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Recruiting mysteries explained

Coach covers losses by juggling more players than scholarships.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009 - 10:53 am

BLOOMINGTON – Today we're going to solve the great recruiting mystery of how Indiana coach Tom Crean can keep offering high school players more basketball scholarships than he actually has.

Yes, we could do this the old-fashioned way, which is to lurk in dark parking garages after midnight and wait for a cigarette-smoking “Deep Throat”-like source to provide cryptic answers such as “follow the money” or “how come you're not as handsome as Robert Redford,” but that no longer works in this bolt-when-it-gets-tough era.

First, a few facts. IU has three scholarships available for 2010. It has offered, based on Internet information because college coaches never provide specific details, about 100,000 players.

Sorry. Sometimes numbers confuse us. Actually, Crean has offered at least 11 players for the Class of 2010 (only Florida forward David Williams has orally committed), or two fewer than his total scholarship allotment of 13.

If this seems like a mystery, Crean said, it's not. He and his staff know what they're doing.

“We're constantly recruiting,” Crean said. “We won't explain every offer. We'll recruit and do what's best to make the program the best it can be.”

Purdue coach Matt Painter has done the same thing for his Class of 2010. He's got oral commitments from four players (guards Anthony Johnson and Terone Johnson, and forwards Travis Carroll and Donnie Hale) even though he has just three available scholarships.

No, this doesn't mean Crean and Painter are bad at math. OK, maybe they are bad at math, but that misses the point, which is coaches have to protect themselves from the fickle nature of departing athletes.

For instance, if nothing changes with the Boilers, Hale will go to prep school for a year and join the Class of 2011.

In diplomatic terms this is called Covering Your Behind. Players leave programs these days faster than Larry Brown changes coaching jobs. They leave because they are heading to the NBA, because they don't like the coach, because they want more playing time, because the coach doesn't like them, because they do something stupid, because they want to be closer to home or because they're worried about not getting enough playing time.

Oh, yes. Because they don't like the coach.

“A lot of things change and you always have to be prepared and diligent in the way you recruit,” Crean said.

Yes, coaches sometimes run off players, especially when they start a new job. For instance, John Calipari basically bounced four returning players to accommodate four talented newcomers after taking over at Kentucky this past spring.

If this seems harsh, well, so is trying to out-rebound and outrun Michigan State to justify that mega-million-dollar coaching salary. Still, it's not done often, in part because of NCAA rules on player academic progress and retention.

In the meantime, Crean continues to offer scholarships and inquiring minds want to know what's up. Recruiting rules, and the value of discretion, limit what he can reveal.

“It's never serving the best interests of Indiana basketball and the future to discuss hypotheticals,” Crean said.

If over-offering scholarships seems like a problem, it is, recruiting expert Dave Telep said, but not with the coaches.

“The bottom line is college basketball has changed so much, whether it's guys leaving for the pros or transferring, that the game is much more transient than it was a decade ago,” said Telep, the national recruiting director for Scout.com, an Internet recruiting service. “Coaches have factored change on their roster every year.”

High-profile coaches at high-profile programs are expected to win big and contend for championships every year regardless of roster turnover, although Crean has gotten a short-term break because of the fallout from the sanction-filled Kelvin Sampson era.

“It starts at the high school and AAU levels,” Telep said, “and now it's moved up to the colleges. Players don't fight through adversity. They often run from difficult situations. Coaches have begun planning for that. They have to.

“You have to look at Tom Crean and Matt Painter as CEOs of corporations. That means having a pulse on your people. If they understand there's a situation where a guy is not happy and the chance he might leave exists, they make moves to accommodate other guys.”

In other words, they offer scholarships to lots of quality players and see what happens. Mystery, it seems, is in the eye of the beholder.