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Thursday, July 13, 2006
Hounding high schoolers and dancing with dwarfs

By Pat Forde
ESPN.com

Forty midsummer names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college basketball (Greg Oden (1) commemorative replica wrist cast sold separately, in sizes from infant to adult 7-footer):

AND YOU THOUGHT MAYO-TO-USC WAS SURPRISING...

The five most startling sights on the recruiting trail this July:

Big Baby's body (2). If Glen Davis had declared for the draft and shown up in Orlando weighing his current 289 pounds, he'd have been a top-10 pick. When the LSU strongman center playfully asked The Minutes one day at Nike camp, "What's the buzz on Big Baby?" he already knew the answer. Everyone was talking about his newly defined muscles and streamlined torso.
Mike Davis
It's not easy being green, but for Mike Davis, it's much easier than being red.

Mike Davis (3) wearing green -- in Indiana. After five melodramatic years as coach of the home-state Hoosiers, it was something to see Davis flying the colors of the UAB Blazers. His smile, though, has rarely been wider. As Davis told The Minutes, "You have the second-best job in America. I have the best." Davis said he's gained 15 pounds since being in Birmingham, feasting on southern cooking. Guess he's over the Alford Flu that kept him out of IU's home game against Iowa.

Michael Jordan (4) in the stands, drawing slightly more attention than other player parents. Jordan was at Nike, but also at an off-Broadway event in Louisville, Ky., the Kentucky HoopFest. The man who has brought every gym he's entered in the last 20 years to an absolute standstill was at Nike to see son Jeffrey, and at the HoopFest to see Jeffrey and younger son Marcus.

Herb Sendek (5) tricked out in Arizona State gear. Easily the most jarring geographic move of this past offseason was Herb's jump from Tobacco Road to Tempe. Sendek might be living in the Valley of the Sun these days, but he's retained his trademark pallor.

• An assistant coach who shall remain nameless and school-less (6) dancing with a dwarf at Ike & Jonesy's in Indianapolis. The thing that made this sight especially riveting was the fact that the coach is a solid 6-foot-6 and the dwarf was -- yes, even by dwarf standards -- short. Presumably, the coach had lovely kneecaps.

REPETITIVE STRESS

Another indelible impression from Nike was the en masse arrival Friday night of several Florida Gators (7) to serve as camp counselors and (more to the point) scrimmagers against fellow collegians under the watchful eyes of NBA scouts.

When Al Horford (8), Corey Brewer (9), Taurean Green (10) and Chris Richard (11) walked into the gym, it reinforced how much talent the Gators return from their national championship team -- and that's not including the star of the show from their last trip to Indy, preseason national Player of the Year favorite Joakim Noah (12).

The fact that those guys so flagrantly bucked the trend of the last 10 years -- turning pro within seconds after "One Shining Moment" has finished playing -- ranks as the most important recruiting Florida coach Billy Donovan (13) has done in years.

Even if he says it didn't take much work to keep them in school.

Donovan said he brought his star underclassmen into his office the Friday after the national championship and asked them, "How do you want to handle this?"

"We're coming back," they said.

"Are you sure?" Donovan asked.

"We want to play here," they told him. "We enjoy it here."

But even though Florida will be the landslide No. 1 preseason choice -- if you're picking against the Gators, you're just trying to be cute -- history shows us how bloody difficult it is to repeat.

Last time it happened: 15 years ago next spring, when Duke needed Christian Laettner's immortalizer (14) at the buzzer against Kentucky just to advance to the Final Four. (A game Donovan watched from the losing bench, by the way.)

Time before that: 32 years ago next spring, when John Wooden (15) waved his rolled-up program for the last time.
John Wooden
The Wizard had some help on his way to a slew of NCAA titles.

Now you know why Donovan doesn't plan to make back-to-back a major point of emphasis with his players.

"It's not about repeating," he said. "We could be a better team next year and not win the national championship. It's not a seven-game series.

"I'm trying not to allow people to create expectations for our team. ... You feel like you have to live up to people's expectations. We haven't talked about SEC championship, national championship. We're talking about wanting to improve.

