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It doesn't get easier as you climb the ladder, even if you work for one of the few programs that annually expects to make the Final Four. "Just a smaller pool of kids," says Dooley. And the NCAA regulations, though well-intentioned, are a million hoops to jump through—or avoid jumping through—along the way. "I'm the most dangerous guy on campus," Oregon assistant Brian Fish likes to say. "I can bring down the whole program." Have a chat with a player's parent after a game? Violation. Text condolences to a kid who lost a game, or even one of his close relatives? Violation. Tell a reporter that the player you're recruiting from his town could become one of the alltime greats? They'll come down hard on that.
But if a recruiter works his relationships and has a little bit of luck, he might land talent a half-notch better than his school deserves. If that team meshes and ends up in the Final Four, he might get an offer to run a program when the coaching carousel spins again. Because for most of these assistants, that's what this is about. "Everybody wants the chance to see if they can call timeout," says Scott Duncan, who left UCLA after last season to become an assistant at Wyoming. "All those suggestions you made, all those years? You want to see what you'd really do when it's your butt on the line."
Duncan is sitting inside a supermarket in rainy Hillsboro, Ore., on the morning of Dec. 28. If he looks weary, perhaps it's because he watched games all day, then studied tape of UCLA's next opponent. "It's a grind," he acknowledges. "Nothing's going to happen today. Nothing's going to happen a month from today." Perhaps, too, it's that he's been doing this for a while, for eight schools before arriving in L.A. in 2007, and he seems no closer to being the one to call that timeout.
Desperately needing a point guard, UCLA went after five during the early-signing period in November 2010 and lost them all. Duncan has an explanation for each, but 0 for 5 shouldn't happen. It means you've invested time and budget that should've gone somewhere else. "You've worked just as hard as the school that gets him, but you have nothing to show," says Oregon's Fish.
Duncan is in Hillsboro trolling for more point guards. Beyond that, he's looking to attract breakout players of any size. For mid-majors and some of the lesser teams in the big conferences, recruiting is mostly evaluation. Can the kid help us? At UCLA, you know who can help. The challenge is, can you get them?
Shabazz Muhammad of Las Vegas's Bishop Gorman would be a perfect fit. At 6'6" he is one of the top-rated players in the class of 2012. He's heady, dazzlingly athletic, preternaturally mature. North Carolina, Duke, Arizona, Kentucky and UNLV have all been after him. Beyond Muhammad, Duncan will see a selection of top players from his courtside seat, one after another, through the day and into the night. Kevin Durant, the NBA's scoring leader in 2009--10, was at this tournament when he was in high school. So were Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Love.
This morning Duncan will be watching Jordan Tebbutt, a 6'5" junior swingman from Tualatin, Ore. Tebbutt plays for tiny Horizon Christian, a school of 130, where he's practically the whole team. Yesterday afternoon he scored 41 points but Horizon lost. That put them in the losers' bracket, which means an early game. Tip-off is at 9 a.m.
Tebbutt is being recruited by every team in the Pac-10, plus Kentucky, North Carolina, Kansas and Texas. Duncan believes UCLA has the inside track. As he talks about the prospect of landing this muscular baseline player with a shooter's range and touch, his gloom begins to lift. Yeah, he missed out on those point guards, but this is another cycle, a fresh chance. He swallows some coffee and stands up to go.
While Duncan was sipping coffee, Chillious was courtside, in the row of chairs provided for coaches and VIPs. He was there before anyone else, working the iPhone, waiting for warmups. "I was the first person Tebbutt saw this morning," he says. "Other coaches are here for the game, but they weren't here at 8:15. That stuff adds up."
Chillious thinks about recruiting every day. He loves collecting information, even when he's not involved. Sitting with other coaches, he listens more than he talks. "With some guys in this business, all you have to do is sit there," he says. "They want you to know that they're in the know. That's how you learn things." Yesterday afternoon he and Duncan chatted in the lobby outside the gym. Washington and UCLA are rivals, but assistants change jobs so often that nearly all of them stay on cordial terms. These two have ... not a friendship, exactly, but an amiable professional relationship.