Change of heart nothing new
Recruit decommits, college coaches scratch their heads and shrug their shoulders
LAS VEGAS -- Josh Selby isn't the top-rated player in his class. Although various other recruiting services place him higher, our ESPNU 100 rankings don't even have him in the top 15 -- a fact, by the way, the Maryland native disagrees with rather strongly. "No comment," he says with an eye roll.
No comment or not, no one is making more noise in these final recruiting weeks of the summer than Selby.
The rising senior's decision to decommit from Tennessee has tongues wagging and folks here on alert.
During Selby's early-morning game here, John Calipari, Jim Calhoun, Bill Self and three NCAA reps found seats in the bleachers.
I spoke with a collection of assistant and head coaches. Everyone knew about Selby, or at least had heard a rumored version of the tale, but even seasoned coaches, who have been knee-deep in the morass that is college basketball, are wondering whether there is any honor left among the thieves.
There was a time, one coach said, when you didn't recruit a kid who had already made a commitment to a school. Maybe that's not the case in football, but certainly that was the gentleman's agreement in hoops.
Now it's open season. Commitments are made to be broken.
Bruce Pearl, who under NCAA rules can't talk about Selby since he's still a prospect, earns the empathy vote this week. Selby is his second recruit to bolt Knoxville, after Aaron Craft's decision to stay at home and play for Ohio State.
Of course, last year, Scotty Hopson was committed to Mississippi State.
Until he ended up at Tennessee.
Indeed, what happened with Selby this week -- and depending on whom you talk to, you can dredge up at least three different stories -- isn't unusual. Recruits decommit so regularly these days that you wonder why coaches bother getting commitments in the first place.
Commitments have all the staying power of a puppy-love pledge, and signed agreements are written in erasable ink.
But as this recruiting season nears its ends, the question is: Why are so many kids suddenly getting the yips?
Why did Xavier Henry, who opted out of Memphis after Calipari left, suddenly need to be reassured that Kansas was the right place for him?
Why did Selby, who pledged to Tennessee months ago -- and who as recently as July 7 told CBSSports.com that his commitment was solid -- back out?
Are kids changing their minds, or are coaches and their helpers breaking the last standing code of ethics in college basketball and manipulating their minds?
"It doesn't take much," one coach said. "Just 'Tennessee? Really?' can get a kid to thinking."
Maybe this is nothing more than what Selby and his mother, Maeshon Witherspoon, say it is: a jilting at the altar to prevent the need for a messy divorce down the road. He says he's been thinking about reopening his recruitment for three months now; that when he chose Tennessee he was blown away by the atmosphere and the excitement of an SEC football weekend; and that now that he's had time to cool his jets, he has realized he may have been hasty.
He's a teenager. Most teenagers struggle with the binding commitment of songs on an iPod.
"I really only looked at two schools," Selby said. (The other was Louisville.) "I just want to make sure I get the right fit, that I make the right decision."
But kids also are easily swayed. They get stars in their eyes when someone dangles the carrot of their dream directly in their faces. That doesn't make them bad. It makes them kids. It doesn't make their parents bad people. It makes them parents anxious to do right by their sons.
Selby decommitted a week after the LeBron James Skills Academy, just days after his mother chatted with hoops power broker William Wesley, aka "Worldwide Wes."
Wesley may very well have said nothing to Witherspoon or Selby about Kentucky, Oregon or any other school suddenly in the mix, but the power of suggestion is mighty huge.
Wesley is connected -- connected to LeBron, connected to Nike, connected to certain schools that sport Nike gear.
Tennessee doesn't factor into those connections. The Vols wear adidas.
As far as Selby is concerned, though, Wesley is nobody to him.
"I don't know who he is," he said. "I don't know him at all."
Witherspoon said she spoke with Wesley only twice.
"We never had lunch, he never called my son's phone, I never had dinner with LeBron," Witherspoon said, trying to knock off the various rumors spinning on the mill.
She said she spoke to him once after her son said "something slick" during a game at the NBA Player's Association Top 100 camp and Wesley told her about it. She apologized.
At the LeBron camp, she said she was talking to the mother of heralded recruit Michael Gilchrist. Wesley was there and suggested she hire a track coach for her son.
"Track athletes never have leg injuries," Witherspoon said. "So he told me to hire Josh a track coach. That's the only conversation we had."
The fact that Gilchrist's mother, Cindy Richardson, grew up in the same neighborhood as Wesley, and that Gilchrist considers Wesley an uncle, never came into play.
"Why would I talk about a man who has nothing to do with my son?" she said.
Except that a source close to Wesley told ESPN.com's Andy Katz that Witherspoon actually walked up to Wesley and asked whether he was "Worldwide Wes."
The source also said that Wesley is being unfairly blamed for Selby's change of heart and that the family actually was more concerned with off-the-court problems at Tennessee. Former Vol Ramar Smith was arrested in conjunction with an armed home invasion in March. He and Duke Crews had been thrown off the team in May 2008.
But Witherspoon downplayed those issues.
"Any school has its problems," she said. "It's all about how you carry yourself and how you act. Things can happen anywhere. We didn't worry about that. Bruce Pearl and his staff are great guys."
Regardless of how we got here, it is now open season on Josh Selby.
Selby said his list includes everyone -- "hey, D-II schools, I don't care," he said, laughing. Most coaches also laugh at that idea, figuring where there's Worldwide Wes, there's only a few choices. "I'm pretty sure it's a small list," one said.
As for Selby? "I'm going to take a lot of time before I commit again," he said.
Let's just hope when he makes it, it's honored.
ESPN.com senior writer Andy Katz contributed to this story. Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at email@example.com.