2009 recruits could represent new era in Minnesota hoops

Updated: December 10, 2008

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By keeping Royce White (left) and Rodney Williams in the state of Minnesota, Tubby Smith could re-establish the Golden Gophers as contenders in the Big Ten.

White, Williams Could Be The Start Of Something Big At Minnesota

The problem with calling yourself the "Land of 10,000 Lakes" and sharing a border with Canada: Some people might get the wild idea that kids grow up skating year-round, while game wardens take Zambonis out on patrol.

Forgive Tubby Smith for going after the hearts and minds.

When Smith left Kentucky two years ago and landed at the University of Minnesota, he inserted the Golden Gophers into the national hoops conversation by virtue of his résumé, which includes an NCAA championship, three national coach of the year awards, 17 former players who went on to the NBA and Olympic gold as an assistant at the 2000 Games in Sydney.

A day after he was named the 16th men's basketball coach in school history, letters poured into the (Minneapolis) Star Tribune rife with optimism: about filling seats at Williams Arena and putting the program back on the map; about finally overcoming a nagging inferiority complex; about not being "the cupcake on Winona State's schedule anymore."

Unlike the kind of feedback the Kentucky faithful had been offering up -- aka demands for another national title -- there was just one minor piece of advice lobbed in Smith's direction: "Any coach at Minnesota has to keep the best kids in the state playing here."

It was a fair point. After all, how can you attract top talent from across the country if the best in-state players are packing their bags and leaving home?

In seven-plus years at the helm, it was something Don Monson struggled to do after he replaced Clem Haskins in the wake of the school's notorious academic scandal. Exhibit A: Cole Aldrich, the top high school player in Minnesota two years ago, and now a sophomore at Kansas who played in every game of the Jayhawks' championship season.

Closing the borders, so to speak, was a top priority of Smith's.

"It's important to stabilize the recruiting, and to help people understand that there's a new direction and a new commitment," Smith said. "I wanted people to know I'm serious about keeping the talent here in Minnesota."

Smith put the cornerstone in place with his second recruiting class, signing the state's top two players in Royce White (Minnetonka, Minn./Hopkins) and Rodney Williams (New Hope, Minn./Robbinsdale Cooper) -- friends since fourth grade and rival forwards who rank in the top third of the ESPNU 100.

"They were about as good as we could find in the country, and they were right in our backyard," Smith said. "We focused our attention on them right when we got here. To be able to land those two players, it was critical."

All he had to do was ask.

"I always wanted to play for the Gophers, but if they didn't have a coach like Tubby Smith, I wasn't even going to consider them," said Williams, a senior at Robbinsdale Cooper who ranks 29th in the Class of 2009. "He didn't really have to do a lot of convincing. As soon as I heard he was coming, I kind of had my mind set."

"There's a misconception that people don't want to live here or be here," added White. "I like playing in front of people that I've known my whole life. It was a major bonus that Tubby came here. He definitely sealed the deal."

Just how seminal a moment was Smith's arrival?

Dave Johnson, the 56-year-old boys basketball coach at Robbinsdale Cooper who led the Hawks to a fourth-place finish in the state tournament last year, grew up playing hoops in Minneapolis and has coached in the area for more than three decades. When the university announced Smith's hiring on March 23, 2007, Johnson was certain April Fools' Day had come early.

"The state of Minnesota was in a state of shock. People picked up the paper and they didn't believe it," Johnson said. "We had to see him on the floor to believe it."

Hoops has never been a foreign concept in Minnesota, even though it is home to the Hockey Hall of Fame and the world's largest freestanding hockey stick and puck. A certain NBA franchise was named after all the lakes before it relocated to Los Angeles, and the University of Minnesota has produced 41 pros -- second-most in the Big Ten behind Indiana.

But the focus has shifted to the future, and the spotlight has already fallen on White and Williams, who will battle head-to-head when Hopkins makes the 10-minute trip to Robbinsdale Cooper on Feb. 3. The future Gophers have emerged as the early front-runners to win the coveted Mr. Basketball award.

"Any time we play each other, it's all out," said White, who averaged 21.6 points a game last year at De LaSalle High School, where he won a state title his freshman year. "After the game we're best friends, but on the court we don't look at each other as teammates. We're enemies."

While published reports have questioned the likelihood of both players being academically eligible to attend Minnesota next fall -- White transferred to Hopkins this year after being dismissed from De LaSalle last winter for what he described as an "academic mistake," and rumors surfaced that Williams was thinking about playing professionally overseas because of poor grades -- both say they're on track and pushing each other to avoid bouts of senioritis.

Theirs is a friendship based on competition, with enough history to soften the blow if one ends up getting more playing time than the other. But that doesn't mean there won't be hard feelings when it comes to settling the issue of the top bunk.

"I know it's going to be a lot of fun. He's not going to be a boring guy to live with," said Williams, who's the same height as Williams. "But he's too big. I'm not letting him get it."

The duo can rest easy knowing the burden to resurrect Gophers basketball doesn't fall entirely on their shoulders. Trevor Mbakwe, another Minnesota product who played one year at Marquette before transferring to Miami Dade Community College, is also part of Smith's second recruiting class, along with Justin Cobbs (Torrance, Calif./Bishop Montgomery).

Smith's first recruiting class also was solid, though it lacked in-state talent. He landed one of the top players out of Canada in guard Devoe Joseph, and he signed Georgia product Ralph Sampson III, the son of NBA All-Star Ralph Sampson, who passed on Kentucky and followed him north.

