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June 21, 2012

HERTZEL COLUMN - Recruiting is game of chance

MORGANTOWN — While recruiting is the lifeblood of every college athletic program, it is also the most over-covered, misunderstood part of the American sports scene.

In its own way it has become the college game of Fantasy Football or Basketball, putting together teams that really don’t exist by people who have nothing to do with the programs other than a closet full of trademarked hats, T-shirts and jackets.

These people, working on websites devoted to recruiting news, drive the recruits and their coaches insane with call after call as they develop their lists of “verbal commitments,” which are nonbinding in nature and often put forth only to put an end to all the calls and speculation.

True, the great majority of these “verbals” do work out, as in most cases a prospective student-athlete would like to have his life in order heading into college so he makes an early choice, although there have been times when a prospect calls a press conference to announce he is going to one school and then pulls out a hat from another university to the surprise of everyone.

A decade ago, for example, a top-rated tailback named Kevin Jones was expected to announce he was going to Penn State. He pulled out a Penn State jersey and announced ... he would not be wearing that jersey, grabbing a Virginia Tech jersey instead.

It happens more than you may think, especially if you toss in the academic casualties or the disciplinary casualties that crop up far too often ... especially for Bob Huggins’ liking.

This week his top recruit Elijah Macon, who began his high school career in Columbus, Ohio, and played his final season at Huntington Prep, came up a tick short academically and announced he’s heading for Brewster Prep in Massachusetts.

True, he promised he would still honor his commitment to West Virginia, a commitment he made a couple of years back and that he had seemed eager to keep. He worked hard trying to meet the standards, spending a good deal of this summer in school, but it just didn’t work out.

Huggins had expected this and had actually filled Macon’s scholarship with former Oregon and Boston College shooting guard Matt Humphrey, a one-year stop gap measure, before Macon’s final grades were in.

See, Huggins has been playing shorthanded for some time, really, ever since some highly touted recruits went spinning off out of control. The first was a big man, Danny Jennings, who came in with a big rep and left with just a rep, walking out on the team at halftime of a game.

And then there was the case of another recruit around whom Huggins was planning to build, West Virginia’s own Noah Cottrill, who committed to WVU two years early but had personal issues that forced Huggins to suspend him before he ever played a game and that drove him to withdraw from school.

A West Virginia high school Player of the Year whose talent may have been even more

plentiful than the devils that haunted him, Cottrill was expected to help make last year’s team with Kevin Jones, Truck Bryant and Deniz Kilicli a true contender.

But that never happened and today Cottrill finds himself starting over. The (Beckley) Register-Herald reported he had enrolled at Mountain State University, had cleaned up his act and was with the backing of Coach Bob Bolen and his family was looking forward to getting his degree and playing four years at the NAIA school.

Certainly, this will be an inspiring tale if Cottrill can pull it off and he sounded in the article as if he is truly serious about doing so.

“It feels great,” Cottrill said. “I’ve had some setbacks, but I’ve been on the right path for a good while now. I’m doing right.

“All I have left to do now is play college basketball and get my degree. That’s my main goal. I want to keep getting better and better — and not just on the basketball court.”

You wonder, though, whether all the attention and publicity and notoriety that has become a part of big-time prep basketball, along with the pressures all that brings to someone emotionally not ready to handle it, had anything to do with derailing Macon academically and/or Cottrill personally.

They may be big-time college basketball prospects ready by their sophomore or junior years in high school to step in and play, but all too often they are not equipped to deal with the side show that comes along with it.

Email Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail.com. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.

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