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Imbalance in college opportunities luring Western basketball players

The Baltimore Sun

"Go West" was the advice for young men seeking their fortune in the mid-1800s.

At the start of the 21st century, they've reversed their dribble.

Maryland and North Carolina meet today at Comcast Center in College Park. The Tar Heels have three Californians, two in a potent freshman class. The Terps' leading scorer is D.J. Strawberry, and their top rebounder is Ekene Ibekwe. Both are from Los Angeles suburbs.

Southern California talent like Jared Dudley and Sean Marshall eased Boston College's entry into the Atlantic Coast Conference. DeMarcus Nelson was a Golden State get for Duke, but West Coast kids aren't just popping up at ACC powers or national institutions like the U.S. Naval Academy, where the top scorer is Greg Sprink, a San Diego native.

There are few campuses out west covered in ivy, let alone an Ivy League, so an Amateur Athletic Union prospect from the San Francisco Bay Area is leading a Yale team that is contending for its first NCAA tournament berth in 45 years.

With no historically black colleges west of Texas playing Division I basketball, Coppin State has players from California and New Mexico, and Morgan State's program includes two Californians.

Budget airlines, prestigious institutions, the location of prep schools and ESPN programming that shuns the Pacific-10 Conference contributed to the migration.

Above all, however, it's a product of basic supply and demand.

California has an estimated population of 36.5 million and 22 Division I men's basketball teams, one program for every 1.7 million residents. Maryland, by comparison, has a population of 5.6 million and nine Division I teams, one for every 600,000.

As population in industrial Rust Belt cities stagnated, it boomed in the Sun Belt. Lute Olson arrived at Arizona in 1983, when the state had fewer than 3 million people. Now it has more residents than Maryland, but just three Division I teams and a burgeoning group of prospects with limited in-state options.

"We've seen a huge explosion of talent in the Phoenix area; it's in the same spot Seattle was in four, five years ago, ready to take off," said Olson, who's been working the West's most fertile turf since the 1960s. "The constant over the years has been the depth of talent in Los Angeles. There are years when the difference between its third-rated prospect and the 13th was negligible."

Change of direction

In the 1960s, the "City Game" referred to Eastern metropolises, and the pivotal player in John Wooden's UCLA dynasty was a New Yorker, Lew Alcindor. Ben Howland, conversely, got the Bruins to the 2006 NCAA final basically on local talent, and there's plenty to go around.

"In my 15 years at Kansas, we had 18 starters from California and only two or three from Kansas," North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. "We weren't recruiting the East at all. When I came here [to the Tar Heels], we wanted to maintain the relationships we had built out West."

Williams has mined the length of that coast.

He recruited Paul Pierce to Kansas out of the Bay Area, where Stanford's Hank Luisetti introduced the one-handed jump shot in the late 1930s and local product Bill Russell led San Francisco to NCAA titles in 1955 and '56.

The legacy isn't as deep in Seattle, but Williams went there to get Marvin Williams, who scored the winning basket for North Carolina in the 2005 NCAA final. That scene also produced Brandon Roy, who trailed Adam Morrison and J.J. Redick in last season's Player of the Year balloting, but was the more complete collegian.

"The talent on Portland and Seattle AAU teams was a revelation," Towson coach Pat Kennedy said of the two seasons he spent at Montana. "There are players in nooks and crannies out West, in towns and states where the population is booming. There aren't a lot of Division I schools in certain regions, and those players have to wind up someplace."

Similar to the numbers game in Arizona, the Pacific Northwest states of Oregon and Washington combine for 10.1 million people but only eight Division I schools, one fewer than Maryland.

Opportunity abounds at both ends of the academic spectrum in the East, from players who need prep school to those ready to network in the Ivy League.

Yale's Eric Flato played for the Oakland Rebels, the same AAU team that sent Quentin Thomas to North Carolina. Flato's interest in Stanford wasn't reciprocated, so he broadened his college search.

"I got a lot of interest from schools in the West Coast Conference, like Santa Clara and Portland," Flato said. "Then the Ivies got interested, which involves a whole different dynamic. I visited Yale because of that reputation. I'm always running into West Coast guys. Harvard has a bunch of guys [five] from California. Two Princeton guards are from the Bay Area."

