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We've got to have DeSean White," Steve DeMeo said into the phone. DeMeo, a Providence College assistant basketball coach, was irredeemably in love. In games and practices during the 2002-03 season, he had relentlessly tracked White, a versatile 6'7" forward from Cardinal Dougherty High in Philadelphia. Now, in July 2003, after the senior-to-be had outplayed future first-round pick Al Jefferson at the Nike All-American Camp in Indianapolis, DeMeo at last was publicly declaring his affection for White to Dave Distel, an assistant coach at Cardinal Dougherty, who was managing the college recruitment of his school's players.
DeMeo had fallen for White at a time when few other schools were so smitten. Penn State had shown some interest, as had some mid-major Division I schools, but after an inconsistent junior season White had been considered, at best, a top 200 player. DeMeo knew that White's performance at Nike would boost the kid's stock. Soon the glamour schools would come calling--and DeMeo might be nudged aside by other, perhaps more attractive suitors. Now, he decided, was the moment to apply the full-court press.
"We've got to convince this kid to commit now," DeMeo told Distel. "He's going to blow up into a top 50 player and then we won't get him."
On Aug. 10, 2003, White made an unofficial visit to the Providence campus and met with head coach Tim Welsh. The next day, after returning to Philadelphia and talking with his mom, Jackie, White telephoned Welsh and orally committed to play for the Friars. "I don't need to visit anywhere else," he told Distel before calling Welsh with the good news. "Providence wanted me and talked to me before anyone else."
Sitting in his office recently, DeMeo, who had followed Welsh from Iona to Providence in 1998, fondly recalled White's recruitment as he leafed through rankings of recruits from the high school class of 2004. "Of all the kids we signed in this class, and we signed a lot, DeSean's recruitment probably was the most conventional," DeMeo said. "It wasn't easy, but it was the most ... normal."
Little else went smoothly as the Providence coaches assembled the crop of freshmen who would run onto the court at Mullaney Gym when the preseason No. 21 Friars opened practice on Oct. 16 with Late Night Madness festivities. In April 2003 Welsh agreed to give SI an inside look as his staff pursued its quarry from the class of '04. (Following NCAA rules, the coaches did not discuss a player with SI until he had signed a letter of intent with Providence or another school.)
In the end, as is true every year, Providence won some and lost some. The Friars would sign seven players to letters of intent, the school's largest such group in five years. The road to the Final Seven, however, was marked by detours and pocked with potholes. Moreover, just when the journey seemed over, two surprise departures threatened to gut the roster--whereupon Welsh and his staff were rescued by divine providence in the form of a change in a key NCAA rule. Finally, even before fall practice began, the coaches had to deal with academic and personal issues that would cost them two of their hard-won prizes.
DeMeo, a recruiter at the junior college and Division I level since 1988, long ago stopped calling recruiting an art or a science. It is a maddening sprint, he says, and coaches at schools like Providence--who must compete against traditional powers, balmy weather and gorgeous campuses--always start a few strides behind.
Here's how the Friars caught up.
Welsh and his lead assistants, DeMeo and Phil Seymore, are known as ambitious and crafty recruiters, and the stakes were high in the spring of 2003, when they began homing in on the class of 2004. The Friars were coming off a 2002-03 season in which they had gone 18-14, finished 8-8 in the Big East and reached the second round of the NIT, in which they lost to Georgetown 67-58. With All-America forward Ryan Gomes, a preseason candidate for the Wooden Award (given to the national player of the year), set to return for his junior season, and a class of incoming recruits tabbed among the top 20 in the nation, Providence was clearly a team on the rise.