Here's where the story cuts to the core: Three years ago, Rutgers coach Gary Waters had the best players from the best high school programs in the state of New Jersey gathered on the floor of his campus arena. It was an annual tournament, and the Scarlet Knights coach had a chance to get his message unfiltered for three days to the kids his school had seldom been able to win over.
So there was Waters, so enthusiastic, throwing out a question: What do you know about Rutgers basketball? He was looking for hands, but made the mistake of calling upon one of the state's best players, a kid who had told the Scarlet Knights he wanted no part of them recruiting him.
Well, what do you know? That was Waters' question.
The kid answered with what he knew. "That you guys stink," he sniffed.
All right then. Anything else?
This was the kind of low esteem New Jersey's state university had been held within the psyche of the state's deep talent base. It's a disconnect with top prospects and programs that turned into a problem for Seton Hall, too. The Big East Conference programs within New Jersey were forever losing the best players to cherry picking by out-of-state schools. The schools' low-energy, lightly connected coaching staffs were getting eaten alive in the cutthroat culture of metropolitan New York recruiting.
Well, now it gets interesting. If nothing else, new Rutgers coach Fred Hill, who takes over for Waters, changes everything. He is a hellacious traditional recruiter of New Jersey, a native of Verona with close relationships to the state's top high school coaches. Out of the gates, Hill is life-and-death with Duke over the best player in the state, Lance Thomas, out of St. Benedict's in Newark. The best junior guard in the state, Corey Chandler, has already declared for the state university.
Make no mistake: The tremors within Jersey played a part in the changing course at Seton Hall. Truth be told, the fear that former coach Louis Orr had fallen off the recruiting map in New Jersey had a lot to do with his firing in March, despite the fact that he had reached two NCAA Tournaments in the past three seasons. In a lot of ways, the Hall hired the anti-Orr, the fast-talking, street-fighting Bobby Gonzalez out of Manhattan College, a tenacious climber with strong ties in the New York City public and Catholic school leagues.
As much as anything, the arrival of Hill and Gonzalez sets the stage for a brass-knuckle fight for metropolitan-area recruits, the rising of a resistance to out-of-town recruiters that hasn't existed here for a long, long time. Now, Rutgers and Seton Hall have fearless and ferocious recruiters. This could get nasty, and get nasty fast. If nothing else, this could be wildly entertaining on the other side of the Hudson River.
"I've had a Big East coach at another school mention to me already that he's now really got to watch everything he does in the recruiting process because Freddie and Gonzo are going to be watching them like hawks now," said St. Benedict's coach Dan Hurley, who has joined his father, Bob Sr., of St. Anthony of Jersey City, as one of the nation's prominent coaches.
"The last couple of years, guys have come into the state, gotten who they've wanted and got out. The reaction from other college coaches lately has been that they're now concerned about recruiting here against Seton Hall and Rutgers. In the last couple of years they had no concern."
Gonzalez and Hill have been racing to get coaching staffs together, working hard to find a balance of respected New Jersey and New York assistants. What doomed Waters at Rutgers and Orr at the Hall were assistants with Midwestern roots, coaches who didn't understand the importance of relationships and trust within the state's high school and AAU fraternity. Hill destroyed the Hall and Rutgers as the top assistant at Villanova, recruiting Jason Fraser, Curtis Sumpter and Allan Ray out of New York, and Randy Foye and Mike Nardi out of Northern Jersey to construct the core of Villanova's program.
Gonzalez beat people to kids in New York who were better than the MAAC conference, players who helped him get March victories over modern national championship programs at Florida and Maryland.
There's something of a secret handshake within Jersey, a fierce loyalty to the familiar. From his days on the staff at Villanova and Seton Hall, Fairleigh Dickinson and Maine, Marquette and Rider, Hill has a history of mining Jersey. He has a history of keeping relationships with high school coaches even when they go years without having a recruit good enough for his program, a history of X's and O's acumen and player development bred under Villanova's Jay Wright, FDU's Tom Green and his uncle, Orlando Magic coach Brian Hill.
"Growing up in this area, I believe the best coaches and best players [are] from this place," Hill said. "The competitiveness is unreal. I've dreamed about getting this job and keep these kids home. The traditional powers have come in here and taken these kids, but I believe most of these players want to stay at home and play in front of family and friends in a league that's one of the best in the country. But they want to know that they're going to have success with you, that they don't have to go away from home to have it."
After joining Waters' staff a year ago as the top assistant, Hill had a one-year start on Gonzalez chasing the state's rich depth of underclassmen. Hired just a week ago, Gonzalez is trying to catch up, discovering that a Seton Hall program with little talent had even less profile with the state's top programs. Orr's staff had gone away from recruiting the area, reaching into the Midwest -- and it wasn't working.
Gonzalez is close to hiring well-regarded Monmouth assistant Geoff Billet for his Seton Hall staff, according to sources, and is using much of his time to get Seton Hall back into the fight. The Hall had virtually stopped recruiting St. Benedict's Prep, a 10-minute drive from the South Orange campus. From top to bottom, St. Benedict's has as much well-coached talent as any high school program in the nation. Right away, Gonzalez got on the telephone with unsigned point guard Eugene Harvey and told him that he was going to recruit the unsigned senior hard until the kid made a decision.
"That's our No. 1 priority, and just about all we're going to be doing for a while," Gonzalez said. "When Seton Hall got to the national championship game, they had tough New York and New Jersey kids like John Morton [who will be a part of his staff], Gerald Greene and Mark Bryant. I recruited those kinds of kids -- God Shammgod, Jamel Thomas -- as an assistant at Providence. What you need to recruit this area are relationships, an understanding with the coaches that you're going to do right by their kids.
"If I get a kid from Bob Hurley at St. Anthony's, I don't need to play him 40 minutes a game, but I have to make sure that I'm fair and straight with him. Because if I'm not, I'm not going to get another kid from there."
For once, Seton Hall and Rutgers have coaches who get it, who understand it takes a 24-7 commitment to win at these schools, to beat back the Dukes and Connecticuts and Syracuses when they come rolling in to recruit the kids here. For the first time in a long time, if nothing else, these two Jersey schools have coaches who understand the landscape, the challenge and what it takes to win here. This ought to be a street fight.
Adrian Wojnarowski is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPNWoj10@aol.com. His new book, "The Miracle Of St. Anthony: A Season with Coach Bob Hurley And Basketball's Most Improbable Dynasty", is available nationwide.