Making the Hoops Grade

Dudley E. Dawson takes a look at how UA assistant basketball coaches stay on top of the academics of recruits in his weekly recruiting column for Hawgs Illustrated and The Morning News of Northwest Arkansas.

As the three University of Arkansas basketball assistants who can hit the road recruiting as well as help coach on the floor during practice, Ronny Thompson, Orande Taliaferro and Rob Flaska have a great deal of importance in both the present and future of the Razorback hoops program.

They might spend the morning and early afternoon breaking down tape or checking on grades and c lassroom attendance - both of the current and future players - then move on to practice in the late afternoon and get a on a plane and sometimes even fly out to see a prospect at night.

In other words, they have the hands full and because of that know far more than most fans, sports writers, sports call in hosts and callers and message board contributors about the academic and athletic success so far and the potential of those that will soon arrive on campus.

So it is with equal parts laughter and a bit of anger that they react when they see, hear or tare old of various reports that this or that recruit won't be eligible.

"While understanding that we can't talk about the specific grades of specific recruits, I can tell you this," Thompson said, "we didn't evaluate these guys and spend so much time, effort and money - as far as traveling to see them during the summer evaluation period and the fall that is - to have someone not show upand be here next season. It's too important to where we are right now and where we want to be."

Flaska added this about the reports.

"One of the first things we look at along with the talent and how the young man could help our program is if it is worth our time to pursue him from a signing standpoint and one of him being able to get into school," Flaska said. "You can't waste time chasing academic risks or you will pay a big price in the end."

Recent rumors concerned at least three-fifths or what is expected to see a five-member signing class - four of who have already inked and one who will sign this spring.

First, it was 6-10, 235-pound Darian Townes of Hargrave Military Academy who wasn't going to make it.

That was talked about back before he committed to Arkansas and was reignited recently per a poster who got an e-mail saying from someone who should have known and then posted it on one of the Hawg Illustrated website's message boards.

Then a Little Rock television sports show sparked conversation by saying that neither of the outstanding pair of Mississippi prep prospects that the Razorbacks signed - 6-10, 265-pound Al Jefferson and 6-8, 235-pound Charles Thomas - were going to qualified.

While the pair who discussed it thought the pair they were talking about weren't qualified , they did acknowledge that they weren't for sure, but it became fodder for the call-in shows, message boards and coffee shops.

Some people might dismiss those three forums, but they shouldn't because all three can help take a story and spread it like wildfire.

""What gets me is that none of these people who come out and make these statements have looked over their transcripts or their test scores or gone over their nine week reports or talked with their counselors and their teachers and the coaches," Taliaferro said. "Basically one guy says something, the next guy says it and sooner or later you've got people thinking that is the case."

This is mostly just a bunch of idle chatter from Razorback fans worrying about whether such a talented class will indeed show up intact.

Certainly with the lengths the UA staff went to last year staying so long with Julius Lamptey only to then watch him drop the academic ball when everything that could be down legally to help the young man was, it's natural for Arkansas fans to worry.

Heath made it clear when he announced that Lamptey - who is now at Oklahoma State and still not eligible - and Arkansas were parting ways that he wouldn't be taking academic chances in the next class.

But it had to be hard to not work with a dude that was 7-0, 300-plus pounds up to the last minute when you are a rebuilding program and could have taken up some serious space in the lane if he had put forth as much effort off the court as he did on it.

So how about it this year? Will all five - Townes, Jefferson, Thomas, 7-0, 252-pound Steven Hill and juco point guard and 6-6 expected spring juco point guard signee Dontell Jefferson - be eligible?

For sure? Not just likely?

Honestly, I can't answer that question with 100 percent accuracy. All I can go on is the stuff that people who should know tell me and it leads me to believe they will.

Take Kevin Keatts, Townes' head coach and the head coach at Hargrave Military Academy, for example.

