Monday July 14th, 2008

NORTH AUGUSTA, S.C. -- Royce White understood coaches at North Carolina and UCLA couldn't possibly find him as quickly as hometown Minnesota could. White, a 6-foot-7 forward from Minneapolis, considered that fact when he chose a school in April.

"I know that schools on the coasts like North Carolina and UCLA don't get to see you every day like the people on their coasts," White said Monday after he and the Howard Pulley Panthers finished a game at the Nike Peach Jam. "I took that into account, and I still thought Minnesota was the best place for me."

A month earlier, another top-flight recruit turned down the big boys to help his hometown team. LeFlore (Mobile, Ala.) High center DeMarcus Cousins, who spent most of his childhood in Birmingham, committed to Alabama-Birmingham in spite of interest from Memphis and a top-10 overall ranking in the class of 2009 by Rivals.com.

Though the low-key White and the fiery Cousins have completely different games and personalities, they do share one trait. They are cornerstone recruits for a pair of coaches who are letting their actions prove that they might have been run out of their previous jobs -- both at iconic programs -- a tad too early.

Minnesota coach Tubby Smith left Kentucky of his own volition following the 2007 season, but by that point, the Wildcat faithful had begun to make Smith's life miserable. Some Kentucky fans believed Smith led the Wildcats to the 1998 national title only because he had predecessor Rick Pitino's players. As the years passed without more Final Four appearances, patience in Big Blue Nation wore thin. So Smith left for Minnesota, where he promptly took a team that went 9-22 in 2006-07 and led it to a 20-14 record.

If White follows through with his commitment and lands at Minnesota in 2009, Golden Gophers fans will owe a thank-you to former coach Dan Monson. Monson never won consistently, but he did clean up the program after the Clem Haskins academic fraud debacle. He also identified White early and made him a recruiting priority.

White, meanwhile, paid special attention to how the Gophers handled the transition from Monson to Smith. He had offers from Michigan State and Illinois, and the aforementioned national powers had jumped into the fray as well, but Monson's recruitment had left an impression. "When coach Smith came, I watched closely -- how he coached, his intensity, how he was looked at off the court, his reputation and what he did for the team," White said. "He brought that team really far with the talent that he had. ... I just liked the way the program was going."

Cousins also bonded with the first coach to recruit him hard. Three years ago, Mike Davis, the Alabama native charged with leading Indiana into the post-Bobby Knight era, discovered the big man from his home state and began pitching the Hoosiers. In 2006, the relationship between Davis and Indiana crumbled. He resigned and took over at UAB. The Blazers went 15-16 in Davis' first season and 23-11 in his second. Indiana hired Kelvin Sampson.

In the meantime, Cousins was thrown off his high school team for disciplinary reasons. (It wasn't a legal issue, said Cousins, who declined to reveal specifics.) That scared off some college coaches. "A lot of schools stopped recruiting me," the 6-11, 269-pound Cousins said Monday. "Mike Davis didn't." Cousins understands some coaches may have reservations about him, but he appreciates the fact that Davis gave him advice to help guide him through his troubles. "I don't take it personally," Cousins said. "They're just doing their jobs. Some of them think I'm a headcase. ... I'm OK."

Some of those coaches resumed their recruitment of Cousins, but he wanted to reward Davis for his loyalty with a commitment. Now, Cousins hopes to team with Davis to help make UAB a legitimate challenger to the Conference USA throne currently occupied by Memphis. "Birmingham is where I'm from," Cousins said. "I want to represent. If we can bring a championship back home, that would be big for me and my city."

Coaches attending the Peach Jam usually try to stand out as much as possible. NCAA rules forbid college coaches from speaking to the players, so whether they're scouting a player on their board or babysitting a committed player, coaches want to make sure prospects see them. To achieve this, most coaches wear clothes that leave no doubt as to who their employer is.

This year's winner for best use of a garment as a billboard is Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury, who outfitted himself and his assistants in white shirts with the school's name written in huge maroon letters. The shirts eschewed school initials -- MSU also could be Michigan State, Murray State or Morgan State -- and logos -- a Bulldog could represent Georgia or Gonzaga -- to eliminate any confusion. That may seem like a little thing, but not every prospect knows the difference between a Georgia Bulldog and a Mississippi State Bulldog.

Meanwhile, Memphis coach John Calipari was the only coach to set foot in the Riverfront Activities Center without one scrap of school gear on his body. Saturday night, Calipari looked more like a man on vacation on the Isle of Capri in his white linen shirt and khaki slacks. That probably didn't matter; Calipari is one of about a dozen instantly recognizable coaches. He can get away with going GQ.

Players at the Peach Jam probably aren't heading back to their hotels and breaking down film, but the officials are. Most of the refs working the tournament work in Division II or III or in the mid-major conferences, and most would someday like to jump to the power conferences. So for the past five years, SEC officials have run a camp of their own to train and identify up-and-coming officials.

"It's spring training for them," said Gerald Boudreaux, the SEC's director of officials.

Veteran SEC officials such as Ted Valentine and Tony Greene watch most games, and they offer in-game tips to the young officials. After the games, the veterans break down video of the game to point out when officials missed calls or drifted out of position. Boudreaux also requires newer SEC officials to work the tournament, and the veterans' evaluations of the younger officials help determine the pecking order for conference assignments next season.

"This sends a statement," Boudreaux said. "Guys don't just pick up their uniforms in November and get on the floor."

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