If there is a story line emerging from the college decisions made in recent weeks by some of Southern California's most talented prep basketball players, it is this: UCLA and USC have re-established a recruiting presence in their back yard.
The Bruins have attracted what may be the top recruiting class in the country so far, having received unwritten commitments from 6-foot-5 swingman Toby Bailey of Loyola High, 6-9 forward J.R. Henderson of Bakersfield East and 6-5 forward Kris Johnson of Crenshaw. The three have indicated they will sign letters of intent during the Nov. 10-17 signing period.
In reality, UCLA's breakthrough came in the summer of 1990, when prep All-Americas Ed O'Bannon and Shon Tarver decided to enroll after their original choice, Nevada Las Vegas, was placed on probation by the NCAA.
Breakthrough No. 2 came this past spring, when Charles O'Bannon turned down Kentucky to join his brother at UCLA. The younger O'Bannon then helped persuade Henderson to join him in Westwood.
USC recruited what appears to be one of the best freshman classes in the country, led by 6-11 center Avondre Jones, guard Stais Boseman of Inglewood Morningside and forward Jaha Wilson of San Francisco Riordan. Most significantly, the players chose USC over Arizona, the dominant team in the Pacific 10 Conference in recent seasons.
Last week, guard Cameron Murray of Glendora High committed to USC, spurning offers from high-profile programs such as Georgia Tech, Syracuse and Tennessee.
USC's turnaround began in the fall of 1989 when Coach George Raveling was able to sign Inglewood High's Harold Miner, who picked the Trojans over UCLA, Kansas and Notre Dame. Miner's flashy style helped revitalize USC's program, much like Mark Aguirre did for DePaul in the late 1970s.
"No question that Harold was the catalyst," Raveling said. "Not only did Harold bring his talents to USC, he brought an air of legitimacy to the program. He was a highly recruited local kid who proved he could stay home and achieve his career goals right here."
Until UCLA and USC were able to reverse the trend, East and Midwest schools were regularly signing impact players from Southern California, including John Williams (Crenshaw to Louisiana State); Stephen Thompson (Crenshaw to Syracuse); Sean Higgins (Fairfax to Michigan); David Whitmore (Playa del Rey St. Bernard to Georgia Tech); Scott Williams (Hacienda Heights Wilson to North Carolina); LeRon Ellis (Santa Ana Mater Dei to Kentucky before transferring to Syracuse); Chris Mills (Fairfax to Kentucky before transferring to Arizona); Cornelius Holden (Crenshaw to Louisville) and Brian Williams (Santa Monica St. Monica to Maryland before transferring to Arizona).
But the defections have clearly slowed in recent seasons. Three years ago, 6-11 center Cherokee Parks of Huntington Beach Marina broke UCLA's heart by signing with Duke. He was joined by 6-10 center Erik Meek of Escondido. Last fall, All-America point guard Jacque Vaughn of Pasadena Muir signed with Kansas.
Although the Bruins and Trojans do not have a stranglehold on Southern California's elite prep players, the message to stay close to home is once again being heard.
The most coveted big man on the West Coast, 6-foot-11 Omm'A Givens of Aberdeen, Wash., will visit Arizona this weekend. Givens also plans to visit UCLA, Seton Hall and Nevada Las Vegas. UCLA assistant Lorenzo Romar is scheduled to meet with Givens today in Aberdeen. Givens hasn't decided whether to take a fifth trip, although he had an in-home visit with Kansas on Tuesday, and Duke has shown interest. He is no longer considering Kentucky or Michigan. Givens' friend, 6-6 point guard Jelani Gardner of Bellflower St. John Bosco, is also visiting Arizona this weekend. Asked if he and Gardner are determined to attend college together, Givens said: "I'd love to play with Jelani. If it works out, it would be great. But it's too big of a decision to let those feelings get in the way." Gardner visited Arizona State last weekend, along with 6-10 center Mike Carson of Chino Don Lugo and 6-9 forward Maceo Baston of Dallas. The Sun Devils appear to be at the top of Carson's list, with Oregon, Utah and Penn State also mentioned. Baston's list includes Michigan, Nevada Las Vegas and Oklahoma State.
Mark Madsen, a 6-8, 235-pound forward from Danville, Calif., visited Stanford last weekend. Madsen, who is student body president at San Ramon Valley High, is trying to decide between the Cardinal and UCLA, which he visited Sept. 17-18. His decision may come this week.