June 2, 2009

Where did Nebraska's in-state talent go?

From a recruiting standpoint, Nebraska head coach Doc Sadler knew he'd be at a disadvantage from the very beginning.

The problem - one which he was well aware of when he came to Lincoln in 2006 - was simply that of overall numbers. While other schools from higher-populated states are essentially in the backyards of some of the nation's top high school basketball talent, Sadler took over a program located in a state with a population less than four U.S. cities.

In other words, in-state recruiting has been more of an occasional bonus for the Huskers, while other schools in the Big 12 Conference see it as an assumed luxury.

Since Sadler took over three years ago, his only legitimate in-state target has been 2010 center prospect Elliott Eliason of Chadron. Nebraska currently has in-state players like Mike Fox of Beatrice and Cole Solomon[db] on its roster, but were recruited or are on scholarship.

"The fact of the matter is that when Nebraska has had the success that it's had, it's had a number of Nebraska kids on those teams," Sadler said. "I think that's the same with any school. The years that they've had good basketball teams, no matter if it's from Nebraska or Colorado or Iowa or Missouri, those teams had a number of in-state kids that played on those teams.

"I think more than anything it has to do with population. Our population just isn't near as big as some of these other places. But then again, there's not a whole lot of players that come out of Colorado. There's not a whole lot that come out of Iowa. There's not a whole lot that come out of Missouri, or even Kansas. So even though maybe in some of those states there's a few more (Division I prospects), it always just runs in cycles."

It's not to say that Nebraska hasn't produced any Division-I caliber players in recent years. Lincoln Southeast's [db]Matt Hill is currently suiting up for Texas, and Creighton can be blamed for hording the bulk of the in-state talent, as the Bluejays just added three Nebraska players to its roster this year in Antoine Young (Bellevue West), Josh Jones (Omaha Central) and Matt Dorwart (Sidney).

In fact, Colorado State is set to have four Nebraska-born players on its roster next season.

The problem, however, is that while there may be a handful of players able to make the jump to Division I, there simply isn't enough to go around compared to other Big 12 schools.

Mick Anderson knows all about Nebraska's limited high school basketball numbers. Anderson is the director of the state's Bison/Runza all-star summer AAU team and annually works with some of the best young players Nebraska has to offer.

He said he doesn't feel Nebraska is necessarily far behind other states from a talent standpoint, but admits that the limited overall numbers are hurdles that simply can't be avoided.

"When we go out and play nationally ranked teams, we're playing large programs from large states, and obviously they have more people in one town than we do in our entire state," Anderson said. "We're just limited on the pool of players and athletes we can draw from."

Anderson said despite the population issues, his teams always compete right with teams from bigger cities, and that it is unfair for people to judge Nebraska's high school talent solely on the number of Division I players it produces.

"I think in some ways it's unfair," he said. "It's unfair to our kids. I think for the kids we have and the population base we need to pool kids from, I think our coaches do a great job. Now does that result in national tournament championships and a bunch of Division I scholarships? No, probably not."

Not just a numbers issue?

While Nebraska's population seems to be the general consensus for why the state has produced arguably the least amount of Division I talent of any BCS conference state, some think there's a little more to the issue.

Herb Welling is one of them. Welling is a self-described "basketball clinician" who serves as an assistant at Omaha Central and has been a long-time fixture in the Nebraska AAU basketball scene.

He thinks the bigger problem has to do with kids in Nebraska not getting an early enough start in grooming their basketball fundamentals compared to those from higher-populated areas. While many kids from bigger cities begin working on seriously on their games and competing in national tournaments around third or fourth grade, he said Nebraska players don't reach that level until they're 14 to 16 years old.

By that time, he said, it's already too late for them to get to the same level as their big city counterparts.

Welling also said the population issue to overblown because a city like Omaha should have no problem equaling the number of Division I athletes as a city like Peoria, Ill., which he said annually has 12-15 kids go on to play D-I sports.

"Our inner city, for its size, doesn't produce many athletes," Welling said. "We haven't had that many athletes come out of our inner city, and I think that's due to a lack of instruction and a lack of dedication from the kids and knowing how hard you've got to work to be a Division I athlete… Look at how many phenom athletes we've had. Ahman Green was probably the last phenom athlete. We don't have those LeBron James or Carmelo Anthony kind of guys.

"We go to these tournaments, and they have phenomenal athletes. We have some guys dunking, and they've got guys playing way above the rim. I saw 13- and 14-year old kids doing alley-oop dunks way above the rim. We don't have any guys doing that… Basketball takes the most skill. The hardest thing to do in sports is hit a baseball, but I believe that basketball takes the most skill. So you have to start working at it at a much younger age if you want to compete on the national level."

Welling's AAU team, the Omaha Crusaders, just got back from a tournament in Manhattan, Kan., this past weekend, and he said the difference in the physical development of the bigger city kids and his players was undeniable.

By request, the Crusaders played in the toughest bracket of the tournament, facing teams from Washington D.C., Texas, Kansas City and Illinois. After two blowout losses in the first two games, the Crusaders were eliminated.

Anderson agreed in players don't devote themselves to basketball full-time like they do in other states, mostly because of the fact that they often play three or four different sports throughout the year. More often than not, he said, football takes precedence over everything else.

"The larger cities, they don't share their athletes," Anderson said. "They specialize more. For instance, we played the Atlanta Celtics, and they're a perennial power. Well, they've got 12 kids on their team that play nothing but basketball. They're not football players. They're not track people. They're basketball players. They have the population to do that. We don't. We share our kids. Our kids do more things. They play baseball, track, and definitely football. There's a lot more of that in a small state like we have."

Progress being made?

At least in the near future, Nebraska's population likely isn't going to grow enough to help bolster the state's high school basketball talent pool. So for now, the focus is on working on things that can be controlled.

Welling and a group of other youth basketball coaches and teachers are currently putting the final touches on creating a fourth-grade team that will play year round and compete in tournaments across the country

For Welling, the team will hopefully be the first step in intruding serious basketball preparation to kids at a young enough age to keep pace bigger city players. The team is scheduled to begin in August, and will accept players from around the state to assemble best group of young talent.

However, Welling said Sadler and Creighton head coach Dana Altman can help the process by providing more youth camps and generating more exposure of their respective programs to younger age groups.

While he's excited about helping to establish a stronger foundation for Nebraska's youth basketball, Welling said he's going to need a lot more help to get it where he hopes it one day will be.

"If I had the resources, you'd see a lot more basketball players out of Nebraska," he said. "It takes commitment and resources to develop those kinds of players… If you had the right multi-millionaire person that would fund it, you have the people in this state that could do it at the youth level and turn it around. We need that kind of commitment. If Doc Sadler and Dana Altman really wanted to see it done, they'd put the right money people on it."

How much say coaches like Sadler or Altman have in the matter is obviously debatable, but Sadler doesn't seem too worried about whether the state's high school talent will begin to pick back up.

Based on what he's out on the road recruiting, it's already on its way there.

"I think that the level of talent is on the way up," Sadler said. "There's going to be several kids recruited over the next few years out of Nebraska. More than anything, I think what helps a bad situation is that the coaching in Nebraska is so good. When you have good coaching and good programs, then it's just a matter of time before you get another round of good players."

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