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yoco :: College Basketball
(a sports weblog) news and commentary on men's college basketball and the ncaa tournament

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Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Mr. Clean?

Gregg Doyel writes of "Squeaky-clean Kruger raking in recruits at UNLV."

The last time it recruited this well, UNLV was cheating.

Whoa, now. Settle down. No one says UNLV is cheating. No one with any intelligence.

New UNLV coach Lon Kruger doesn't cheat. The only thing crooked about the guy is his lopsided grin...

In the past three weeks UNLV has garnered three commitments, with the recruits getting better each time. In late August it was Joe Darger, a potential top 100 recruit. Two weeks ago it was Jovan Adams, generally ranked in the No. 50 range. Late last week it was Davon Jefferson, a McDonald's All-American [Dave] Telep rates as the No. 23 prospect nationally. "As our coaches have gone out to recruit, we've been fairly well received," Kruger says.

He can't say much more, because to say much more would be a violation of NCAA rules. And Kruger doesn't violate NCAA rules.

Or does he? Consider the case of Tommie Liddell. The East St. Louis star originally signed with St. Louis University in November of 2003. Several months later, he decided to spend the 2004-05 academic year at a prep school in Virginia and then enroll at SLU in the fall of 2005.

"I told Brad [Soderberg] that I was going to come back after prep school," Liddell said. "If other schools call, I'll let my dad talk to them, or I'll tell them I'm still going to St. Louis."

Despite Tommie's letter of intent and his verbal (re-)commitment, UNLV pursued him. Employing Rick Lewis, an AAU coordinator in East St. Louis, as a go-between, UNLV fed Liddell information about Kruger's resume and made it clear that a scholarship was available out west.

In late June of 2004, a UNLV assistant followed-up, calling Liddell at home. Subsequently, on July 7th, the Las Vegas Review-Journal noted Liddell was among the prospects in which Kruger and his staff had expressed an interest. Two days later, on July 9th, InsiderHoops.com reported from the ABCD Camp in New Jersey that Tommie had changed his mind and committed to UNLV. Lewis then explained that Liddell liked ”UNLV's style of play and in his conversations with them, he likes the fact Kruger has been in the pros and knows NBA talent.”

Upon hearing the news, Tommie's parents were less than thrilled.

"From what I hear, he was listening to some adults telling him that UNLV would be a better place for him to go," Liddell Sr. said. "He made a decision on his own without talking to me and his mother, and that's not the right way to do things. He's only 18 years old."

Billikens coach Brad Soderberg was likewise upset.

Without mentioning UNLV by name, Soderberg told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch early this week, "If somebody violates a rule, especially when it impacts our recruiting, I would be doing a disservice if I didn't make the NCAA aware."

Fortunately for the Runnin' Rebels, Tommie's family advised him to honor his commitment.

Liddell informed SLU coaches of his decision and apologized for the confusion...SLU is "the best fit," said Liddell. "It's what I want to do and what my family thinks I should do. I'm very comfortable with that. I'm positive. Even my grandma called me and told me I should go to St. Louis."

With his prized recruit in hand, Soderberg chose not to file a grievance with the CCA.

But did UNLV violate the rules? The Review-Journal's Joe Hawk evaluates right and wrong. His thoughts, at great length:

The letter of the "letter" exonerates UNLV's new basketball administration in the matter of an assistant coach contacting an already-signed -- but-not-sealed -- Midwest prep recruit.

Whether there was intent in breaching the original "intent" of young Tommie Liddell by someone on coach Lon Kruger's staff, well, that's something we'll never know.

Some things are clearly spelled out on paper. Others are left to reading between the lines.

Read, then, what you will into the case of an unnamed Kruger aide placing a phone call in late June to Liddell, a promising 6-foot-5-inch player out of East St. Louis, Ill., who in November signed a national letter of intent to play for Saint Louis University.

The assistant coach, whom UNLV administrators refuse to identify, called Liddell after an intermediary for the player contacted the Rebels to let them know Liddell would be attending prep school this fall, rather than Saint Louis. As such, Liddell again would become recruitable by the college masses.

Two weeks ago, Liddell said he would honor his word by playing for the Billikens once he was finished with prep school. But then suddenly last weekend, while attending a summer camp in New Jersey, Liddell orally committed to UNLV -- without making a campus visit, without his parents being consulted and, worse, while still being bound to Saint Louis by his letter.

So the question becomes: Did a UNLV assistant coach violate a rule -- NCAA or otherwise -- by contacting Liddell?

Not according to school administrators. Not according to an NCAA rules interpreter. Not according to the national letter of intent that Liddell signed and is administered by the Collegiate Commissioners Association.

Not, that is, if the coach simply did as the school contends, which is having called Liddell to inquire about his academic status.

First, we turn to Provision 9 of the national letter of intent, which states in part:

"Recruiting Ban After Signing. I [student-athlete] understand all participating conferences and institutions are obligated to respect my signing and shall cease to recruit me upon my signing this NLI. I shall notify any recruiter who contacts me that I have signed. ...."

By the letter of the "letter," a UNLV coach could have called Liddell, but the player would have been obligated to tell him he had signed with Saint Louis. The phone call, in and of itself, was not a violation; persistent contacting of the player -- taken as "recruitment" -- would be.

As for a coach calling an already-bound player to simply ask about his academic status, that is permissible, an NCAA rules interpreter said Friday, though it would be simpler -- and safer -- for the athletic department's academic compliance specialist to contact the National Clearinghouse for the information.

"That would be the advisable way," said the NCAA staffer, who declined to be identified.

What makes this matter so shady to some is UNLV's defiance in refusing to name the assistant coach involved. Granted, we in the print media are more skeptical than most, but if the coach did nothing wrong, as the school said, what harm would there be in identifying him?

Why not show us the man behind the curtain? Why all of this Hitchcockian stealth over supposedly a nonissue?

By midweek, after Liddell's parents learned of their son's misstep and finally got a piece of his ear long enough to give him a piece of their mind, the player had orally recommitted to Saint Louis, saying he would honor his letter after attending prep school.

We have to believe one unnamed, if not ashamed, UNLV assistant basketball coach learned an important lesson: Play it safe and don't call a player still bound by his letter of intent.

Hawk hit the nail on the head. It is impossible to be sure that Kruger and his staff cheated. But it is also hard to believe that the so-called "Mr. Clean" didn't intentionally miss a sport or two.