Waltzing to Tennessee: State schools bringing in hoops stars

Friday, May 16, 2008 at 1:33am

Even Scotty Hopson’s family questioned his sanity this spring when he announced he will play basketball at the University of Tennessee.

Hopson is from University Heights Academy in Hopkinsville, Ky., and players from the basketball-crazy Bluegrass State don’t have to reduce themselves to leaving home and playing in – gasp! – a football state.

Ranked as one of the nation’s 10 best prep players this year, the silky-smooth Hopson received what most players from his state desire: A scholarship offer from the University of Kentucky.

Under normal circumstances, an offer from UK quickly closes the deal. Not this time, however.

Few in Hopkinsville understood or approved of Hopson’s decision when he spurned the Wildcats and signed with the Volunteers.

“Everyone who knew I was going to Tennessee was upset,” Hopson said. “Even my family wanted me to go to Kentucky, but I had to do what’s best for me.”

Hopson’s crossing of state lines is part of a trend that is casting the state of Tennessee in a new hoops light. Eleven of the nation’s top 100 prospects, as ranked by Rivals.com, have signed to play at Tennessee, Vanderbilt or Memphis.

It’s the most of any state, and not since 12 top-100 players signed with North Carolina schools in 2006 has any other state even had 11 in one year.

The number might swell to 12 depending on the decision of forward Devin Ebanks of Oakdale, Conn., a one-time Indiana commitment who is expected to decide between Memphis and West Virginia as soon as Sunday.

What in the name of Gen. Robert Neyland is going on in this state?

It was noteworthy enough in March when five Tennessee teams played in the NCAA Tournament, the second most of any state. Now, top players from around the nation are flocking to a 390-mile stretch of Interstate-40 that is becoming one of the most significant and trendy areas in college basketball.

“It’s a pretty glorious confluence of events in a state that has never enjoyed this level of broad basketball success,” Pat Forde of ESPN.com said.

And what are those events? Look no further than the hirings of head coaches Kevin Stallings at Vanderbilt, Bruce Pearl at Tennessee and John Calipari at Memphis.

BREAKING THROUGH

Given the school’s academic environment, recruiting at Vanderbilt is no easy task, a fact Stallings clearly understood when he arrived in Nashville in 1999.

For the first five years, Stallings and his assistants mostly struck out on their top recruiting targets. Then, in 2004, Shan Foster of Kenner, La., signed with the Commodores after considering heavyweights such as Kansas and Georgetown.

Foster departed Vanderbilt this spring as the school’s all-time leading scorer, but his recruitment helped Stallings kick down some locked doors.

This year, in signing guard Brad Tinsley, swingman Jeff Taylor and forwards Lance Goulbourne and Steve Tchiengang, Vanderbilt has four top-100 players who might comprise the best harvest in school history.

“There’s not a better salesman in the country than Kevin Stallings as far as the quality of education at Vanderbilt and the city on Nashville,” ESPN college basketball analyst Jimmy Dykes said. “Everything you have to overcome at Vanderbilt, he’s able to do that.”

Stallings has left no stone unturned in recruiting. He’s recruited internationally, landing Australia’s A.J. Ogilvy and England’s Alan Metcalfe.

Stallings has pursued key transfers such as Derrick Byars, who became Southeastern Conference Player of the Year in 2006 after arriving from Virginia, and two-year starter Ross Neltner, who came from LSU.

“At Vandy, they’ve been extremely inventive,” said Mike DeCourcy, college basketball writer for The Sporting News.. “They’ve taken the right transfers. They’ve gone overseas. They’ve evaluated beautifully.

“I’ve always believed Kevin Stallings to be a terrific strategist. I think he carries that over into his recruiting.”

ALL ABOUT STYLE

Tennessee is winning big and recruiting well since Pearl arrived in 2005. Last season, the Vols won their first regular-season SEC championship since 1967, and Pearl was named co-SEC Coach of the Year.

This year, in landing Hopson, Pearl is signaling that his effective recruiting efforts show no signs of slippage. Hopson is his first McDonald’s All-America player and only UT’s sixth ever.

“This is a big one,” Pearl told the Knoxville News Sentinel after Hopson signed. “It breaks a door down for me, my first McDonald’s All-American, a guy with a lot of visibility.”

Pearl’s effusive personality, along with his frenetic style of play, is proving irresistible to recruits, analysts say.

“All he has to do is put in a tape,” Dykes said. “Kids love the style of play Tennessee is playing. His game film sells his program right now.”

Hopson admitted as much.

“That was a big key,” he said.

Some liken Hopson’s recruitment to that of Chris Lofton, who won Mr. Basketball honors at Kentucky’s Mason County High in 2004 but was not recruited by Kentucky.

At Tennessee, Lofton became one of the most feared perimeter shooters in college basketball and left this spring as the leading 3-point shooter in Southeastern Conference history.

“Bruce Pearl going into Kentucky and getting Scotty Hopson was impressive because he wasn’t like Chris Lofton,” Forde said. “The home-state school wanted him.”

ACE RECRUITER

Memphis’ recruiting success is no mystery. Calipari, since he elevated Massachusetts to national prominence in the 1990s, has become known as an ace recruiter.

He does it with the same loquacious style as Pearl.

“Calipari is the best pure salesman in college basketball recruiting,” DeCourcy said. “He’s probably the best since Al McGuire.

“That doesn’t rest well with people who view salesmanship as a character flaw, but I think that’s ridiculous. In the end, the single most important part of a college coach’s job is procuring talent. In the pros, usually there’s someone who has that specific job. In college, it’s the head coach.”

While Vanderbilt and Tennessee are reeling in impressive talent, Memphis often operates on its own plane by recruiting players who will be sure-fire first-round NBA draft picks after only one season.

Freshman point-guard sensation Derrick Rose led the Tigers to the brink of the national championship this spring then – as everyone anticipated – declared himself eligible for this summer’s NBA Draft.

Tyreke Evans could be the next one-and-done Tiger. The 6-foot-5 guard from Aston, Pa., part of the 2008 recruiting class, is ranked as the nation’s No. 6 player.

It’s a tradeoff Calipari is willing to accept.

“Memphis is benefitting from the NBA’s installation of the draft age limit,” DeCourcy said. “The Tigers have been recruiting this well since Calipari arrived, but too many of the players they landed never enrolled. With the limit in place, a Derrick Rose or Tyreke Evans is going to play a minimum of a year.”

Calipari can recruit assistant coaches, too. Joining the Memphis staff this week is former Arizona assistant Josh Pastner, considered among the nation’s top young recruiters.

Pastner will replace star recruiter Derek Kellogg, who left this spring to become head coach at UMass.

MERE COINCIDENCE?

Is Tennessee really becoming a basketball state? Or are Vanderbilt, Tennessee and Memphis simply riding a wave of happenstance?

“There are so many issues unique to the three programs in question,” DeCourcy said. “The schools don’t recruit from the same pools, generally, and it isn’t that they’ve been loading up on a bumper-crop of in-state players. I think their simultaneous success is more a coincidence than anything.”

Stallings, Pearl and Calipari grew up, played basketball and began their coaching careers in other parts of the country. None had any ties to Tennessee before arriving here in this decade.

As seen in this year’s recruiting, however, each coach is leaving a mark on his new home state.

“You have three high-profile, proven, successful coaches,” Dykes said. “There’s a reason their names came up for other jobs this spring, and it’s because they are proven winners. They go about it in different ways, but they all end up in ultimate success.

“I think it’s going to continue as long as those three head coaches are there.”

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