Sports » Sports Feature

Wish List

Top 25? Top 50? It all depends on whom you ask.



We all like lists.

And John Calipari, though he usually denotes the RPI rankings with "R.I.P.," is no exception. That was evident following an October practice. Already, Calipari was laying groundwork for seasons to come.

Seated beside Sean Banks, the slender, 6'7" tender-faced future Tiger, Calipari described the nationally known New Jersey high school senior:

"I feel good about where we are in recruiting," Calipari said. "This kid is one of the top 20 or 25 players in the nation. And, you know, what's amazing is that he called us. And Kendrick Perkins, who we signed, is a top five player."

But whose top 25? Or top 50 or 100? There are as many lists as there are basketball publications and Web sites.

We have to assume that Calipari, ever the preacher for team and effort, is honest when he says he's never visited a Web site ranking these players. Nor, he contends, has he picked up a paper, listened to the radio, or flipped on the TV for such information.

It must be hard not to.

Everywhere you turn, the increased exposure of prep sports, beginning as early as elementary school, is evident. The nation's top prep prospect -- LeBron James, who plays for the nation's top-ranked high school team, St. Vincent-St. Mary of Akron, Ohio -- is covered daily.

As the Tigers prepared for their January 4th game against Villanova, James' St. Vincent team was playing on ESPN2 for the second time. A third ESPN-televised showcase for the prep star is in the works.

Which is all old news for sports fans. But even a diehard hoops junkie might wonder where the hype -- and the lists -- originate. One answer is Christopher Lawlor, USA Today's preps writer and editor, who works 15- to 20-hour days compiling information for basketball junkies.

Lawlor says he doesn't "really think about having a lot of power," because he enjoys his job and the people he meets too much. He creates his rankings by making phone calls, observing state polls, watching videotape, and traveling to top basketball tournaments -- or football games -- throughout the country.

"I have my coaching contacts throughout the country and, of course, there are the teams that are good every year," Lawlor says. "I go to the summer camps and that's where I usually do a lot of the individual evaluations."

Lawlor sees nothing wrong with all the praise and evaluations heaped on barely pubescent players and teams, though there are critics of the process, particularly concerning James' potential exploitation.

"That's a traveling show," says Lawlor of James. "It's a one-time thing. Everything will be back to normal next year. I know that there are certain people who live and die by these rankings, but overall they're good for schools because they bring a lot of exposure to prep sports."

In Memphis, White Station is the lone Top 25 representative (number 20) in USA Today's poll, creating exposure for a city many consider to have the best per-capita basketball talent in the nation.

White Station head coach Terry Tippett, who is one of Lawlor's coaching confidants, says he also hears praise about Memphis in his travels.

"I have college coaches tell me all the time that, outside of New York, L.A., and Chicago, Memphis has the best basketball," Tippett says. "It's amazing how good Memphis basketball is."

Such notoriety has advantages and disadvantages, Tippett says, depending on which side of the ESPN camera you're on. "I don't think that the public schools should even be ranked in the same polls as those private schools," Tippett says. "It's not fair when they can recruit from all over the country."

"Like when BTW [Booker T. Washington High School] played Oak Hill Academy, they asked Andre Allen to play for them [the next season]," adds Tippett, speaking about the city's top-ranked high school junior. "If I was coaching that team, I would never play them again."

As for the USA Today/Lawlor rankings, where Oak Hill seems to permanently reside due to a constant flow of top Division I prospects, Tippett says he doesn't pay much attention to it.

"It's here," Tippett says. "You can't change it. You may not like these polls and rankings, but you want to be in it if it's there. It's a compliment to the program."

Hamilton High School is another local program that was ranked by USA Today. In 1999-2000, now-U of M player Billy Richmond led the team into the Top 25. Longtime Hamilton head coach Ted Anderson couldn't care less.

"We've always had success against those supposed nationally ranked teams," Anderson says. "Most of the top national teams are undefeated, but you're never going to have an undefeated team out of Memphis. It's too difficult in Memphis."

Anderson says his ranked team of two years ago took the same approach.

"It was fun for the team," Anderson says. "Billy and the team didn't talk a whole lot about it either. He took a rather nonchalant approach. We had bigger things to worry about, like winning the district."

For those who do care, Lawlor recently added top Tiger signee/NBA prospect Perkins and his Ozen High team (18-0) from Beaumont, Texas, to the USA Today rankings at number 15. With the addition of the 6'10" center and his Ozen teammate Keena Young (who also signed with Memphis), the Tigers are already on many Top 10 lists for recruiting classes.

Of course, as Calipari quickly reminded his listeners that October day, "It really doesn't matter where somebody else rates [your players]. Nobody thought Jeremy Hunt, Rodney Carney, and Almamy Thiero were this good, except we felt they filled our needs. They fill the needs we have for this program."

Guess you could call that his recruiting wish list.

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