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Tuesday, November 26
Recruiting priorities are changing

By Michael Kruse
Special to

BARRINGTON, R.I. -- Demetris Nichols is no LeBron James.

The lanky 6-foot-8 wing isn't Kendrick Perkins or James Lang or any other prep post player peeking at the NBA.

And he's probably not even the next Carmelo Anthony.

All these things he isn't, though, make him what he is -- the potential prize of Syracuse's three-man recruiting class.

"He's an old-fashioned college player," St. Andrew's coach Mike Hart said. "The sky's the limit -- he just turned 18 and he's still developing -- but he's a four-year program guy."

What Nichols is, is the new age blue-chipper. He's good. Really good. Just not necessarily NBA-in-a-couple-years good.

And with a slew of elite programs smarting from early pro departures -- and learning how to juggle all these comings and goings -- kids like Nichols are becoming just as much a recruiting priority as kids like Anthony.

Jim Boeheim and his Syracuse staff, obviously, know Anthony's not going to stay in Upstate New York forever -- especially after his dazzling 27-point collegiate debut at the Garden.

But this isn't just about Carmelo and the 'Cuse.

"I think everyone would agree," Michigan State associate head coach Brian Gregory said. "The important thing is the program as opposed to one team or one recruiting class. So you try to get a collection of players who are going to help you maintain the level you're at."

In the wake of Marcus Taylor's dubious decision to bolt last spring -- the former McDonald's All-American recently got cut from the NBDL -- the Spartans targeted two elite guards in Detroit point Brandon Cotton and Chicagoland shooter Shannon Brown.

And got them.

But they also got a workmanlike big man -- Drew Naymick, a 6-11 center from North Muskegon, Mich. -- and locked up a pair of Class of 2004 in-staters with guard Drew Neitzel and forward Marquise Gray.

Both Top 100 kids. Even Top 50. But both McDonald's maybes.

Florida, of course, lost Kwame Brown before he even showed up in Gainesville. The Gators landed their typically touted types with the likes of Anthony Roberson and Matt Walsh out of the Class of 2002.

But in this past cycle -- the kids who are going to be freshmen next season -- they chose less heralded guards Lee Humphrey and Ryan Appleby and active-but-raw Floridian post Chris Richard.

"I think Billy Donovan just really wanted to surround himself with guys who are going to work hard and stick to his regimen and be their for four years," recruiting analyst Dave Telep said.

"He needed some quote-unquote Billy Donovan guys to fill in some gaps in his program."

And he dipped outside of the Top 50 to get them.

Oklahoma got a pair of in-state big-timers last year with current rookies Kevin Bookout and De'Angelo Alexander -- although neither one ended up making the McDonald's cut.

But this year's haul included a 5-5 point guard from Columbus, Ohio (the electric Andrew Lavender), his high-flying teammate (Brandon Foust) and two Top 50-100 types from Minnesota (guard Lawrence McKenzie and center Longar Longar).

The Sooners picked up chemistry, talent and toughness with the foursome -- but no NBA pit-stoppers.

"You can't shy away from a kid because he may leave after one year," OU coach Kelvin Sampson said. "Duke gets those kids. Arizona gets them. And they do a great job.

"But I know I'm going to have Kevin Bookout for four years. That's why programs like us can raise their national profiles -- because we're going to have these kinds of kids for four years."

Maryland won last year's national championship with that blueprint.

Gary Williams' Terrapins had pros in Juan Dixon and Lonny Baxter -- though no one thought they were going to be NBA draft picks back in high school -- along with guys like gritty point Steve Blake and slender shooter Drew Nicholas.

The quintet they just signed out of the current senior crop was similar: Will Bowers and Hassan Fofana, improving big men; Ekene Ibekwe, a wiry tweener from Carson, Calif.; D.J. Strawberry, Darryl's son, a guard out of Santa Ana, Calif.; and Mike Jones, a 6-4 shooting guard from Braintree, Mass., the lone McDonald's candidate of the bunch.

"We're still trying to get young men who are going to fit into our program," Maryland assistant Dave Dickerson said of the Terps' first post-title haul. "Just because you have McDonald's All-Americans doesn't mean you're going to win."

And vice-versa. Which gets back to Nichols and Syracuse.

The St. Andrew's standout is one of the more underrated senior swingmen in America. He rebounds well from his perimeter position, and he's coming off a junior campaign in which he averaged a well-rounded 15.6 points, eight boards, 3.3 assists and 2.7 blocks.

Defense, though, is his forte. He's a human man-you-ball drill, with long arms, lateral quickness and an uncanny knack for being in the right place at the right time -- and what college program doesn't want that?

Syracuse sure does.

"Coach Boeheim is the best," Nichols said before a practice earlier this week here in the Ocean State. "The whole coaching staff really made me feel comfortable, and the players, too. I felt like I was home."

His home, that is, for the next four years.

"He's a kid who'll enjoy college," Hart said. "He's really into getting a degree. He'll go to class, he doesn't have any social issues, and he's going to get better every year."

How much better? Well, he'll never be King James -- but that's exactly the point.

Michael Kruse is a Boston-based freelance writer and frequent contributor to

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