Inside College Basketball

April 04, 1999

DRAFT NOTICE
Wally Szczerbiak and others boosted their NBA stock at the NCAAs

From mid-November to late February, a small army of NBA scouts
accrue an ungodly number of frequent-flyer miles traversing the
continent to eyeball the best college talent. March, however, is
the month when scouts see how many of those same players handle
the crucible of the postseason. "The NCAA tournament shouldn't be
a final yea or nay on a player, but it's definitely significant,"
one NBA team executive says. "It's a high-profile event, and a
player has to perform well in pressure situations against quality
teams."

This year's tournament certainly boosted the stock of Miami
(Ohio) senior Wally Szczerbiak, who may have cemented himself as
a Top 5 pick by leading the Redbirds into the Sweet 16. "They
took away his shots in the Utah game [in the second round], and
he still found ways to make everyone on the floor more
effective," one scout says. "I think people were concerned about
how he would react in that kind of situation."

Several scouts also raved about Michigan State junior point
guard Mateen Cleaves ("He just keeps proving he's a winner") and
Duke senior off-guard Trajan Langdon. ("He has some limitations,
but he's more athletic than people think.") The reviews weren't
so kind for Arizona senior point guard Jason Terry, who had just
three assists and 15 points (on 4 of 17 shooting) in the
Wildcats' first-round loss to Oklahoma. One team executive who
watched that game from courtside moved Terry down seven spots on
his draft list. "He couldn't make a shot, and he didn't do
anything else to help his team win," the exec says. "Can I have
my point guard doing that?"

The analysis was less conclusive about Ohio State junior guard
Scoonie Penn. One evaluator lauded Penn's heart in leading the
Buckeyes to the Final Four, while another said Penn "could be
fool's gold."

History reveals the dangers of overemphasizing the postseason.
Jack Givens's efforts in leading Kentucky to the 1978 NCAA
championship prompted the Atlanta Hawks to select him with the
16th pick that spring. Givens was out of the league after two
years. Conversely, former Arizona point guard Michael Dickerson,
who fell to No. 14 in last year's draft because of his
consistently poor shooting in the NCAA tournament, has been one
of the NBA's most productive rookies this season, averaging a
little over 10 points per game in a starting role for the
Houston Rockets. "Dickerson got ripped for not coming through in
the tournament, and now look at him," says Dave Babcock,
director of scouting for the Milwaukee Bucks. "When you're
scouting a player, you have to be careful not to let one thing
dominate your decision."

Air Apparent?
HIGH SCHOOLER BETTERS JORDAN

Jonathan Bender, a 6'11" senior center at Picayune (Miss.) High,
was sitting in a hotel lounge in Ames, Iowa, on the night of
March 20, a few hours after he arrived for the McDonald's
All-American game to be played four days later. Bender began
confessing to his fellow high school All-Americas that his gut
was already churning because he was so nervous about the game.
"Don't worry," said Casey Sanders, a 6'11" center from Tampa.
"It's only on national television, with millions of people
watching." The room broke up as Bender clutched his stomach and
doubled over.

That was Bender's last uncomfortable moment of the week. During
the slam-dunk contest two days later, he turned in the jaw
dropper of the competition when he took off from the foul line
and jammed. He dominated the next night's scrimmage with an
inside-outside game that evoked constant comparisons to
Minnesota Timberwolves forward Kevin Garnett. And in the
all-star game last Wednesday night, Bender capped off his week
by scoring 31 points--on national television, with millions of
people watching--to break Michael Jordan's 18-year-old
McDonald's scoring record by one point. Bender shot 11 for 19 (2
for 3 from three-point range) and finished with 10 rebounds and
three blocks. "That was the biggest experience of my life,"
Bender says of breaking Jordan's record. "I never thought I'd do
anything like that."

Bender also scored plenty of points with the dozens of NBA
scouts in attendance. "He's much better than any of the high
school guys who came out last year," said one. "I'm sure someone
will take him in the lottery if he comes out." Bender will
probably enter the draft if he is guaranteed to be a top 10
pick. ("You'd be a dummy not to, right?" he says.) But with the
May 16 deadline to enter the draft fast approaching and the jury
still out on whether in fact he would go that high, Bender is
telling anyone who asks that he still intends to follow through
on his commitment to attend Mississippi State next fall.

Stay tuned.

The Women's Tournament
TO CHANGE OR NOT TO CHANGE

Tennessee's absence from the women's Final Four wasn't the only
tournament upheaval discussed by the coaches gathered in San
Jose last week. The NCAA women's basketball committee is
considering two changes that could alter the texture of its
tournament far more significantly than the sudden silencing of
Rocky Top. The first--the assignment of predetermined sites for
the first and second rounds (currently, the top 16 seeds each
host a sub-regional, ensuring strong fan support and a dearth of
early-round upsets)--is already wending its way through various
NCAA approval channels and could be in effect for next year's
tournament. A number of coaches aren't convinced the women's
game is ready to trade the guarantee of large home court crowds
for a more level playing field. Though the Final Four has sold
out for the last seven years, the predetermined regional sites
have had spotty success. "Until we're selling out regionals, we
shouldn't think about changing the sub-regional format," said
Purdue coach Carolyn Peck last week. "People casually watching
the tournament on TV need to see gyms packed. If they see nobody
in the stands, they're going to think, Why should I watch? I say
let it come of its own accord. The interest is growing, and it
will continue to grow."

The other controversial change being contemplated by the
committee--one that's in the "very preliminary discussion
stage," according to committee chair Bernadette McGlade--is
moving the Final Four to the week before or the week after the
men's to give the women their own spotlight. Trouble is, that
strategy may not bring more attention to the women's
championship. "I think you need to be very careful, especially
if you do it after the men," says Louisiana Tech coach Leon
Barmore. "Interest in basketball around the country is going to
disappear on you. People are going to go outside and play golf.
But then, I also thought the WNBA wasn't going to make it in the
summer."

"If you do it the week after, it's anticlimatic," adds Georgia
coach Andy Landers. "If you do it the week before, you're going
to run up against the men's regionals, and I don't think that
you've helped yourself there. The Philadelphia Inquirer, for
example, might send two reporters to the men's Final Four, but it
might have to send four to the men's regionals because of all the
teams in the east. I think the media attention we have now [744
credentials were issued for San Jose] is great. When I was at the
Final Four in 1983 the media room was a classroom with 12 or 15
people in it."

The idea of shifting the women's Final Four does have its
advocates. "I think moving it to the week before the men's is a
really good idea," says Colorado coach Ceal Barry. "Then, the
women are the focus of the weekend. Most conference tournaments
work well that way." --Kelli Anderson

COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO Szczerbiak (in red) was tripped up by Kentucky but not before he'd cemented a top draft slot. COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER High school star Bender drew comparisons to Garnett with his play.

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