Jersey Chore: Rutgers, Seton Hall Can't Get Top Recruits to Stay Home
"It's a big deal -- keeping guys within a five-hour drive is a big deal, not letting guys get away,'' Mike Rice, on the job at Rutgers since replacing Fred Hill in May, said last month. "So whether it's in D.C. or Westchester (New York), we're gonna be fighting, scratching, clawing for the best talent in this region. Again, you've seen the names throughout the paper of the talented players who are within an hour's drive of Rutgers University who haven't come. So we've gotta get our share.''
True enough, high on that list this year is a 5-foot-10 point guard from St. Anthony's High in Jersey City (where Hall of Famer Bob Hurley has coached for 35 years), Myles Mack. In addition, the top-rated recruit in a class rated in the top 10 by many services is attending prep school in Somerset this season: center Kadeem Jack, a Queens native.
And, also true, above Mack on that list of New Jersey elite recruits is forward Michael Gilchrist of St. Patrick's High in Elizabeth, who committed to Kentucky long ago. Meanwhile, preparing for the start of his team's defense of the national championship at Duke is the No. 1 player in the state last season, point guard Kyrie Irving, also from St. Patrick's. Last year's No. 1 player, forward Dominic Cheek, from St. Anthony's, begins his sophomore year at top-five contender Villanova.
It's a familiar story in the Garden State: Rutgers and the other major program in the state, Big East foe Seton Hall, rotate coaches in and out every few years as their glory years fade further into the past. (It's now been 22 seasons since Seton Hall's loss in the national title game to Michigan, and 35 since Rutgers' last run to the Final Four.) This year brings new coaches to both programs -- Rice, a Pittsburgh native and assistant coach around the East Coast for 10 years before leading Robert Morris for three seasons; and Kevin Willard, a coaching prodigy (the son of Ralph, of Holy Cross fame) and reviver of Iona's program the previous three years.
Along with them comes one of the hoarier cliches in Eastern basketball: Those schools are sleeping giants, because of all the talent New Jersey produces every year, and if they can keep it within the borders ...
"Good luck,'' Bob Huggins said, leaning back and laughing when the topic was raised at the Big East's media day at Madison Square Garden. Huggins meant no disrespect toward Rutgers or Seton Hall, only a dose of reality. All those programs want is what every program not only in the Big East also wants, but every program east of the Appalachians and plenty beyond that as well: a pipeline into New Jersey, as well as New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, still the mother lode of basketball talent. Huggins' Final Four team last year was stocked with New York-area players, and he has no intention of yielding to Rice or Willard any more than he did to their predecessors.
"We've got 16 teams in this league, and I'm looking around here, and every one of these schools comes to New York, every one,'' Huggins said. "Because of the Big East, any of these schools can come into New York and recruit, because kids want to come back here and play at the Garden. It's an incredible college draw.''
The Big East as a whole wants to own that region and protect it from other conferences, all the coaches agree. But within the league itself, it's every man for himself. It's an issue at yet another conference school breaking in a new coach, too. At St. John's, Steve Lavin gets asked one question as much as all the rest combined: Can he regain a foothold in the New York area? (The fourth Big East newcomer, DePaul's Oliver Purnell, fights an identical battle for Chicago recruits who have steadily drifted away over the last few decades.)
New Jersey has been a steady provider of elite recruits, whether in the New York metro area, the Philadelphia suburbs or the vast territory in between -- including where Rutgers sits in central Jersey. (In fact, New Jersey has overtaken New York as the chief provider of high school talent. In Scout.com's top 100 from 2007-2011, nineteen players are from New Jersey; only a dozen are from New York City and its surrounding counties.) Other schools have simply picked the state clean while, at Rutgers, coaches and conference affiliations have changed -- Rice is its fifth coach since it joined the Big East in 1995 -- and at Seton Hall, internal chaos has largely ruled. Willard, the fifth coach since P.J. Carlesimo left for the NBA in 1994, replaces the volatile Bobby Gonzalez, who in turn had replaced Louis Orr, who many still believe had been prematurely let go in 2006 after what has turned out to be the Pirates' last NCAA tournament trip.
