REASON NO. 2: Smaller colleges can reap fall returns on partial and nonqualifiers. Hassell's tale resembles that of his teammate at Clarksville ( Tenn.) High, Shawn Marion, now a Phoenix Suns forward. Like Marion, Hassell saw major programs ( Colorado, Georgetown, Tennessee) back off in their recruiting after he failed to reach the NCAA's minimum academic standards. Yet while Marion spent two years at a junior college before signing with UNLV, Hassell attended hometown Austin Peay, where his family could afford the tuition while he sat out a year under NCAA rules. As a sophomore he impressed Portland Trail Blazers scout Tates Locke so much that Locke recommended him as a counselor for the Nike camp. "The camp was a real eye-opener," says Peay coach Dave Loos. "That's where Bubba Wells [a Peay alum and 1997 NBA second-rounder] made his name too."
If Hassell graduates as scheduled next May, chances are he'll have the luxury of deciding whether to return for another season (partial and nonqualifiers can earn back their fourth year) or to enter the draft. Fortunately, even after his sandbagging days are done, he'll still be able to deliver his favorite line. "When I get the best of somebody, I'll say, 'You just let somebody from little ol' Austin Peay school you,' " Hassell cracks. "That's my favorite part."
REASON NO. 3: Reclamation projects make the Man. Just as coaches gain renown for turning unheralded programs into winners, so too can players. After starring at Dallas's Kimball High, Jeryl Sasser had suitors from Arizona, Texas Tech and USC, but the 6'6" guard crossed all those schools off his list after SMU coach Mike Dement offered him something more. "He wanted two things, to develop his dream of playing in the NBA and to play for a winner," says Dement. "His concern was that we hadn't won. I told him he could help us do that, and it would enhance his reputation as a player."
In turn, Dement allowed Sasser to play point guard ("Everywhere else he kept hearing wing, wing, wing," says Dement), which has made him attractive to scouts. "He can play a couple of positions, if not three of them, he's long, and he can defend," says Milwaukee Bucks director of scouting Dave Babcock "When he starts finding his shot [he was a percussive 27.8% from three-point range last season], look out." Even with his weakness from the outside, Sasser's 17.3 points and 8.3 rebounds a game led the Mustangs to 21 wins last season, their most in 13 years, confirming Dement's vision and spawning expectations that they'll reach the NCAAs this season for the first time since 1993.
REASON NO. 4: A pro-style offense is a pro-style offense, no matter where the school is. When coach Larry Shyatt left Wyoming for Clemson after the 1997-98 season, most observers expected Ugo Udezue, a 6'8" center from Nigeria, to follow him. Shyatt had recruited Udezue (pronounced oo-DEZ-oo-way) after spying him in Greece at the 1996 junior world championships, and now Udezue had a chance to play in the ACC. Then, new Wyoming coach Steve McCiain rode into town and everything changed. "I told Ugo he'd get 20 shots a game after he'd been getting four," McCiain says. "I think he liked that."
Udezue stayed, and under McClain's run-and-gun offense his scoring skyrocketed, from 3.5 to 20.5 points a game in 1998-99. "With Coach Shyatt you played more if you took more charges and had more rebounds," says Udezue, a junior. "He didn't care about scoring. Coach McCiain worked on my offensive game." According to Udezue, the cartilage damage in his left knee that sidelined him for most of last season (and allowed him an extra year of eligibility) has healed, which means scouts will again be able to admire his turnaround jumper and his zest for running the floor.
REASON NO. 5: Smaller schools have their own Obi-wan Kenobes. Pepperdine's Brandon Armstrong, a 6'4" junior guard, shares many facets with his fellow hidden gems. Like Hassell, he wasn't a full academic qualifier, which drove off such big-name schools as Arizona State, Villanova and Washington. Like Slay, Armstrong didn't range far from his hometown (in his case, Vallejo, Calif.) to join the Waves. Like Udezue, Armstrong uses his enormous athletic gifts in a system that maximizes them, in this case a full-court defense that capitalizes on his speed. ("We call ourselves Pressure-Dine," Armstrong says.) Finally, like Sasser, Armstrong was welcomed "as an instant impact player you could build an offense around," says Waves coach Jan van Breda Kolff.
But in Van Breda Kolff, Armstrong has something more, a mentor who recently coached at a major program ( Vanderbilt), once played in the pros and knows how to get to the next level. "I tell Brandon that you have to develop a basketball IQ," Van Breda Kolff says. "We've had him study Reggie Miller and how he sets his man up to get open for his shot. Those nuances make a difference: the footwork, the pivoting, reading a screen, how you catch and sweep the ball through on a shot."
A quick study, Armstrong averaged 14.4 points last year, but his defining moment came when he lit up two defensive titans, Indiana (22 points) and Oklahoma State (19), in the NCAAs. In the process he piqued scouts' interest with his ability to score both as a spot shooter and off the dribble. "He's so athletic," the Bucks' Babcock says of Armstrong. "The West Coast Conference isn't known as an athletic conference, but he stands out."
Odd, isn't it? In Malibu, amid the greatest concentration of television stars on the planet, Pepperdine will have almost no national TV presence this season (only one game, in fact: its opener at Indiana). Armstrong tells a story about the time last season when his teammates bumped into Pamela Anderson at a Malibu restaurant. "We stopped in our tracks," he says. "She was nice enough to let us take a picture with her as a team."