Archive for Saturday, April 3, 1999

SATURDAY COLUMN

April 3, 1999

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Although various rating companies reported television viewership for Monday's NCAA championship basketball game was at an all-time low for the event, the three-week tournament attracted great attention throughout the country.

Sixty-four teams entered the tourney back in the week of March 8, and it ended with Connecticut beating Duke by three points.

At the start of the subregional games, it was anyone's guess who would win the championship, although Duke was favored, followed (in no special order) by Connecticut, Stanford, Kentucky, Arizona and Michigan State.

Duke had great support because of the team's depth and its record during the year, as well as the type of players Coach Mike Krzyzewski had assembled. Stanford had made it to the Final Four last year, and it too had players of high ability with many of last year's team returning for the 1998-99 season.

But Duke was the prohibitive favorite. Observers and commentators pointed to the overall excellence of the team, how Coach Krzyzewski had been able to assemble an outstanding group of players, perhaps better than any other school. Some were suggesting it might be one of the best teams of modern times.

In light of the current potential scandal at Minnesota, where tutors are reported to have written papers for borderline basketball players and where the coach is accused of paying for some of these services, it is interesting to note the differences in how various major schools go about recruiting.

While Duke is looked upon as a school that is just as concerned about the academic ability of a basketball player as it is about whether he can dunk a basketball or shoot the three-pointer with deadly accuracy, it appears Minnesota and its coach, Glen Haskins, place top priority on the dribbling, shooting and dunking ability of a young man rather than on how he may perform in the classroom.

This is a broad generalization because any coach would prefer to have a top student who also is a top basketball player, but some schools can pull it off and others can't. This is not meant to pick on Minnesota, but, unfortunately, the school's athletic department has had several ugly situations in recent years, which should raise questions about what kinds of basketball players the school recruits.

The point about Duke is that recruiting for Duke is enhanced to a considerable degree by the school's academic reputation. If a mother or father has a young man who is a top-flight high school student and a gifted basketball player, and if the Duke coach comes calling, it's a sure bet parents and the player are going to be impressed. It's one of the nation's finest academic institutions and has a winning basketball program. It has a coach who stresses the importance of academics and the importance of his players completing their college education.

It also is interesting to note that, as of this date, none of coach Krzyzewski's players have left school early to enter the professional ranks.

Stanford also is looked to as one of this country's finest academic institutions, and it too tries to recruit top-flight students as well as top-flight athletes.

Both Duke and Stanford -- and most other major universities -- probably have highly skilled tutoring programs that are a tremendous benefit to the student-athletes. They probably have some borderline students on their teams, just as do most Division I schools.

But, due to the academic reputation of the school, recruiters for Duke, Stanford and other top universities probably have a leg up on coaches and recruiters for other schools where academic expectations are much lower.

The academic reputation of a school is terribly important. It is important to the parents, and it is important to the young men and women being recruited. If a talented young man or woman is good enough to attract national attention and is being sought by a number of schools, an offer from a Duke or Stanford is highly prized and hard to turn down.

Kansas University is a top-flight university with a top-flight coach in Roy Williams. The school enjoys a great basketball tradition, and Williams has the highest winning percentage in the 1990s of any Division I coach.

It is likely Williams would be quick to say KU's academic reputation is a valuable tool in his recruiting efforts. He can point to recent players such as Ryan Robertson, T.J. Pugh, Jacque Vaughn, Jerod Haase and others who have excelled in the classroom as well as on the basketball court.

And he probably would say that if KU had an even finer national academic reputation, it would add to his recruiting tool box.

Academics play an important role for the types of athletes Coach Williams, Coach Krzyzewski and Coach Mike Montgomery of Stanford are trying to recruit. Academics and personal character are important, and when a basketball player has these qualities, as well as being a top-flight athlete, it usually results in a winning combination.

KU students, alumni and fans do not want a situation like Minnesota's on Mount Oread. They want a team, a coach and players who play by the rules and who will reflect credit on the school -- both on the court and in the classroom.

Recruiting is a tough, hard and extremely competitive business, but, in the long run, the better the school and its academic reputation, the better its chances to attract a good athlete who also is a good student. This is why schools like Duke, Stanford, North Carolina, Kansas and Kentucky have the sustained record of winning programs.

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