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Business decision

The youngster certainly seemed confident.

"After high school, I'm going straight to the pros," a squeaky-voiced Percy Romeo Miller Jr. boasted in his 2001 hit My Baby, which stayed atop Billboard's R&B/Hip-Hop Sales Chart for 10 consecutive weeks.

We know now that isn't true. After he graduates this spring from Beverly Hills High, Miller -- better known as Lil' Romeo -- is headed to USC on a basketball scholarship.

How he got that scholarship is a topic of debate. As a Wall Street Journal story last week pointed out, Miller, the son of rap mogul Master P, is a 5-foot-10, 160-pound guard with a bad knee who averaged 8.6 points a game for a cellar-dwelling team. He also is the best friend of 6-5 Compton High star Demar DeRozan, the No. 6 player in the SI/Takkle.com rankings. Naturally, DeRozan also signed with USC, an achievement the pair celebrated at a press conference in November at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills.

The Journal story -- and many others before it --implied Miller and DeRozan were a package deal, and also implied that by signing Miller, Trojans coach Tim Floyd essentially yanked a scholarship opportunity away from hard-working walk-on guard Ryan Wetherell.

All of this is probably true, but does it make Floyd a scoundrel for dangling some high-priced bait -- Miller's scholarship is worth about $40,000 a year, and men's college hoops programs only get 13 -- to land DeRozan? Does it make the younger Miller a villain for accepting the scholarship offer? Does it make Wetherell the victim of a nefarious scheme to stiff the noble walk-on?

No, no and no.

Remember, Division-I college basketball is not a game. It's a multibillion-dollar business. And this was strictly a business decision.

Floyd, like any other CEO, must squeeze the most value (wins and exposure) from the limited assets available to him (13 scholarships a year). He has seen colleague Pete Carroll turn a dormant football program into the toast of the nation by mixing championships with celebrities on the sideline. Floyd saw an opportunity to sign a player who might help him win a Pac-10 title while at the same time signing one who might convince former duet partner Hillary Duff, Honey co-star Jessica Alba or pal Michael Jordan to take in a few games at the Galen Center.

Of course, this might backfire. What if DeRozan is as good as advertised and winds up shaking hands with David Stern on a balmy New York night in June 2009? What if the injury bug bites the Trojans in January 2010 and Floyd looks down the bench only to realize that his limited options for a backup point guard for meat of his conference schedule include a rapper and a walk-on? Floyd might then wish he had used that scholarship on a Pac-10-caliber player, because Hillary, Jessica and MJ might not enjoy watching USC get shelled by Oregon or Arizona. Floyd certainly must have considered this, but his cost-benefit analysis of the situation suggested to him that he stood to gain more by signing Lil' Romeo, who it should be noted, has dropped the Lil'.

Clemson football coach Tommy Bowden made a similar business decision when he chose not to renew the scholarship of tailback Ray Ray McElrathbey. McElrathbey is the player who fought to win custody of his younger brother, Fahmarr, in 2006 because their mother was too addicted to drugs to raise the boy properly. Clemson basked in the positive PR, and the NCAA allowed Ray Ray to accept outside financial help to support his brother. But while McElrathbey's Q-rating soared, he never moved up the depth chart. Bowden -- who may have other reasons he hasn't revealed -- decided he couldn't afford to spend one of his 85 scholarships on McElrathbey, and the coach offered the player a graduate assistant's role that would help McElrathbey earn a master's degree after he graduates in August.

Like Miller, McElrathbey wasn't the best player available, but Bowden made a massive miscalculation if he assumed his choice was strictly a football decision. The negative PR -- Bowden has been ripped throughout the nation, and high school coaches in McElrathbey's home state of Georgia are questioning whether they should send players to Clemson -- far outweighed the consequences of keeping McElrathbey on an athletic scholarship.

Still, Miller's living situation is vastly different than McElrathbey's. Miller's father is a millionaire, and Romeo himself has banked plenty of scratch after several albums and a Nickelodeon television show (Romeo!). He can certainly afford the tuition at USC. But Master P, who first hit it big with 1998's Make 'Em Say Uhh before branching out into the realms of video games, publishing and custom rims, didn't get rich by turning down freebies. Also, the street cred Romeo will receive by being a scholarship player instead of a walk-on might be more valuable than the dollar amount of the scholarship itself.

Romeo will have to prove he deserved the scholarship, and given his current ability level, he probably won't get that chance until after DeRozan has moved on to the NBA. (To watch a clip of Romeo and DeRozan, go here.) That could make things interesting, since DeRozan served as Miller's go-to sample on the basketball court while the pair played for the AAU team P. Miller Ballers. Don't know what a sample is? You must not listen to hip-hop. Sampling is the act of taking part of a previously recorded song and using it as the backing beat and/or lyrical base for your own song. Lil' Romeo's biggest hit, My Baby, sampled liberally from The Jackson 5's I Want You Back. A minor hit, My Cinderella, sampled Shai's If I Ever Fall in Love, a tune that provided the soundtrack for many an awkward teenage moment for those of us hovering near age 30.

If Romeo can win a spot in the Trojans' rotation, it would be an achievement equal to him reaching No. 1 on the Billboard chart with a song that didn't include an already memorable sample. No matter what happens on the court, Miller plans to use that scholarship to attend USC's film school, because, naturally, what he really wants to do is direct.

So where does this leave Wetherell, the lightning-quick walk-on from Alberta, Canada? The Journal story implied Wetherell's father, Don, was upset about Romeo's signing. Reached Wednesday by phone, Don Wetherell said that couldn't be further from the truth. He said his words were taken out of context. He said his son, a sophomore, walked on with his eyes open, and he knew that no matter how hard he worked, he still might not play his way into a scholarship. He also said Ryan is excited to play with Romeo and DeRozan. The elder Wetherell didn't want to say much more, because the fallout from the initial story has made life difficult for his son.

Ryan Wetherell will be fine. Like most successful walk-ons, he's no whiner. He will continue to leave everything on the practice court floor with the hope that someday he can earn more than a few stray minutes of playing time on game day. Is he a better basketball player than Lil' Romeo? At this point in their careers, he probably is. If it were all about basketball, Floyd could roll out a ball and make Miller and Wetherell play one-on-one -- winner takes the scholarship.

Unfortunately, at this level, it's never all about basketball.

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