"We need to be more unselfish, be more competitive, we need to work harder. All the things we did well, we need to do them better."

Rhetoric aside, don't believe that Donovan isn't thinking repeat. He's struck up a friendship with Bill Belichick, whose New England Patriots rank as the only Super Bowl repeater since the Denver Broncos in the late 1990s. Perhaps Belichick has some solid advice to avoid the pitfalls that befell six other strong repeat bids since the UCLA dynasty closed up shop.

The very near misses:

Georgetown '85 (16) -- The Hoyas were 35-2 and dominant with Patrick Ewing in the middle. It took the closest thing The Minutes has ever seen to the perfect game, from Villanova, to beat the repeat by all of two points.

Arkansas '95 (17) -- The Razorbacks had focus issues all season and they surfaced again in the NCAA Tournament, where Arkansas won its first three games by a total of eight points, two of them in overtime. But when the Razorbacks met UCLA in the final and Bruins point guard Tyus Edney was hurt, the re-coronation looked like a mere formality. Instead, UCLA controlled the entire game. Scotty Thurman (18) hasn't been heard from since.

Kentucky '97 (19) -- After losing four players to the NBA draft, the Wildcats' repeat chances seemed slim. When star wingman Derek Anderson blew out a knee in midseason, they seemed slimmer. But there was Kentucky in the championship game, finally losing to Arizona in overtime. If center Nazr Mohammed (20) makes just one of six free throws, instead of none, the Cats repeat. If Anderson never gets hurt, it isn't even close.

The stunning upsets:

North Carolina '94 (21) -- The Tar Heels brought back almost everyone from their '93 title team, then added freshmen Rasheed Wallace, Jerry Stackhouse and Jeff McInnis. This became a failed chemistry experiment. With dissension percolating between newbies and veterans, the No. 1-seeded Heels were shockingly dismissed in the second round of the NCAAs by ninth-seeded Boston College.

Duke '02 (22) -- The Blue Devils went 29-3 and finished the regular season at No. 1, establishing themselves as the definitive tournament favorite. Nothing seemed amiss when Duke went up 19 points on Indiana in the Sweet 16. Then the Hoosiers came back, the Devils unraveled and Mike Davis had his greatest moment as Bob Knight's successor.

The complete no-show:

Louisville '87 (23) -- Final Four Most Outstanding Player Pervis Ellison (24) was back, along with three other key players from the '86 titlists. But the Cardinals opened the season with three straight losses in the Great Alaska Shootout, and it never got much better. They went 18-14 and missed the NCAA Tournament completely.

YOUR WORD IS YOUR BOND ... SORT OF

Gossip swept through Nike on Saturday night that star Illinois recruit Eric Gordon (25) was bailing out on his verbal commitment to the Illini and reopening his recruitment. That was reported on Chicagohoops.com, then semi-refuted by Gordon himself.

From the Reebok/ABCD camp in Teaneck, N.J., the Indianapolis North Central High School star said he's "still solid with Illinois (26), but I am thinking about Indiana (27) at this point too. Nothing has changed."

The Minutes is still trying to make sense of that statement, but it raises a question: How much do verbal commitments truly count, and how seriously do competing schools take them?

"In football, they recruit guys all the way through [signing day]," Florida's Donovan said. "In basketball, it's always been an unwritten law: When a guy makes a decision, that's it, I don't pursue it. ... I don't want a kid to change his mind because I'm trying to be manipulative on the phone, or to manipulate him on my campus."

That might be how Donovan does it, but not everyone else. For some coaches, a verbal commitment tells them only who they need to negatively recruit against.

In the case of Gordon, Indiana coach Kelvin Sampson (28) had little choice but to keep pursuing the best player in his new state, who committed to Illinois before Sampson arrived. One of the biggest reasons Davis was pressured out at IU was because he couldn't control the borders of the Hoosier State, and Sampson needs to do something to curry the favor of fans underwhelmed by his hiring.

Indiana's pursuit of Gordon has annoyed the Illinois staff and inflamed the Illini fan base, but it should help Sampson on the home front. The Minutes can envision Sampson sitting at home all month (he's under NCAA sanctions prohibiting him from recruiting off campus) text-messaging Gordon until his thumbs are blistered. But not calling excessively, of course.

