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A Big-time Gamble
GEORGE DOHRMANN
November 26, 2007
As blue-chip recruits across the country signed with schools last week, other promising players like point guard Oscar Bellfield waited to make their commitments—determined to prove how good they really are
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November 26, 2007

A Big-time Gamble

As blue-chip recruits across the country signed with schools last week, other promising players like point guard Oscar Bellfield waited to make their commitments—determined to prove how good they really are

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DARREN MATSUBARA, Bellfield's AAU coach who is universally known as "Mats," has slicked-back Pat Riley hair and is fond of black sweatsuits. He is perpetually pulling a tin of Altoids out of his pockets. It is not a question of how many mints he goes through in a day but how many tins.

In September, Bellfield called Matsubara in a panic. Matsubara then called coaches at a few of the schools that had recruited Bellfield. "They didn't know he was injured," Matsubara says. "I don't know how they didn't see it, but they didn't."

Matsubara, 41, is known for not letting his players commit early. In a way, he is the Scott Boras of recruiting, always advising his players to let the market do its work. "There are 325 Division I basketball teams," Matsubara says. "That's a lot of options for a kid with talent." He knows that in the time between November of a player's senior year and the following summer, much can change. College players leave early for the NBA, transfer to another school, get kicked out, become academically ineligible or suffer a serious injury.

In discussions with Bellfield and his mother, Matsubara encouraged them to not accept offers from San Diego State, Santa Clara or USF, all of whom moved in after the bigger schools lost interest, or from Washington State. To support this course of action, Matsubara detailed two cases in which players had benefited from waiting.

?Last fall, going into his senior year, 6'5" shooting guard Cory Higgins from Danville, Calif., had offers from only small programs on the West Coast. "There was some thinking that Cory wasn't an elite athlete, so we put him on my team for two [AAU] tournaments in the spring and gave him a platform to show his athleticism," Matsubara says. "We were throwing him lobs, all of that." After the second tournament, Higgins signed with Colorado.

?Also last year, Darshawn McClellan, a 6'7" forward from Fresno, Calif., landed a scholarship from Vanderbilt after having offers from only Pacific, Cal-Poly and Fresno State in November. Vanderbilt was initially noncommittal, but that changed when Matsubara added McClellan to his roster for a tournament last spring. It was a not-so-subtle way of forcing the school into a decision. "College coaches know that a senior playing in the spring is in shape and going up against kids younger than him," Matsubara says. "That kid is going to look good, and history has shown you can use that as leverage. It may be the only time in recruiting that the kid has the upper hand."

One of Matsubara's favorite ploys could prove useful for Bellfield. He often hears that a player is thinking about transferring before the player's college coach knows it. Matsubara calls the coach and suggests to him a player like Bellfield. The coach might say, "I don't have a spot for him," but a few weeks later when his player transfers, he suddenly does. "And I am right there with a replacement," he says.

Bellfield likely needs a player to transfer out or to make an early defection to the NBA if he is to land at one of the two schools he most wants to attend—Oregon and USC. Trojans coaches have told him as much, though he wonders if they are saying the same to other recruits. In the end he knows he can trust only his talent and Matsubara. "I believe I am a Pac-10 player," he says. Later, he adds, "And Mats can sell anything."

One consolation for Bellfield as he sweats out his senior season is that at least one top player and his mother learned from his travails. Justin Hawkins, a guard who played with Bellfield at Taft, orally committed to UNLV in August, a month before his junior year. At the time, several larger programs, including Tennessee, had begun to show interest, and he was tempted to wait and see which others called.

"We were influenced by what Oscar went through," says Carmen Hawkins, Justin's mother. "If something happens and we need to look around at other schools, we still can. But we know for sure that Justin has a school lined up that he likes."

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