- Andy Katz, ESPN Senior Writer
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Oklahoma coach Kelvin Sampson returned from coaching the U.S. under-21 national team to a gold medal in Canada and praised his assistants, notably Tom Crean's organizational skills.
He doesn't know the half of it.
The Marquette coach has the Big East already scouted.
The Big East. Marquette has another season in Conference USA to play, but the Golden Eagles spent the spring preparing for Connecticut, Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame.
The Golden Eagles won't join the 16-team Big East until 2005-06, and this summer's recruiting catch will be the first group of newcomers to play in the Big East. That's why Crean put a must-get tag on almost every recruit that was within Marquette's grasp. Similar thinking was going on at South Florida and DePaul, although not as much at Louisville and Cincinnati, the two higher-profile programs that will enter with their CUSA brethren in 2005.
Crean and his Marquette staff lived up to their own expectations. The Golden Eagles hauled in three commitments in July from potential impact players. Shooting guard Wes Matthews of Madison (Wis.) Memorial High was a huge get for the Eagles as they try to beat rival Wisconsin for the top in-state talent. Point guard Dominic James of Richmond High in Indiana was a target of Purdue, and small forward Jerel McNeal of Hillcrest High in Tinley Park, Ill., was of interest to other area schools, notably Dayton.
"The Big East has had an impact on what we've been able to do so far," Crean said. "There's no question that this is an important recruiting class. And it's very, very important to know the landscape of where you're going."
That's why Crean had his assistants do a full-scale statistical analysis of the Big East.
"We went back the last three years and tried to get a feel for what they were doing and what the improvement rate was for some of their players," Crean said of Big East players. "We wanted to show our players the improvement that was made from the freshman to junior seasons in the Big East. We went with the players who are there and could be there. We couldn't plan on someone leaving Connecticut. Connecticut, Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Notre Dame and Villanova will be as good or better than they are now when we get there."
Crean said the Eagles' 2003 Final Four appearance and the success of Dwyane Wade in his NBA rookie season certainly helped land recruits this summer. He said he also was out as much as possible in the spring, especially knowing he was going to be off the recruiting trail for the last two weeks of July while coaching with Sampson and Team USA.
Crean and his staff were looking for players like Wade, who was 6-foot-4 but had a wingspan of 6-11. He said he was looking for tough players and gym rats who would be working toward getting even better before the Eagles join the Big East.
"There are no weak links in that league," Crean said of the 16-team Big East in 2005. "All of us are going to work with a fear of failure in the Big East. But it can either motivate you or paralyze you. We've got to continue to work and develop players and make sure they are the right players for us."
Marquette had to recruit at a high level this summer to continue being a player in the Big East. Here is the approach the other four took on entering the league:
Robert McCullum doesn't have any commitments yet to show for his work. But the Bulls' second-year coach claims they are close to showing the Big East move is having an effect.
It has to.
The Bulls finished 1-15 in Conference USA last season, 7-20 overall. And the Bulls have five seniors on the roster. That puts a must tag on this recruiting class. If the Bulls were last in Conference USA with a veteran team, what are they going to be with a young team in the Big East?
That's why the younger players have to be talented enough to contribute immediately.
"We don't have any verbal commitments yet, but the level of interest from kids in Big East markets wouldn't be there if we weren't moving to the conference," McCullum said.
"We made a decision last year to go into the Northeast, Washington, D.C., Baltimore, New York and Boston. We knew we had to have a presence in that part of the country. It's not something that is going to happen overnight but we had to be more visible."
McCullum predicts the Big East will have even more of an impact once recruits see the Bulls playing in the conference in 2005-06.
McCullum said the Bulls weren't going to take chances on recruits in last season's recruiting class and certainly not in this one that couldn't play in the Big East. He said he wasn't going to waste any scholarships, just to fill a roster spot, if the player couldn't compete at that level.
"I didn't want to push the panic button my first year," McCullum said. "These are the kids that have to be ready to contribute the first year in Big East play."
But that's why McCullum did take Purdue transfer Melvin Buckley, hoping that a Big Ten player would help ease the transition. Buckley will sit out this coming season and then be a junior when the Bulls move to the Big East. McCullum was able to add the 6-7 Buckley once the five-and-eight scholarship rule of limiting a school to only five scholarships in one season and no more than eight was rescinded in the spring.
The Blue Demons are close to getting commitments, but don't have any to show just yet.
Still, coach Dave Leitao, a former Big East assistant at Connecticut, said the effects of the Big East have occurred.
