Thursday, March 07, 2002

For a great team, sign average guys

Lesser players shine in wake of stars' early exits

        All coaches are star-struck. Don't let them tell you otherwise. “Pompous guys would tell you otherwise,” UC coach Bob Huggins said.

        College basketball coaches want the best players they can get. It doesn't matter if the player is gone in a year. It does matter if the kid's a prima donna Me-Man, too good to be coached. But only a little. Talent matters more.

        Talent is why Memphis coach John Calipari can stand in Firstar Center on a Wednesday morning and say he's building his program around Dajuan Wagner. That's like building a sand castle in the middle of a lake.

        Wagner is a freshman guard who averages 21 points a game and plays like Allen Iverson. He's the best freshman in Conference USA, the best player on his team and, by all accounts, coachable and a good teammate. He's also probably gone after this season.

        If Calipari is building a program around Dajuan Wagner, he'd better hurry.

        If I'm a coach, I don't spend lots of time wooing a high school kid who's using my team as an audition, no matter how good he is. I don't want to be a shrink, a suck-up or captain of the anti-probation police. That's another thing about great players: They come with their own “people,” skilled at telling them how flawless they are and offering them lots of rule-breaking things.

        I'd find lesser players who stayed three seasons or four, whose loyalty extended beyond their own jump shots. By the time they were juniors and seniors, they'd have improved to the point they might actually be able to play a little.

        Not everyone agrees. “If you're into getting your (butt) beat for a year, that's a great philosophy,” Huggins said.

        “Any coach in America” would take a player like Dajuan Wagner, Calipari said. “The ones that say they wouldn't, couldn't get him.”

        Or as UC assistant Dan Peters said: “Somebody's going to take him. Why not us?”

        But here's the thing about UC: The Bearcats always have been better with lesser players who have stayed and worked and improved. That's as true with this year's team as it was 10 years ago, with the Final Four collection.

        Huggins calls them “Burger King guys.” You have your McDonald's All-Americans, the players everyone knows and wants, hype falling off them like juked defenders. And you have Burger King guys, who are grateful for playing time, plane rides and hot showers on the road.

        Here's Huggins' all-time roster of UC's McDonald's all-Americans: Dontonio Wingfield, Damon Flint, Danny Fortson, DerMarr Johnson and Kenny Satterfield. Only Fortson made a lasting impression. Johnson lasted a season, Satterfield wanted to impress the NBA guys and, all things considered, Wingfield wasn't worth a Big Mac.

        It is no coincidence UC's best player now is Steve Logan. “The little fat kid,” Huggins calls him. Huggins signed Logan hoping he'd “make open shots and not throw the ball away.” Now, he calls Logan “the most valuable player in the country.”

        Logan follows Kenyon Martin, Corie Blount and Nick Van Exel as self-made players who weren't considered special coming into college. “Who we get,” Peters said, “is a lot of guys that are just kind of average.”

        So ... Dajuan Wagner or Steve Logan? That's oversimplifying things, sure. Wagner as a senior would be as good as Logan, maybe better. We'll never know. He won't stay. If he did, think how many good players and teams he'd take along with him. Calipari actually might build a castle on dry ground.

        I'd take my chances with a four-year player. Students are more coachable than mercenaries.

        Contact Paul Daugherty at 768-8454; e-mail:


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- DAUGHERTY: For a great team, sign average guys
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