Imbalance in college opportunities luring Western basketball players

Coast-to-coast moves lead fast break east

February 25, 2007|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,Sun reporter

"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.

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