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Diane Pucin ON COLLEGE BASKETBALL

UCLA, Florida Get Top Mileage Out of Recruits

April 03, 2006|Diane Pucin

INDIANAPOLIS — North Carolina's Tyler Hansbrough is national freshman of the year and the Tar Heels are already a popular pick to be ranked No. 1 at the start of next season because of their spectacular recruiting class that includes three McDonald's All-Americans.

If North Carolina isn't going to be No. 1, Ohio State probably will be. Coach Thad Matta has an A-level recruiting class headlined by high school player of the year Greg Oden and two other McDonald's All-Americans.

But playing in tonight's national championship game are UCLA and Florida, teams conspicuously missing loads of hyped high school players. There may be a lesson here. "Hype isn't everything," UCLA assistant Kerry Keating said Sunday.

"Not many people at this level were recruiting Darren Collison," Keating said of his freshman point guard. "I think Luc Richard Mbah a Moute was ranked the 15th best prospect. In Florida."

While Louisiana State's freshman forward, Tyrus Thomas, was being touted as a possible No. 1 NBA draft pick this summer after his performance during the Atlanta Regional, where he blocked eight shots and caused the Duke and Texas offenses to shrivel, it was Mbah a Moute who proved to have a pro's strength, smarts and stamina.

Florida Coach Billy Donovan has seen three of his extravagantly ranked high school classes turn into a clutch of disappointing NCAA tournament finishes and seasons filled with squabbling, turmoil and selfishness.

Two seasons ago, the Gators were ranked No. 1 for part of the season and in nearly every top 10 at the beginning of the season. They struggled throughout and lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament to Manhattan.

This season, Florida started unranked. This roster wasn't filled with high school phenoms. The fathers of Joakim Noah (Yannick, a French Open tennis champion), Al Horford (Tito, an NBA stalwart) and Taurean Green (Sidney, former Nevada Las Vegas great) were more well-known than the sons.

But what UCLA and Florida have proven is that a player doesn't need his name at the top of dozens of Internet recruiting sites. He doesn't have to be on the flashiest AAU team or need to appear in every shoe company or fast-food giant's "all-star" game.

In this era of Internet message boards, where fans chronicle every move of high school sophomores and start criticizing their alma maters for not hopping into the entourage of some eighth-grader, UCLA assistant Ernie Zeigler said, "Sometimes the danger is in not believing your own eyes and paying too much attention to what you read."

Six years ago, Donovan was a national hotshot. He brought a football school with little basketball tradition to the national championship game.

Michigan State won but Donovan was energetic, charismatic and a practitioner of a pleasing fast-paced style of basketball that made use of three-point baskets and rewarded great athletes. And Florida had all that money from football so the athletic facilities -- practice gyms, weight rooms -- were state of the art.

For the next four years, Donovan's recruiting classes were always ranked among the nation's top four or five. Since 2000, Florida players selected in the first two rounds of the NBA draft include Mike Miller, Donnell Harvey, David Lee, Matt Bonner and Christian Drejer.

Drejer deserted in mid-season two seasons ago when he was offered a $1-million contract to play for half a season in Europe. James White, Orien Greene and Mario Boggan were travel circuit superstars and big-time recruits who transferred after contributing little but turmoil to Donovan's life.

Since 2000, the most searing Florida NCAA tournament moment was the fifth-seeded Gators losing badly to No. 11 Manhattan two years ago. At the end of the game, Donovan asked freshman Chris Richard to enter the game. Donovan had to ask Richard three times. Finally, the forward shuffled toward the scorer's table, his shirt untucked, his shoes untied. Donovan told him to go back to the bench.

"We were a little dysfunctional," Richard, a junior on this team, said. "That was an embarrassing moment."

Donovan said his recruiting philosophy has evolved since then.

"If you have a great player who has a great level of unselfishness and work ethic, he's going to overachieve. If you have a guy that's talented but totally into himself, who never had to be unselfish a day in his life, it's really hard to change that mentality," Donovan said.

"Now we've got good kids who have been unselfish and have worked hard and gotten better."

Keating said that only San Diego State recruited Collison as hard as UCLA did. Only Virginia Tech was as relentless on Mbah a Moute as the Bruins. More highly regarded at Mbah a Moute's position on UCLA's recruiting list were Eric Boateng, who went to Duke; Jon Brockman, who went to Washington, and Brandon Costner, who went to North Carolina State.

"I guess we did OK," Keating said. "But a lot of people had doubts about UCLA recruiting when we didn't get the other guys."

Apparently, it was the other guys who made the mistake.

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