Tuesday, March 29, 2005

The Hogwarts School of Basketball

Imagine if there were basketball heaven. . .
Imagine if no one left early. . .
Imagine if no one opted for the NBA . . .
Imagine all the people, galvanized to the college game. . .

Well, you can do just that thanks to ESPN's David Schoenfield, who hypothesizes on what the Sweet 16 would have looked like had Carmelo Anthony, Emeka Okafor, Ben Gordon and DaJuan Wagner, among others, not left early, and had Dwight Howard, Shaun Livingston and LeBron James, among others, gone to college. Certain guys who are currently riding the pine in the NBA would be bringing it on in prime time in college, while certain guys would be stars no matter where they laced 'em pu.

It's fun reading, and it gives you cause to pause about how hard it is to recruit if you're an "elite" program. You want to shoot for the top players, but you cannot be sure if they'll come at all or if they do show, how long they'll stay for. I recall years ago when Bobby Hurley and Kenny Anderson were the star PGs out of HS. I argued that Anderson was the better player, but a friend countered that if he were a coach he'd want Hurley. The reason -- certainty that Hurley would stay for four years. My friend was right; Anderson left after two seasons, and Hurley helped lead Duke to two national titles -- he stayed for four years.

So, in certain cases, recruiting can be a case of being careful what you wish for. Several years ago Villanova was psyched when it landed Tim Thomas, but in the end they got a kid who didn't know how to mesh with some outstanding talent already on campus (including Alvin Williams and Jason Lawson) and who only stayed for a year. Was it worth it? Many Wildcats fans would argue that landing Thomas set the program back a few years.

Then again, it probably isn't wise to pursue only the absolute "A" list anyway, for a variety of reasons. First, you aren't bound to land only kids from this list, the competition is just too tough. Which means that you could come up empty-handed and have a dismal recruiting year. Diversification of your recruiting portfolio is key. Second, these kids get so over-recruited and your staff cannot possibly cover them all, and other schools are bound to have advantages over you as to certain kids. Since you could be wasting your time, you should concentrate your efforts on fewer players. Third, six McDonald's all-Americans on one roster aren't always certain to mesh, and, yes, there is only one basketball. Better to get a blend of shooters, cutters, slashers, rebounders, shot-blockers, blenders, pick-setters and penetrators, all of whom can complement each other and each of whom is willing to play his role on a team. Yes, it would be great if all could handle the rock inside and out, shoot the three and the mid-range jumper, and you might be able to mesh your team into that unit. But blending a team of all-stars is not a guarantee for a Final Four appearance. Fourth, blending kids from the "A", "A-", "B+" and "B" lists means that many are likely to stay for four years and certain are likely to develop into even better players than you thought. The challenge, then, is to find the kids who can rise to the "A" level an carry your team when you need them -- over a four-year span.

Portfolio diversification. Dollar-cost-averaging. Refusing to put all of your eggs in one-basket. Looking for "value" players. All of these strategies will help make a coach's life much better in the present, even if, as David Schoenfield displays, it's fun to talk about the what ifs.

Because in "what if" land, every team, including yours, coulda been a contender.

In reality, it's a matter of who stays in school.

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