Commentary

Top schools look for players who can balance books, ball

Updated: March 16, 2009, 4:28 PM ET
By Chris Preston | Special to ESPNRISE.com

Max Paulhus Gosselin had never heard of Davidson College. No surprise there -- what teenager from Carignan, Quebec, would be familiar with a tiny liberal arts school in North Carolina?

That all changed when he met Wildcats men's basketball coach Bob McKillop. Paulhus Gosselin had visions of playing Division I college ball but knew he would have to set his sights on the so-called "mid-major" programs. Oral Roberts showed some interest. So did Ivy Leaguers Yale and Columbia, but those schools don't offer athletic scholarships. Thus, when McKillop spoke, Paulhus Gosselin listened.

"I was looking for a school that was a challenge academically as well as in the athletic realm," Paulhus Gosselin says. "I didn't know anything about Davidson when I first met coach McKillop. I don't think I'd ever heard of a liberal arts college before. So I did my own research and found out that it was one of the better schools in the southern United States. I was like, 'Huh … I'm sold.'"

Four years later, the 6-foot-6, 210-pound guard is a senior starter for a burgeoning basketball powerhouse, one that became the toast of last year's NCAA tournament with its Cinderella run to the Elite Eight as a No. 10 seed. He also is about to earn a degree from a school U.S.News and World Report currently ranks as the ninth-best liberal arts college in the country.

[+] EnlargeMax Paulhus Gosselin
David Allio/Icon SMIMax Paulhus Gosselin found a school that challenged him on and off the court.

Averaging a modest 4.6 points per game this season, Paulhus Gosselin harbors no illusions of some day making it in the NBA. But upon receiving his degree from a top-10 liberal arts college, his career options will otherwise be limitless.

"The skills I've acquired at Davidson are going to stay with me the rest of my life," he says.

He also will be able to say he played in three straight NCAA tournaments and appeared on national television more than a dozen times, thanks to Davidson's escalating basketball profile. Paulhus Gosselin's experience is not unique, however, in the world of Division I men's hoops.

Scan U.S.News and World Report's list of the top 50 national universities, and you'll find it is littered with big-name basketball programs. Duke, Florida, Georgetown, Illinois, Michigan, North Carolina, Stanford, Texas, UCLA, Wisconsin -- all have advanced to a Final Four in the past 16 years, and collectively, they have claimed 10 national titles over the past quarter-century. Boston College, California, Cornell, Notre Dame, Penn, USC, Vanderbilt, Virginia, Wake Forest and Washington are among the other brainy schools that have flashed significant basketball brawn recently, as each has qualified for at least one Big Dance in the past three years. As much as any college sport, basketball programs often thrive at some of America's smartest schools.

"I tell our guys all the time that they've just got to worry about the two B's: books and ball," Wake Forest coach Dino Gaudio says. "Eventually their playing days are going to end, and a degree from this institution is only going to help them anywhere and everywhere."

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Like any coach at an elite university, Gaudio uses the academic reputation of Wake Forest (which U.S. News ranks 28th among national universities) as an invaluable recruiting tool.

"It's the very first thing we talk about, without question," says the Demon Deacons' second-year head man. "On [recruiting] visits, we make them go to a class with one of our players and see the interaction with the faculty. We really talk a lot about the small, personalized education they're going to receive at this school [total enrollment: 6,788 as of 2007, smallest in the Atlantic Coast Conference]. I think it's a major plus being able to tell recruits that they'd be getting the best of both worlds: a great education at one of America's finest institutions coupled with the best basketball in America in the ACC."

Rigorous admissions standards can, of course, be an obstacle. Coaches like Gaudio and McKillop can't simply cast a wide net on the recruiting trail. Instead, they must narrow their scope to set their sights on those high school hoopsters who can not only meet their schools' demanding academic standards for acceptance, but also handle the heavy workload once on campus.

"It's about targeting the right people," Gaudio says. "The big thing with recruiting is that it's about understanding what your target market is. We had two kids who were top-15 [high school] players this year who expressed interest in coming here, but we're not recruiting them because we don't think it's a good fit, based on what they're looking for and what we have to offer. … We tell parents and kids that you have to want to earn your degree to come to Wake Forest."

Cornell coach Steve Donahue's challenge is even greater: convincing kids to play basketball at a school where there are no athletic scholarships.

"Most kids we recruit turned down athletic scholarships [elsewhere] to come here," says Donahue, whose Ivy League-champion Big Red squad is off to its second straight NCAA tournament. "Where we're different is that all eight [Ivy League schools] can recruit anywhere in the country -- that's where we can separate ourselves from a lot of other mid-majors who can only recruit two or three hours from their campus."

[+] EnlargeDino Gaudio
Steve Dykes/US PresswireDino Gaudio targets players who can excel in the classroom and in the ACC.

Indeed, 14 states are represented on Cornell's 2008-09 roster, and three players hail from Canada. Clearly, the Ivy League brand name has enabled Cornell (ranked 14th in U.S. News' national university rankings) to scour the entire continent looking for basketball talent. The tricky part is persuading Division I-level players to forgo an opportunity to play on scholarship.

"There are negatives, yeah -- it costs $50,000 to go here, your SAT scores gotta be off the charts," Donahue says. "But if you find the kids that can do that, you really have a chance to be successful."

Teams that can balance both books and ball see the payoff; for example, Davidson's success on the court in recent years has raised awareness about its academic prowess.

"Up until five years ago, we were regional in name," says McKillop, who in his 20 years as coach has led the Wildcats to five NCAA tournaments, including four this decade. "Our basketball program has sent a message out about Davidson College, and as that message went out, people started to investigate and discovered that our academics are very, very strong. Our admissions office can only get so much put out there. But when you're [featured] in USA Today, on CBS, on the national stage of the NCAA tournament, all of a sudden, that message gets delivered with greater force."

And Paulhus Gosselin isn't the only evidence that the Davidson message is being delivered internationally. England, Nigeria and Turkey are the other nations proudly represented among the Wildcats' five international players. As basketball has gone global, so has the Davidson program.

While Davidson and Cornell are among the strong academic schools where spreading the basketball gospel to recruits is an everyday battle, big-conference heavyweights like Wake Forest , Duke, North Carolina, Stanford and Georgetown have no such problem. Their basketball identities were forged long ago.

But that doesn't mean they have it easy when it comes to pinpointing a certain kind of recruit. The Demon Deacons are not alone in having to say "thanks, but no thanks" to high-level high school players who don't make the grades. Players who attend these schools must be as outstanding in the classroom as they are on the court.

"If a kid shies away because of our academic commitment," Gaudio says, "then we don't want him anyway."

Books and ball. It seems to be a winning formula.

Chris Preston is an editor for the Northeast Sports Network and a frequent contributor to Varsity Magazine. He can be reached at cpreston@northeastsportsnetwork.com.