TACITURN TUBBY TALKS -- BRIEFLY

Kentucky's Tubby Smith (29), possibly the least-interviewed big-time coach during the offseason, gave the media seven minutes last Friday at Nike camp before accepting an escape lifeline from Shawn Finney. (More on the former Tulane head coach (30) later.)
Tubby Smith
It might be a good idea if Tubby wore these colors out more in public.

The Minutes isn't sure that this is what Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart (31) had in mind when, in late spring, he said publicly that Smith needed to be more visible. Smith says no to the media more often than David Spade (32) says no in those Capital One commercials, and it will be difficult to move him out of that isolationist stance. The guess here is that Tubby has done his last interview until the season starts in mid-October.

Smith doesn't seem to believe that his profile and the recruiting profile of his program are intertwined -- something most of his fellow coaches would probably disagree with. But the fact is, most of the current recruitable athletes were younger than 10 the last time the Wildcats made a Final Four. It might help if they saw or heard from the Kentucky coach more often.

And given Smith's wildly inconsistent recruiting in recent years, this is a crucial summer. He needs some quality commitments. (In something of a surprise, Smith turned up in Louisville at the HoopFest on Monday afternoon, joining Marquette's Tom Crean (33) among the few high-profile head coaches at the event. Rumor was that Smith was eyeballing athletic Ohio wingman Dante Jackson (34), a star track athlete and a promising football player, too.)

Recruiting, in part, is where Finney comes in. In effect, he's serving as an extra set of eyes for Smith on the recruiting trail. The two compared notes on several prospects and watched games together on at least one occasion in Indy.

Finney is unemployed -- for now -- but The Minutes expects him to be ticketed for a director of basketball operations gig at Kentucky. Putting off that hiring means that Smith can have Finney's insight on the road, in addition to recruiting assistants Reggie Hanson and Scott Rigot.

When asked about the possibility of hiring Finney, Smith said, "I don't know nothin' about nothin'." Look for him to become enlightened on that subject later this summer.

BODY-SHAPING BY PITINO

Louisville coach Rick Pitino (34) was marveling at Big Baby's new shape at Nike, which naturally turned conversation to his own round mound of talent, incoming freshman Derrick Caracter (35).

Pitino said Caracter -- once the most breathlessly hyped youngster in the country -- reported to campus this summer weighing 318 pounds, with 21 percent body fat. He said Caracter has been told to be at 10 percent body fat when practice starts.

And if he's not?

"He can transfer," Pitino said. "I'm too old to put up with that ----."

Pitino has a history of working fat off post players. Former Louisville power forward Ellis Myles went from sloppy and sullen to one of the stars of the Cardinals' 2005 Final Four team, and former Wildcat Mohammed has become a long-term pro after losing a ton of weight during college.

Pitino said he called Mohammed recently to congratulate him on his new, five-year, $30 million contract with the Detroit Pistons. For comparison's sake to Caracter, he asked Mohammed what his fat stats were when he got to Kentucky.

The answer: 325 pounds, 22 percent fat. So there is hope for Caracter.

"I'm hoping someday he can sign a $30 million contract, too," Pitino said. "But he's got a lot of work to do."

SEC RECRUITING BATTLE LOOMING

If you were looking for LSU coach John Brady (36) at Nike, chances are you'd find him watching Greg Monroe (37), a very talented rising junior out of the New Orleans suburb of Gretna.

Brady usually had company, in the form of Alabama coach Mark Gottfried (38) and Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury (39). This recruiting tussle could be intense.

Monroe was worth the attention. The 6-foot-10 left-hander was rated the No. 2 performer at Nike by Scout.com.

LAST-SECOND SHOT

When thirsty in Indy, The Minutes recommends the fine beer selection at The Claddagh (40), a properly wood-paneled Irish pub right downtown. A couple of pints there will put you in a sufficiently sunny mood to tolerate the uselessly confrontational meathead bouncers at Ike & Jonesy's, which is just down the street.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.