyas will gain the services of talented 6'11" center Wesley Wilson, who sat out his freshman year for academic reasons.
Though the rush to the NBA by today's teen stars has damaged the college game, it actually works in the Big East's favor because so many of the conference's schools are located in or near major cities and play in NBA arenas. "I like that I'm going to get to play in a lot of NBA cities." Rice says. "You get more exposure."
Michigan State Man-child
Filling Up the Trophy Case
At 6'9", 260 pounds, Marion ( Ind.) High center Zach Randolph is accustomed to towering over his competition. But Randolph has never loomed larger than he did this spring, when he put together a remarkable string of Most Valuable Player performances. On March 25, Randolph, a Michigan State signee, had 28 points and 11 rebounds to lead Marion to a 62-56 win over Bloomington North in the Indiana Class 4A state championship game. Four days later he went for 23 points and 15 rebounds during the McDonald's All-American Game in Boston. On April 2, Randolph's game-high 24 points and eight rebounds propelled the USA Junior National Select Team to a 98-97 exhibition victory over an international squad in Indianapolis. Finally, on April 30, Randolph carted away yet another MVP trophy at the Kentucky Derby Festival Basketball Classic in Louisville, where he finished with 39 points, 24 rebounds and four assists.
"In my estimation Zach has emerged as the best prospect in the class," says recruiting analyst Bob Gibbons. "For someone that size, he's as quick and agile as any player I've seen."
Yet, Randolph wasn't even selected as the best player in his state. Indiana's coveted Mr. Basketball award went to Bloomington North 6'10" forward Jared Jeffries, who received nearly three times as many votes from a panel of coaches and media members, even though he scored only 10 points against Randolph and Marion in the state tide game and his team lost Jeffries, an All-America who signed last fall with Indiana, appears to have benefited from Randolph's checkered past, which includes three juvenile convictions and two 15-day stays in a juvenile detention center.