Welcome to Wally World

By Davis, Barker | Insight on the News, December 14, 1998 | Go to article overview

Welcome to Wally World


Davis, Barker, Insight on the News


The emergence of Miami (Ohio) forward Wally Szczerbiak is emblematic of the direction of college basketball. Never have the purveyors of parity had more to crow about.

Most college basketball fans, however fervent, probably have never heard of Miami (Ohio) forward Wally Szczerbiak. But in early November, the 6-foot-8 senior cropped up on preseason All-America lists all over the nation.

Make no mistake, Szczerbiak (pronounced Zer-biak) can play. A late bloomer who wasn't on anyone's prep wish list four years ago, Szczerbiak averaged 24.4 points and 7.6 rebounds for the Red Hawks last season and caught the attention of NBA scouts at the Goodwill Games over the summer.

How long has it been since a player from a third-tier league like the Mid-American Conference showed up as a consensus All-American? How long has it been since a player from Miami shared the preseason spotlight with others from Texas Christian (Lee Nailon) and Michigan State (Mateen Cleaves), hardly perennial national powers?

"It's going to be a wild year" University of California at Los Angeles coach Steve Lavin says. "We're ranked 12th, and we'll probably start three freshmen and two sophomores. Honestly, I think every program out there has some holes. And after Duke, Connecticut and Stanford, there's just a huge jumble of probably 30 teams that are approximately at the same level."

Continues Lavin, "The concept of parity has been discussed to death, but there's a reason for that. The difference between the best programs in the major conferences and the smaller conferences keeps growing smaller. I wouldn't be surprised to see two or three Valparaisos in the round of 16 this March"

Why does the gap between traditional behemoths like UCLA and smaller schools like Valpo, which beat Ole Miss and Florida State in the NCAA tournament last season, continue to close? Quite simply, the mass exodus of underclassmen to the NBA that began in earnest six years ago hurts major programs more than smaller ones. And in the past three years, since Chicago prep-star Kevin Garnett resurrected the concept of skipping college, the pipeline of prospects to the perennial powers has narrowed further. Last summer, three of the top four high-school standouts entered the draft and were plucked by NBA franchises.

"Take a guy like Al Harrington" says Wake Forest coach Dave Odom about the 6-foot-10 New Jersey prep player drafted by the Indiana Pacers. "A dozen coaches probably spent a considerable amount of time recruiting him, and for good reason. But that's time you're not devoting to another young man who might be slightly less touted. Maybe a smaller program that knows it has no chance with Harrington develops a relationship with that second player while you're focusing on Harrington. When he turns pro, you lose an opportunity with both players. …

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