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NCAA MEN'S BASKETBALL TOURNAMENT

A Wolf at the NBA's Door

Overshadowed while at Upland High, Nevada's Snyder now has pro prospects

March 20, 2004|Robyn Norwood | Times Staff Writer

SEATTLE — There are four letters in NCAA, but there's a three-letter acronym that lurks in the background throughout the NCAA tournament.

It's NBA.

Nevada's Kirk Snyder is a junior from Upland High who is not nearly as well known as some of his Southern California high school classmates -- Cedric Bozeman, for one.

But he appears to have an NBA game, even if he does not yet have the chain.

Snyder touched the silver Michael Jordan "flying man" icon that hung against his chest Friday.

"I don't know if it's real," he said with a conspiratorial grin. "My sisters gave it to me."

Vaneisha and Vanaysha are 12-year-old twins.

"I know this is real," he said, fingering the modest dog-tag chain. "Because I bought it myself."

Whether Snyder waits another year or turns pro after a junior season that could end as soon as today, when the Wolf Pack plays a second-round game against Gonzaga, the Western Athletic Conference player of the year appears to have the makings of a pro.

"He looks like an NBA-caliber player to me," Gonzaga Coach Mark Few said. "He has the skills and athleticism. Anytime you can take a deep 'three,' and take a guy off the dribble as well as finish -- he kind of looks like a prototypical NBA wing to me."

Nevada Coach Trent Johnson tries to put the brakes on the talk.

It surely will burgeon after plays like Snyder's steal and soaring tomahawk-dunk attempt in the first-round upset of Michigan State. (He was fouled and missed.)

"It's like I tell Kirk," Johnson said. "I'm not an NBA coach, and some of these guys who want to represent you as agents, they're not the guys who make decisions about who plays in the NBA.

"I'm going to do everything I can in my power to find out from a general manager or from a coach at that level -- who makes those decisions -- to find out where you're at. To me, that's common sense.

"I'm not a guy that's big on rumors."

Snyder, now a muscular 6-foot-6 guard, played for an Upland High team that lost to Santa Ana Mater Dei in the semifinals of the Southern California regional in the Division I state tournament in 2001. Bozeman, now at UCLA, had 19 points and seven assists for Mater Dei in that game. Jamal Sampson, who played one year at Cal and probably turned pro too early, had 15 points and 14 rebounds for Mater Dei.

Snyder scored 23, but schools such as USC and UCLA already had scratched him off their lists: He didn't have the academic background to qualify to play as a freshman.

"Obviously, when people looked at my transcripts and I took the test a couple of times, my future didn't look too bright," Snyder said. "This university took a chance on me and everything has panned out.

"USC, UCLA, all those schools were sending me mail and I got tons of calls. After the camps, my name was right there with Tyson Chandler, Josh Childress. It was like guys just really didn't want to take that chance because of grades."

Nevada took Snyder, who enrolled part-time and worked on his test-taking skills. "I learned if I had doubts to leave it blank," said Snyder, who didn't realize wrong guesses were penalized.

He improved his score, became eligible in December of his freshman year and finished with an average of almost 14 points. He improved it to 16 last season, and averaged 18.7 points with 5.7 rebounds and 3.4 assists this season.

Johnson won't take credit for "discovering" Snyder, only for getting him into the game.

"His skill level, his talent, it didn't take a rocket scientist to see he had a chance to become a pretty good player," the coach said.

Fast-forward a few years. Who would have imagined Bozeman's season would be over, while Snyder and Nevada play on in the school's first NCAA appearance since 1985?

"Kirk's a much better player than Cedric Bozeman," Johnson said. "Bozeman's a point guard. Kirk can play [any position but center].

Snyder will be trying to play hero today.

He has had moments on the stage before, scoring 22 in a 93-79 loss at Connecticut in November, and 29 in an upset of Kansas in December in Reno.

"Playing in an atmosphere like UConn at the beginning of the year was incredible," Snyder said. "Even if you lose ... you still take a lot away from the game, in terms of what plays you need to make and how you need to zone everybody else out."

Win today, and Nevada is in the Sweet 16.

Lose, and Snyder's deliberations begin.

He wants to make sure he doesn't make the mistake he has seen others make by leaving too soon.

"In the back of my mind, I'm thinking about that," he said. "Obviously, I want to put myself in a situation where that doesn't happen to me.

"It isn't basketball players that make the decisions. It's the GMs and the coaches. If do decide -- when I decide -- to try to get a job, hopefully somebody out there will be willing to take me."

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