Mid-majors crushed by early NBA departures, testing the waters
Coming off a 21-win season with a team that featured four new starters, and with the school's best-ever recruiting class set to arrive this fall, Nevada head coach Mark Fox should be excited about the Wolf Pack's prospects for next season and beyond.
Instead, he's trying to figure out how to fill a massive hole in his frontcourt, thanks to the latest NBA early-entry defection to plague his program. With 7-foot sophomore JaVale McGee's decision in March to sign with an agent and enter this year's draft, the Wolf Pack have now lost three players early in the past five years -- an unheard-of rate for a team outside the traditional powers.
"We're in uncharted waters," Fox said. "I think if you look at the BCS schools, early entry has crippled a lot of them, [but] they're in a situation where it's easier to reload. We're trying to navigate that now and still maintain a level of success."
So far, the Wolf Pack have been able to do that. Over the past five seasons, the program has won 126 games and has as many NCAA tournament wins (four) and Sweet 16s (one) as Gonzaga, the mid-major bellwether. That doesn't mean it's been easy, especially considering that the guys who left weren't no-brainer decisions.
In addition to prematurely losing wing Kirk Snyder (in 2004), point guard Ramon Sessions (2007) and now McGee, Fox also had to manage situations where star forward Nick Fazekas (in 2006) and shooting guard Marcelus Kemp (2007) tested the draft waters before making late decisions to return for their senior years. The uncertainty is almost as difficult as the exits.
"In recruiting, it just kills you," Fox said. "First of all, you don't know who you need because you don't know who's going and who's coming back. No. 2, if you try and recruit to a certain need, the kids you talk to will say, 'Well, is he going or staying?' Because if he's coming back, there's no playing time. This guy's a pro. If there's a chance he's coming back, it's hard to sell playing time because it's not necessarily there."
As regularly as the Wolf Pack have been hit by draft issues, at least they have been able to maintain success. They're in the minority, though. It isn't easy for most programs at this level to overcome draft-related losses, especially when the departing star was a big man.
Bradley hasn't been the same since sophomore Patrick O'Bryant led the Braves to the 2006 Sweet 16 and then left to become the No. 9 overall pick by Golden State. Since then, Bradley has been in the NIT in 2007 and the CBI (College Basketball Invitational) in 2008. Colorado State, which lost 7-foot junior Jason Smith in 2007, sank from 17-13 to 7-25 (0-16 Mountain West Conference) this past season. Utah has been a nonfactor in the Mountain West since sophomore Andrew Bogut left to become the No. 1 overall pick in 2005. Even Gonzaga has won only one NCAA tourney game in the two seasons since Adam Morrison left after his junior year in 2006.
Hitting closer to home, two of Nevada's Western Athletic Conference rivals have also felt recent early-entry pain. Fresno State lost forward Dominic McGuire a year early and dropped from a 22-10 NIT squad in 2006-07 to 13-19 this past season. Three-time NCAA rebounding champ Paul Millsap left Louisiana Tech as a junior in 2006, and the Bulldogs slid from a 20-13 NIT season that year to a combined 16-44 in the two seasons since.
Fox is hopeful that McGee's departure doesn't have the same type of impact on his program. This past season, the Pack worked through the graduation of Fazekas and the loss of Sessions, going 21-12 despite having four new starters around Kemp. With incoming forward Luke Babbitt, the state's all-time leading scorer (who initially committed verbally to Ohio State), headlining a big-time recruiting class coming in this fall, Nevada looked primed for another strong national push. Then McGee, who averaged 14.1 points, 7.3 rebounds and 2.8 blocks, declared for the draft. His departure, along with the exits of senior big men Demarshay Johnson and David Ellis, has left the Wolf Pack short on frontcourt talent.
"It's different I think when you lose maybe a guard as opposed to a big," Fox said. "JaVale is going to be a first-round pick. That's a big hole. Then you start looking around in the spring, there's no one of his level sitting out there waiting to be recruited. That guy is not still available and we're not in the position where we can just reload."
Sixty-nine early entrants have put their names in the 2008 NBA draft. Here is a look at the non-BCS (and not including Memphis) early entrants:Josh Akognon, G, Cal State Fullerton
Lee Cummard, F, BYU
Paul Graham III, G, Florida Atlantic
George Hill, G, IUPUI
Lester Hudson, G, Tennessee-Martin
Reggie Huffman, F, UAB
Stefon Jackson, G, UTEP
Shawn James, F, Duquesne
JaVale McGee, C, Nevada
Kojo Mensah, G, Duquesne
Jeremy Pargo, G, Gonzaga
Courtney Pigram, G, East Tennessee State
Trent Plaisted, F, BYU
Bruce Price, G, Tennessee State
Walter Sharpe, F, UAB
Robert Vaden, G, UAB
Lorrenzo Wade, F, San Diego State
Gordon Watt, F, Houston Baptist
Programs at this level can't just lose burgeoning talents like McGee and easily absorb the impact. Nevada is left with a roster for next season where no player will be taller than 6-foot-8.
As regularly as the Wolf Pack have been hit by draft issues, at least they have been able to maintain success. Other non-BCS programs that have been impacted by the draft process haven't been as lucky, especially when the star player they lost was a big man.
"That's the hardest part at our level, and that's why so many people cycle up and down," said new Kent State head coach Geno Ford, whose Golden Flashes need to replace all-conference big men Haminn Quaintance and Mike Scott. The last time they lost two quality bigs, in 2006-07, was the only time in the past decade that they have missed the postseason. " The reality is that you need good big guys at this level. Good guards are everywhere."
That's not to say that good guards always stay when they should, either. Ask George Washington coach Karl Hobbs, who had to deal with four different Colonials testing the draft waters in 2005 and 2006, a run that culminated in the loss of junior J.R. Pinnock, who left early the same year the Colonials lost seniors Pops Mensah-Bonsu and Mike Hall. Pinnock, a late second-round pick, has never played a minute in the NBA.
GW managed to win the Atlantic 10's automatic bid in 2006-07 to return to the NCAA tournament, but the heavy personnel losses finally caught up to the Colonials this past season, when they finished 9-17 overall. Having the program in limbo two straight springs didn't help Hobbs fill in talent behind those upperclassmen.
"The rule is they can investigate their possibilities of being drafted. I don't mind that at all," Hobbs said. "That being said, it's disruptive to your program because it sort of puts your program on hold because you don't know what sort of team you have coming back the following year."
At least Fox already knows that he won't have McGee for next season, but that won't make it easier to keep the run in Reno going. Scheduling, an annual task that Fox describes as "an absolute nightmare" for a program that needs to help keep the athletic department's coffers full, has next season's Pack in a bind. The slate -- which includes home games against North Carolina, UNLV and Southern Illinois along with a trip to Cal -- was crafted with the thought of having an imposing McGee/Babbitt tandem inside.
Still, Fox remains optimistic. The past several seasons, with all the draft-related questions and departures, have made him flexible and resourceful. But they haven't made him question his overall approach.
"It's not like we brought guys in that we beat BCS schools to get, but they've developed when they've been here and they've been the right kind of kids," Fox said. "I don't think we've changed our philosophy at all on what kind of kid works for Nevada. The key is to have some kind of foresight that we may be in this situation [again]."
Andy Glockner is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's college basketball coverage and is the host of the ESPNU College Basketball Insider podcast. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.