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September 22, 2008

Smaller programs attracting star big men

RELATED: VOTE: Big man with the biggest mid-major impact

When DeMarcus Cousins committed to UAB in February 2008, he said he wanted to be different. He said he wanted to blaze a path.

Little did Cousins know that he would become the Pied Piper of big men-to-non-Big Six conferences. The nation's No. 2-ranked player started a major trend in the class of 2009.

That trend reared it's head over the last 10 days when Rashanti Harris, Aaric Murray and Sam Dower all committed to schools outside of the major power conferences.

All three are ranked in the national top 150 player rankings in the class of 2009.

Harris, the No. 26-ranked player in the class, was also offered and recruited by Memphis. Murray, No. 39 in the rankings, spurned offers from Pittsburgh, Rutgers, Villanova and West Virginia. Dower picked Gonzaga, a team that has a rich history in the NCAA tournament, over Minnesota, Marquette and Cal. Dower is ranked No. 119 in the senior class.

Akron landed Zeke Marshall, a 7-footer out of McKeesport, Pa., in May. Marshall is the No. 39-ranked player in the class of 2009. He is the highest-ranked player to commit to a MAC school in the history of Rivals.com's rankings.

California native Greg Smith committed to Arizona earlier in the summer but reneged on his commitment only to resurface as a Fresno State commitment. The 6-foot-9, 240-pound post is the No. 87-ranked player in the class. UNLV locked up Puerto Rico native Carlos Lopez, the No. 103 ranked player in the country, early and the Henderson (Nev.) Findlay Prep star should be a welcomed addition to Lon Kruger's rotation.

Nationally ranked players committing to teams that aren't in the power conferences isn't a new fad. Every year, on average, there are six-to-eight players that opt for a program outside one of the power conferences.

The choices, however, are usually NCAA Tournament staples like Gonzaga, Memphis, Southern Illinois, Nevada or Xavier.

MID-MAJOR IMPACT
Here is a look at 10 prospects not ranked in the Rivals150 that could have an impact on the mid-major level:
PlayerSchool
PF Steven BjornstadNevada
PF Niyi HarrisonSanta Clara
PF Jeremy FeltonS. Illinois
C Jon KreftUAB
C Drew McGheeMiami-Ohio
PF Jules MontgomeryLong Beach St.
PF Jeremy OlsenUtah
SF Brandon PetersonArkansas St.
PF Andrew SmithButler
PF Jontaveous SultonMTSU
This year's group of commitments is a rare breed. These kids are picking schools that haven't heard their names called out on Selection Sunday in some time.

Harris, the No. 29-ranked player in the class of 2009, will enter college with huge expectations. Georgia State hasn't been to the NCAA tournament since 2001, when Lefty Driesell was in the moonlight of his storied coaching career. With Harris and fellow 2009 commitment James Vincent, a 6-foot-9, 240-pound center from Columbus (Ga.) Northside, Georgia State certainly has the size to be a contender in the Colonial Athletic Association.

LaSalle hasn't been to the NCAA tournament since 1992. Murray's addition, along with talented three-star, high-scoring point guard Nurideen Lindsey, could be the help that pushes the Explorers into uncharted waters for the program.

Akron hasn't been to the NCAA tournament since 1986 when Bob Huggins was the head coach of the Zips. UAB's last NCAA Tournament appearance was in 2006. Fresno State and UNLV went to the NCAA tournament last year.

Rivals.com's Jerry Meyer isn't ready to anoint any of the quality mid-major programs as NCAA Tournament teams yet but that the added big men will certainly help. The incoming stars, however, can't do it alone, the former point guard says.

"Typically a big man is only as good as his guards. It takes great guard play to win at the college level, but if you supplement your guards with talent in the paint, you can really make some noise. These ranked big men who are going to mid-majors give their programs a chance to really succeed, but they are still dependent upon the guards who initiate the offensive attack," Meyer said.

"I really think all these guys can have a major impact as a freshman, but overall team success hinges primarily on the guards."

Big men can't sneak up on teams anymore and the days of finding out about mid-major stars in March for the first time are growing old. The mid-level schools are catching up to the big boys and it is showing with recruiting.

"If you are good, people will find you," said Paula Wilson, Harris's AAU coach, said.

So will the pro teams.

In seven of the last eight NBA Drafts, there has been at least one big man drafted in the lottery from a non-BCS conference school.

The class of 2009 could push the number even higher. They just won't be sleepers when they get to the big stage.



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