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Pull of pro ball causes coaches to rethink recruiting

April 4, 2002

The Illinois men’s basketball program and its fans knew it would happen sooner or later.

Illini guard Frank Williams would leave early for the NBA - it was just a matter of when.

Many fans guessed he’d make it official after his junior season, a year when Illinois was ranked No. 2 in the preseason.

But Williams already knew exactly when, and so did Illini coach Bill Self - almost one year before Williams would play his last game.

Self used the time to go out and land a top-notch recruiting class, including guard Dee Brown - the 2002 Mr. Basketball for the state of Illinois. Brown and the three other members of the class give the Illini a chance to maintain their status among the Big Ten’s elite.

Increasingly, college coaches are forced to examine how to fill the gap left when star players leave for the NBA.

And in the Illini’s case, how the star player left had an impact on recruiting.

“In some ways it’s a bonus,” Self said. “I’m not so thrilled about Frank leaving and the decision to be quite honest.

“But I do think in a weird way it probably helped us knowing beforehand so that guys would be recruited based on what would happen next year opposed to being recruited and not knowing what would happen next year until the spring.”

Williams announced he’d leave for the NBA after his third season to the fans and media on Oct. 11, one day before the team would begin practicing during its Midnight Madness.

Knowing he’d be losing four contributing seniors - three forwards and a guard - to go along with Williams, Self recruited to his needs and signed guards Brown and Deron Williams and forwards James Augustine and Kyle Wilson.

Self said knowing Williams’ future helped seek out players who potentially could fill the void left by Williams and the graduating seniors.

“It did help us with Dee Brown and Deron Williams because those would be much tougher guys to sign if there was still the indecision or if Frank was still saying he was going to be here,” Self said.

But since Williams let Self in on his plans, the Illini coach was able to let his recruits accurately know what kind of roles they’d have right away.

“Even though it was not announced before these guys committed or anything like that, they had pretty good knowledge that they would have a pretty good opportunity for more playing time their freshman year,” Self said.

Knowing which players are going to be leaving before the season begins would’ve helped MSU head coach Tom Izzo prepare for the early departures of Zach Randolph and Jason Richardson.

“I would have recruited differently. Not to say I wouldn’t have recruited those guys, but I would have recruited differently last fall,” Izzo said. “I would have made sure I had my bases covered.”

Some bases were left uncovered as the depleted Spartans failed to win their fifth-straight Big Ten title and reach their fourth consecutive Final Four, having just eight players under scholarship.

“How do you know if kids are leaving in November when you try and sign?” Izzo said. “It’s almost like these days if a kid has a good NCAA Tournament that could change.”

Izzo said some of the more experienced and successful programs in college basketball have avoided losing a lot of players early.

“That’s what makes Duke and Kansas so unique this year, it’s kind of like they snuck in under the Richter scale,” Izzo said. “They’re keeping their stars.

“And they’ve probably recruited (better) because it’s so obvious they’re leaving that now Duke can say, ‘Hey Jason Williams is leaving, so come on in and be our point guard.’”

But not all programs can keep their stars, and schools are forced to try to sign new ones in the forms of McDonald’s All-Americans, All-Staters and Mr. Basketballs.

“You do have to look at it, and you do have to think about it,” MSU associate head coach Brian Gregory said. “But you do have to develop a recruiting class that can impact your program immediately and help you immediately.”

But to couple with the top-rated recruits, Gregory said it’s key to sign a few guys who aren’t as touted.

“You still have to go out there and beat the bushes and find kids who are going to be quality players for you down the road,” Gregory said. “You have got to look at guys who are more or less four-year guys who you can build your program around.

“I think that becomes, maybe, even more important.”

Some coaches, such as Purdue’s Gene Keady, have avoided losing players early. Keady said this isn’t by accident.

“I think if a kid would tell me he was only coming for one year, I wouldn’t take him,” Keady said. “You just get him involved in your system and he’s gone. It’s not really fair to anybody.”

Gregory said a player who openly says he’s leaving after one year causes red flags to go up during the recruiting process, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t want to see the recruits have goals.

“I think most of the players we recruit have visions of playing in the NBA,” Gregory said. “As a recruiter, I think you want to have guys who want to play in the NBA.

“Once they tell you that those are the goals and aspirations, you can hold them accountable to that.”

What coaches cannot account for, though, is replacing players who decide after their seasons to leave for the NBA.

“You can’t really project where a guy’s going to go or what he’s going to do, especially a year in advance,” Gregory said.

Knowing when a player is going to leave helps take some of the guessing out of knowing what a team needs.

Gregory said it’d be advantageous to know who is going to leave beforehand.

“That way, you can go and recruit knowing that even though a player might be just a sophomore, he’s going to be leaving,” he said. “I think that’s the next step in recruiting.”

Dan Woike can be reached at woikedan@msu.edu.

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