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Archive for Saturday, April 10, 2004

College teams must seek both athletic and academic success

April 10, 2004

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The 2003-2004 college basketball season is over, and coaches, high school players, sports-minded alumni and others interested in college basketball now are starting to predict what teams will be the powerhouses in the 2004-2005 season.

Successful recruiting of high school players is critical to putting together a winning major college team. Coaches are terribly important, and various coaches have different styles of play, but even the best coaches would have a difficult time winning a conference title, advancing in the NCAA Tournament or to football bowl games without good players.

This is particularly true in basketball because Division I NCAA programs are limited to 13 scholarship players per squad. Several years of poor recruiting, recruiting players who do not meet minimum academic requirements, players who present serious disciplinary problems or other situations can devastate a team and make it much more difficult for a coach to recruit quality players in succeeding years.

Division I football programs have squads of up to 100, so one or two problem players on a football team don't do as much damage to a team's morale, image or success as a few problem players can do to a basketball team with only 13 members.

This being the case, schools like Kansas University take great care in the types of players they recruit. In some cases, however, coaches, athletic directors and college presidents can become so obsessed with winning that they are willing to gamble on some recruits -- their academic ability, their personal behavior or other questionable traits -- in order to try to put together a winning team.

Fortunately, this has not been the case at KU. Granted, over the years there have been some players who haven't behaved or performed on and off the basketball court as coaches had hoped, but, by and large, the KU record has been top-flight.

Former coach Roy Williams gave great emphasis to the personal characteristics of those he recruited and he placed great importance on players' home life and the influence of their parents when choosing who would best fit into the KU program. Current coach Bill Self has just completed his first year of recruiting for KU, and it appears he follows the same track in selecting the young men he would like to have on his team.

Last year, when KU played for the national title, the KU basketball team was recognized as having the highest graduation rate, over a period determined by the NCAA, among the teams that advanced to the Sweet 16. Again this year, KU had the top graduation rate among the top 16 teams in the NCAA Tournament.

It is interesting to note that three-fourths of the men's basketball teams that advanced to the Round of 16 would have been barred from the event because of their low graduation rates if a proposal advocated by the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics were adopted.

According to The Washington Post, of the 16 top teams in this year's NCAA Tournament, only four -- Duke, Kansas, Vanderbilt and Xavier -- posted graduation rates of 50 percent or better, based on the latest NCAA information. Kansas led with a 73 percent graduation rate followed by Duke and Xavier, each with 67 percent, and Vanderbilt with 62 percent.

Of the 12 schools that fell short of 50 percent, according to the NCAA, seven graduated one-third or fewer of their men's basketball players. Connecticut, which has received so much ballyhoo for winning the men's championship, was one of those seven. It is great to win a national title, but, it is an even greater accomplishment to win a title and have a high graduation rate.

What happened at the University of Missouri in the recruiting of highly touted Ricky Clemons should serve as a lesson to KU and other schools that pay any attention to grades. This particular player had a rough background and didn't enjoy many advantages of others his age. He didn't graduate from high school, but Missouri wanted him.

Missouri officials were so eager to have him on the team, they apparently downplayed many warning signals and invited him to come to Columbia. How his junior college grades qualified him for admission to the university is questionable, but even more questionable is how MU athletic and academic officials could claim he legitimately earned more than 20 academic credit hours -- some report it was 24 hours -- in one summer school period, thereby attaining eligibility to play Division I ball.

Officials at other schools report they were dumbfounded that a questionable student could make the necessary gradepoint for 20-plus credit hours from more than one school in one summer. In fact, they claim something is phony.

Time will tell. NCAA officials are investigating the MU basketball program, and the probe may extend into other parts of the university. They may or may not find MU guilty of major infractions and possibly impose severe restrictions on the Tiger basketball program.

Two players -- Omar Wilkes and Moulaye Niang -- may be leaving the KU basketball team at the end of the current semester, which could hurt KU's basketball graduation rate. However, in these cases, the players have performed well in the classroom as well as representing the university and athletic program in a fine manner. They are great young men. However, because they want to have more playing time, they have told Self they would like to transfer to another university where they would have a better chance to be starters.

Both Wilkes and Niang were recruited by Coach Williams, and it would be interesting to know whether either would have had more playing time if Williams had been their coach. No one knows the answer, but Self had a top-flight group of starters, and it was difficult for the two players to get much playing time. Self also put together a top-flight recruiting class for next year, meaning Wilkes and Niang might not look forward to more playing time in the future.

KU fans should hope both Wilkes and Niang land at good universities where they will have much success as players. Both are said to have excellent work habits. They have been good team members, well-liked and eager to do whatever they can to help the team. They reflect credit on the basketball program and the university and, if they do transfer, they will be missed.

Wilkes comes from a well-known basketball family in California; his father was a college and professional all-star, and his younger brother is likely to be one of the nation's best high school players. Niang came to KU from Senegal, via a California high school.

It is hoped KU coaches and administrators will continue to aim high in the type of young men they recruit -- good players, good students and good citizens.

This, however, will not be a lasting tradition unless all responsible KU parties refuse to gamble or take shortcuts to try to achieve quick success.

The KU basketball team has been recognized the past two seasons as having the highest graduation rate in the Sweet 16. Let's hope that, next year, the Jayhawks again advance to the Sweet 16, then the Final Four and on to a national championship while also being recognized as having the highest graduation rate.

Consider the significance of such a record.

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