"People believe it's now a strong program and that it's only going to get better," says Ken Novak, the boys basketball coach at Hopkins who has coached in Minnesota for 26 years. "Tubby has legitimacy. He's been there and he's done that."

In his first season of a seven-year contract, Smith led the Gophers to a 20-14 overall record and a sixth-place finish (8-10) in the Big Ten. Through Tuesday, the Gophers were 8-0 against non-conference opponents who aren't exactly among the nation's elite.

But the wins are still breadcrumbs and baby steps along the road to & What exactly is Smith hoping to achieve?

A random Minnesota travel guide pulled off the shelf at Barnes & Noble offers this nugget about the university: Its hockey teams "are perpetually among the best in the nation," while the basketball teams "usually put on a good show in the Big Ten Conference."

It's a nice way of saying there are better acts in town, and precisely the kind of perception Smith is out to change.

"I want to win championships, and I think we have that potential," he said. "If we do things the right way, that's a possibility in my tenure here. And I've got a few more years here, so hopefully we'll be in Final Fours and considered the type of team that can compete in that type of arena."

Matt Gagne is a general assignment and high school sports reporter at the New York Daily News. He can be reached at matt.gagne@gmail.com.


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Meet Brandon Paul

Paul

Breaking out is the easy part. Brandon Paul knows that.

The Warren (Ill.) senior understands that while he stepped into the spotlight and established himself as one of the best guards in the country last season, the pressure is on to prove he's no one-year wonder.

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That's the approach Paul took over the summer. Despite the fact that he emerged as a top prospect last season, showcasing the kind of athleticism and innate scoring ability that landed him a scholarship to Illinois, Paul spent the offseason working tirelessly to get better.

Of course, that's nothing new for the Gurnee native. Paul has been honing his game for just about his entire life, and that effort culminated in his brilliant 2007-08 season.

As a junior, Paul started 26 games and averaged 20.2 points, 6.6 rebounds and two assists per contest. He displayed an accurate shooting touch, hitting 36 percent of his 3-pointers, and earned 185 free-throw attempts with his fearless drives to the hoop. Thanks in large part to his breakout season, Paul is rated the nation's No. 27 senior shooting guard in the ESPNU 100.

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Ross has an effortless, smooth offensive game and rarely changes expression, which might give the erroneous impression that he doesn't play hard. He possesses an array of skills that make the game come very easy to him. Ross has range well beyond the 3-point line and he will shoot the pull-up from beyond the land of 3. He has textbook form, with a great follow-through and a nice, high release point on his jumper. He only misses when he does not finish his shot, drops his hands as opposed to holding his follow-through and he fades away. Ross also handles the ball very well and can easily get to the rim with his quick first step. His ball-handling skills allow him to get into the paint with ease, even when defenders try to get up in him and apply ball pressure. Ross has the lift, length, and shooting ability to get off a midrange pull-up jumper almost at will, but he does not utilize this portion of his game as much as he should. When he gets in the paint and not all the way to the rim, Ross has a tendency to negate his length and make himself smaller and easier to defend by adjusting in the air multiple times as opposed to going right up over defenders. He will become an even better finisher as he matures and adds strength to his rather thin frame. Ross also does a good job of not forcing the issue, despite his immense offensive gifts. He drives the ball and dishes out to open teammates for easy shots.

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Minnesota Signee Royce White

On The Trail

Liberty adds SG Lee to '09 class

Shooting guard Tre Lee from Hampton, Va. (Bethel) verbally committed to Liberty over the weekend. The 6-foot-5 Lee chose the Flames over St. Louis, George Washington, George Mason, Richmond and Virginia Commonwealth.

ESPN.com's National Recruiting Director Paul Biancardi talks about Lee's game.

"Tre is a shooting guard with a terrific basketball body," Biancardi said. "He possesses great size and a huge wingspan, which gives him a perfect frame for the 2 position. He's a very good long-range shooter with a solid mid-range game as well."

"Tre is good at coming off screens and reading his defender," Biancardi continued. "He's also excellent in transition and finishing at the rim or spotting up and hitting the three."

Lee can also shine on the defensive end.

"He has the ability to be a terrific defender at the next level because of his length and quickness," Biancardi said. "He can bother good shooters with his reach and has improved his ability to chase guys off screens."

Ed Huckaby, an assistant coach at Bethel High, likes what Lee can bring to the Flames next year.

"Tre has been a two-year starter for us and has a great work ethic that really rubs off on the other players," Huckaby told ESPN.com. "He can shoot the ball out to the new 3-point line and also is a great on-ball defender. Once he improves his ballhandling he should thrive in Liberty's motion-style offense."

Lee doesn't just excel on the basketball court; he's also a terrific student, according to his head coach at Bethel.

"Tre's an honor roll student here and is a full qualifier for next season," Craig Brehon told ESPN.com. "He's exactly the type of player [Liberty head coach] Ritchie McKay is looking for. His upside is tremendous and his basketball IQ is off the charts. He should step in right away and make an impact at Liberty because he is such a knowledgeable kid. Plus, he can pretty much guard anyone with his length and athleticism."

Biancardi has a tremendous amount of respect for what Brehon has done at Bethel.

"Bethel is consistently one of the top programs in country, year in and year out," he said. "Tre has improved so much in the past two years playing under Coach Brehon, and there is no doubt he will be well-prepared to play at the next level at Liberty."

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