"There's been a bump," Leitao said. "Combine that with going to the (2004 NCAA) tournament and it all has helped this summer."
But Leitao is realistic that playing in the Big East won't have a real effect in recruiting until the players in the Midwest "see it, and enjoy the concept of something new."
DePaul is still recruiting the high-level player it did in Conference USA. Clearly, DePaul has recruited at a high level in the past under previous coaches as well as during Leitao's brief two-year tenure. The Blue Demons lost incoming recruit Dorell Wright to the NBA when he went to the Miami Heat in the first round.
"But you want to make a big splash (in the Big East) so there is that extra added pressure (this summer)," Leitao said.
DePaul did take a transfer in Miami's Karron Clarke (3.1 ppg, 10.7 mpg). Clarke will sit out this upcoming season and have three seasons of eligibility remaining when the Blue Demons enter the Big East. DePaul might take another one in Prairie View A&M's Tyrone Nelson (15.1 ppg, 8.4 rpg) to give some veteran leadership when the Blue Demons make the switch. Nelson would be a sophomore when DePaul goes to the Big East.
Leitao said he was looking for even more athletic players to recruit to the Big East.
"Big East players always have a flare to them," Leitao said.
The Cardinals are cleaning up in recruiting this summer. But Louisville doesn't necessarily think it has to do with the Big East.
Louisville has Rick Pitino to sell and a tradition that could rival any other Big East school.
Still, the Cardinals want to make a splash when they land in the Big East in 2005-06. Louisville wants and expects to waltz in and be competitive at the top of the league with its CUSA teams like Cincinnati and the Big East powers like Connecticut, Pittsburgh and Syracuse.
Louisville landed big-time recruits in the class of 2004 when the Cardinals got forwards Brian Johnson and Tello Palacios for the 2004-05 season and then grabbed Kansas transfer David Padgett in the spring. Padgett's first season after sitting out at Louisville will be in the Big East.
The haul this summer for the class of 2005 includes commitments from 6-9 Amir Johnson of Westchester Senior High in L.A., point guard Andre McGee of Canyon Springs High in Moreno Valley, Calif., small forward Terrence Williams of Rainier Beach High in Seattle and 7-foot center Clarence Holloway of Harlan Community Academy in Chicago.
Just think if the Cardinals would have been able to keep 2004 recruits JC transfer Donta Smith and point Sebastian Telfair instead of the two declaring for and staying in the NBA draft.
"We wanted the best players regardless of us being in the Big East or Conference USA," Louisville assistant Vince Taylor said. "We knew these two recruiting classes ('04 and '05) were critical.
"We're fortunate to get strong players in Johnson, Pellacios and Padgett. We've got a great foundation."
Taylor said the Cardinals had to get bigger in the post before going into the Big East. Sure, he said, Marquette and Cincinnati have had strong teams in the post inside, but battling in the lane will be even tougher in the expanded Big East.
"We'll be deep going into the Big East," Taylor said. "That's for sure."
The Bearcats recruit a little differently. They don't necessarily have to sell a league. They've got Bob Huggins and the tradition to sell.
They also don't usually get a lot of early commitments. Cincinnati has one already, even with Huggins' summertime suspension for a DUI in June.
Tyree Evans, a 6-2 shooting guard out of The Winchendon School (Ma.), committed after Huggins' arrest. So far he still plans on signing with the Bearcats in the fall.
But make no mistake: This is a critical recruiting season for the Bearcats. But it just will be harder to judge the class until April. Cincinnati will probably use the entire season to recruit, especially in light of Huggins being off the recruiting trail all summer.
The Bearcats aren't going to go into the Big East limping. They plan on making an impact. That's why Huggins plans on returning with even more drive once he's allowed to coach this team again.
There is too much at stake for the program to go into the Big East without being prepared.
"The players who are typically attracted to Cincinnati are attracted to Cincinnati, regardless of Conference USA or the Big East or whatever league we are in," Cincinnati assistant Andy Kennedy said.
"The one thing the Big East will do for us is get us into different markets. We don't usually recruit New York (former Bearcat Kenny Satterfield was from N.Y.), but we will," Kennedy said. "We haven't had kids from the Boston area because we didn't recruit there. This will help with our name recognition in the Northeast, and that's where you might see a change in recruiting. It will take us a year to feel the effects of the Big East."
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com. His Weekly Word on college basketball is updated Fridays throughout the year.