"He's fine," Keatts said. "Anybody worrying about that can just forget it. He has the test score that he needs and just needs to keep his grade point average where it is right now. They don't come here to leave ineligible. That's not how we operate around here. That's not our mission."

It's common knowledge that Townes signed with Georgetown, but didn't have his test score and landed at Hargrave to develop in the classroom and on the court.

"He is a guy that has put the time in not only on the court, but in the classroom," Keatts said.

It's not like he had a choice. Just take a look at a typical day for Townes, who is averaging 12 points, 10 rebounds and 7 blocks (with over 150 total) for Hargrave despite playing just over half the game for a team with eight Division I prospects.

"He's got to get up at 6 a.m., there's the marching (to breakfast) and his classes go from 7:30 a.m. to 12," Keatts said. "Then he has got practice (and more classes) and mandatory study hall every night from 7:30 to 9:40 and then it's lights out at 9:40 and then it's lights out at 10 o'clock and before you know it we are back up at six.

So Darian, you going to be eligible?

"There's not even a question," Townes said. "I wouldn't let the ball drop again. All I have done around here is play basketball, gone to class, marched and studied. There''s nothing else to do around here."

For those of you who might be thinking about UA football recruit and former Hargrave cadet Rodney Giles, realize that his problem did not pop up until after he left that school and turn out to be a miscue regarding his high school certification.

Thomas will admit to not being as serious about school back in the ninth grade as he is now and did have some catch -up work to do, something he has taken care of.

"I'm going to be eligible," Thomas said. "I've got the right (test) score and just need to finish up strong, which I plan to do. I'm right where I need to be when it comes to that and I have got a lot of people who have stayed on me to make sure I am doing just what I need to do."

Dontell Jefferson's coach says take his word for the player being ready when it comes time to head to Arkansas.

"Dontell's academic profile is in order," Atlanta Metropolitan College head coach Robert Pritchett said. "We pride ourselves on having our young men where they are when it comes time for them to go on. I don't remember one young men from our institution that had a scholarship offer that wasn't academically ready to reap the rewards at a four-year institution when the time came."

Steven Hill has the test score, the grade point average and just needs to graduate and get through the Clearing House - the steps before any of the five are truly eligible.

That's brings us to one Al Jefferson, one of the nation's consensus top five prep players and someone who could jump straight from high school to the NBA if he so desired.

"That's a young man who's mom is a teacher and his uncle a principal at his school," Heath said. "You would think the value of an education would have been stressed in that family."

My one conversation about this with Al was finished with this conversation.

"If I decide that going to college at Arkansas is my best option, then there will be no problems with my eligibility," Jefferson said. "People who are saying anything different don't know me, don't know my family and don't know what they are talking about."

So will all five be eligible? Only time will tell, but I will say that the people who should be worried aren't.

That to me seems like a good sign.

o o o

Recruiting tidbits: ...Al Jefferson went into Tuesday night's district tournament game averaging 42 points, 18 rebounds and 6 block shots per game for Prentiss (Miss.) High.

He had just 29 in his team's 59-42 over Richland, the first time he has been held under 30 points during the season.

Jefferson's team will be back in action Thursday night against Raymond and will also play on Friday at either 5:30 p.m. or 8:30 p.m.

...Thomas, who is averaging 28.9 points, will try to lead his team to its first win over Jackson Lanier in four tries this season when the two teams meet Thursday night at 7:30 p.m. in district tournament action.

...Townes has 14 points, 13 rebounds and 5 assists in Hargrave's 114-71 win over the Virginia Tech junior varsity last Wednesday and then 14 points and 5 rebounds in a 131-68 win over Bonner Academy on Sunday.

...Dontell Jefferson, averaging 16 points, 8.9 assists and 7.8 rebounds this season, has led his AMC squad to three straight wins and the Red-Eyed Panthers are now 18-6.

...Hill had 14 points and 7 rebounds Tuesday night in his Branson team's loss to Rogersville. Drew Richards, who chose Southwest Missouri State over Arkansas, had seven points and seven rebounds.

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