A 6-foot-1 junior guard, Flato has already led Yale to a win over Pennsylvania. If the Bulldogs can get another at the Palestra on Friday, they'll be in line for their first NCAA berth since 1962.

The Patriot League modeled itself after the Ivy League when it formed in 1986, then named the Colonial League. It since has added athletic scholarships, but its members continue to sell traditions that predate California's statehood.

Colgate, which got several feet of snow this winter, does not have a single player from New York. Two of its top four scorers are from Arizona. The Raiders' best player is taking a medical redshirt. He's from California.

"We've got a 6-11 kid from Phoenix in next year's recruiting class," Colgate coach Emmett Davis said. "We're all over the map. Kids will migrate to the East Coast because of the academic tradition that's found here."

Davis learned to recruit nationally during his 12 seasons as a Navy assistant, when Southern California talent was instrumental in the Midshipmen's three NCAA tournaments between 1994 and '98. The current Navy team leans heavily on Sprink, a sound junior guard, the rare scorer who doesn't shoot enough, perhaps a carry-over from when he didn't consider himself a Division I prospect.

Crossing over

"I didn't play AAU basketball, and at one point I figured I would go to Point Loma [an NAIA school in California]," Sprink said. "I wasn't looking at a service academy until somebody saw my high school team. My parents fell in love with the institution [Navy], but it was tough to adapt academically."

While Sprink began that process at NAPS, the Naval Academy Preparatory School, many of the very best prospects need a year at a basketball finishing school to meet NCAA standards for freshman eligibility. There are no western equivalents to Maine Central and Virginia's Oak Hill, where the point guard, Brandon Jennings, is from California.

"There are very few prep schools out West, and they haven't been there a long time," said Todd Bozeman, the Morgan State coach who spent six seasons at California. "When Dorell Wright [of the Miami Heat] came out of Los Angeles, where did he go to prep school? South Kent, in Connecticut. How many kids come east for prep school and decide to remain here for college?"

Marquise Kately, a two-time Northern California High School Player of the Year, went to Maine Central before playing at Cal. He's now at Morgan State and will be eligible to play next season. Morgan State's current roster includes Gilroy Hemsley, a 6-8 freshman from Los Angeles.

The first-year players at cross-town rival Coppin State include junior college transfer Julian Conyers, from a San Jose, Calif., suburb, and Ethan Kennedy, a 6-7 freshman from Albuquerque, N.M. The two schools are members of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, one of two leagues in the nation composed of historically black institutions.

"If you want that experience," Bozeman said, "you have to come east."

At the other end of Division I lies the ACC, which gets national television exposure that the Pac-10 does not.

Before night games at Mater Dei High, Strawberry could catch the start of Maryland's 7 p.m. games on ESPN. Deon Thompson, a 6-8 freshman who's the second man off the North Carolina bench, got similar lessons on the Tar Heels' history when he played for Torrance High, a few miles south of Los Angeles International Airport.

"We're always talking West Coast vs. East Coast, who's better," Thompson said of the Tar Heels' locker room. "Fortunately, there are several other guys here who feel the same way I do."

paul.mcmullen@baltsun.com

By scouting defense, Terps got 'steal'

In February 2002, as Maryland prepared to make a run to its only NCAA men's basketball title, then-assistant coach Jimmy Patsos made good use of what he thought was going to be an idle evening in Los Angeles.

"I had scouted Ekene Ibekwe the summer before, and one of our off days at Maryland, went to see his Carson High team play a game right after school," said Patsos, who's now the coach at Loyola College. "I had a red-eye flight home and five hours to kill, so I looked at the map and checked out the game at Mater Dei, in Santa Ana.

"Gary McKnight, the coach there, has won a ton of games and turned out a bunch of great players, but I saw a parking lot full of Mercedes, and didn't figure I was going to find anyone who could help us. It was Senior Night for Mater Dei. When the sixth man enters the game, it's D.J. Strawberry."

Ibekwe and Strawberry were juniors. Later in 2002, both committed to Maryland.

"Ibekwe was a top 25 recruit, a Parade [second-team] All-American," Patsos said. "Strawberry was a steal. When Gary Williams saw D.J. play, he said 'How many scouting services evaluate defense?' Gary thought he might be the best defensive player in the country, and he asked us, 'How do you pass that up?' We didn't."

Strawberry is the leading scorer for Maryland.

Paul McMullen

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