Seton Hall has reached the NCAAs just three times since Carlesimo's departure. Rutgers' ineptitude blows that away, however: no NCAA trips since 1991, no tournament victory since 1983, no appearances in the national rankings since 1979.
Willard says his greatest challenge in terms of in-state players is "to keep them away from other Big East teams. If they go away to the ACC, you really don't see them; you see them once and it doesn't matter. But if you see them twice, helping another team -- it's big.''
Ironically, Gonzalez had brought in New Jersey players, although several were transfers and at least two, Robert Mitchell and Keon Lawrence, ended up with serious off-the-court issues (Gonzalez kicked Mitchell off the team late last season; Lawrence is a senior this season). Nevertheless, one of the top freshmen from the state, swingman Fuquan Edwin of Paterson, was a Gonzalez recruit. And one of the transfers who has made a good transition, former Memphis forward Jeff Robinson from Trenton, sees the value of the program building a base in the state.
"It's a big thing,'' he said, "because it makes you feel good if you have a good player or a good young kid growing up in the state, in New Jersey or New York, being able to keep them home and being able to play at a place like Seton Hall and play in the best conference in the world. We've kind of been on track for a couple of years, but we're trying to get Seton Hall back on track and make (local talent) a priority.''
Robinson, Seton Hall's second-leading returning scorer behind preseason all-conference pick Jeremy Hazell (a Bronx native), said he transferred back to his home state simply because he was homesick, countering the attraction many players have to get away from home. Seton Hall had not been on his original list of preferences, he said, but going there now was "the best thing for me'' -- and he hopes that if the Pirates can win consistently, the school can become a priority for in-state players.
"We win games, and the kids have a better feeling -- they feel more comfortable about coming to Seton Hall, and not having to go all the way out to another program,'' he said.
Rutgers managed to bring in a solid crop of in-state talent under Hill ... only to see it trickle away prematurely. Of the four players from last year's team 15-17 team who transferred was Mike Rosario, another St. Anthony's product and the Scarlet Knight's leading scorer. On the other hand, before his departure Hill did sign forward Gilvydas Birutas out of St. Benedict's Prep in Newark for this season, and the first recruit Rice picked up for this season, weeks after his hiring, was another St. Benedict's product, swingman Mike Poole.
Both Rice and Willard also quickly put together coaching staffs with history and background in East Coast or, specifically, New Jersey, recruiting. On Rutgers' staff are, among others, former Providence star and Bridgewater native Eric Murdock, who was coaching at a nearby high school and in AAU; and Jimmy Martelli, son of St. Joseph's head coach Phil Martelli. Working with Willard are former Seton Hall star Shaheen Holloway, who was kept over from Gonzalez's staff; and Dan McHale, Willard's assistant at Iona, who is from Chatham.
Rice cannot afford to look back on the troubles at his new school. He diplomatically declined to dig into what hasn't worked at Rutgers in years past -- only to acknowledge that the entire league, as well as the country, is chasing the same players he will be.
"I know what our sell is. I know what we package Rutgers and the Big East and everything else to be,'' Rice said. "I know they, the last metropolitan (-area) coaches, didn't win enough recruiting battles. Maybe that was part of it, but the reason why, I have no idea. I wasn't in the official visits or unofficials or phone calls. I know what I'm doing, and I'm aware of what the other two metropolitan-area guys are doing.''
As one of the other "metropolitan-area guys,'' Willard knows the size and scope of what he must overcome. "It's not like it's a problem that just happened. Guys have always left,'' he said. "But as a group, we need to keep guys local, we really do. And we don't really want to get them when they transfer; you want to get them the first time.''
It's an uphill climb to make the two New Jersey schools with the recent small-time legacies a major consideration to the state's best players. Just ask Corey Stokes, Villanova's senior guard, from Bayonne and St. Benedict's -- where his coach was none other than Dan Hurley, son of Bob and former Seton Hall player (who himself is now the head coach at Wagner).
"I know a lot of players, like at my school, a lot of players I played with and played against in high school,'' Stokes said, "they were looking at Seton Hall and Rutgers, visiting there, talked about going there with other players, to make it a powerhouse team. But people just started committing to other places, so we didn't talk about it anymore.''
Including Stokes himself. "Yeah, I always liked Villanova,'' he said. "So ... '' There was no need to complete the thought.