I hit the highway in the early darkness Saturday morning with none other than Jack Ebling, the longtime Michigan State beatwriter for the Lansing State Journal. Now as many of you know, Jack has been around awhile. He began his athletic career playing pee-wee football on the sandlots of Bethlehem with a fleet wingback named Jesus before an injury suffered during a Vietnam war protest during the early 1970's derailed his gridiron aspirations. Eventually, as fate would have it, Jack landed a job in the LSJ newsroom as a sportswriter a few years later and, over the next 25 years, carved out a award winning career behind the typewriter.
For those that don't know, Jack has more Michigan State and Big Ten basketball and football stories tucked away in the cobwebs of his mind than damn' near anyone still breathing. On top of that, the guy knows basketball, and there is no one better than Jack to cruise through the cornfields of Indiana with for an eight hour hoops road trip.
Who Named This Place?
We hit the city limits of David Letterman's old stomping ground about 8:30 am local time and made our way to the campus of Indiana University/Purdue University-Indianapolis (IUPUI) about ten minutes later. Which brings me to a question:
How in the hell did they get Indiana and Purdue together to build a college?
I'll never know, but you can be damn' sure than Bob Knight and Gene Keady had nothing to do with it.
The whole idea is about as weird as seeing Michigan State and Michigan getting together and building a campus in Howell, Michigan (for those of you not from Michigan or are directionally challenged; Howell is about halfway between East Lansing and Ann Arbor on Interstate 96).
Aside to the absurdity of the whole idea, what would they call the school?
Spartan: "It should be called MSU-UM-Howell."
Wolverine: "No. It should be called UM-MSU-Howell.
Spartan: "How about MSU-FU-UM-Howell."
Wolverine: "The only thing Howell-ing around here is going to be you if you don't shut up!"
Well let's just say that because of the mutual animosity it would never work. . . . Well that and because the East Lansing Police Department would probably purchase flame throwers to step up their crowd control measures if the Spartan and Wolverine fans ever joined together for a friendly "Hash Bash" near the Cedar Village area.
But I digress. . . . I got an idea right away about how important the Nike Camp truly is when Jack and I walked out of the IUPUI parking garage and the first two people we run into are Georgia Tech Head Coach, Paul Hewitt, and Arkansas Head Coach, Stan Heath, who are walking toward the gym for another long day on the recruiting trail. Not more than 20 seconds later, I see Iowa's Steve Alford in the passenger seat of a car rolling up to the parking garage.
The IUPUI facilities are really top notch. Much of the work was done to accommodate the Pan-American Games, which were held in Indy back in 1987. The main auditorium has been used for gymnastics, track and field, wrestling, you name it. For this event, they had two large basketball courts pieced together, side by side, on top of the padded sub-floor. The best thing about the venue was that it was air conditioned, which made for relaxed viewing, and for the players a much more comfortable game.
On To The Action
I have seen Ramar enough to know that this guy's ranking the last couple of years isn't a fluke. He can take over a game when ever he feels the urge. He had received solid reports all week leading up until Saturday; and I was anxious to see him and Jarryd Bayless, a 6'3" junior combo guard from Phoenix, play together for Team Oregon State.
Other than a tomahawk dunk that drew the customary "oooh" response, Ramar had a very pedestrian performance (10 pts, 1 assist and 6 turnovers). It was by far the worst I'd ever seen him play. As for Bayless, he is all that he is cracked up to be; strong, quick and explosive off the floor, Jarryd, like Ramar can attack the basket at will off the dribble. The only thing I saw, at least in this game, is that he could have gotten his teammates involved more (Ramar included), but that is recurring theme at these events so I wasn't surprised.
On the other court, Detroit St. Martin De porres junior guard Durrell Summers was showing his wares once again. Durrell had been impressive all week and did so once again (12 pts, 2 rebs, 1 assist and 1 steal.) Tom Izzo was sitting front and center for Durrell's game. According to Scout.com's Dave Telep, that had been the case all week long. Durrell is worthy of the attention. Don't be surprised if a year from now, he is being touted by some as the best player in Michigan's Class of 2007.
Observe and Be Observed
During breaks in the action, I spotted a number of coaches in attendance including Billy Donovan (Florida), Rick Barnes (Texas) Homer Drew (Valparaiso), Brian Gregory (Dayton), Chris Collins' (Duke), Wayne McClain (Illinois) and Blaine Taylor (Old Dominion); it was clear that these guys not just to watch kid that they had already seen many times previous, but more importantly, they were there to be seen by the players whose signatures they seek. While no official contact is allowed between the coaches and the players, there were plenty of opportunities for players to eyeball across to court and see who's watching them in the bleachers.
Raymar and Isaiah
The next game I witnessed involved two of the Spartans' top recruits in the 2006 class, Team Iowa's Raymar Morgan, and Team Michigan State's Isaiah Dahlman. It was the first time I had seen these guys other than on film, so I was anxious to get a good look, as were Tom Izzo and Steve Alford, who had settled into courtside spots opposite the team benches.
Both players were impressive, and displayed good basketball IQ's with a willingness to distribute the ball to open teammates. That is an unusual thing to see at these types of events, so when you see a kid do that it stands out.
Dahlman has a great looking shot from outside, hitting on a long range three from the left corner and later grabbing a rebound and taking it to the hoop, switching hands in mid-air before laying it in off the glass. The most impressive thing about his game offensively is how hard he works to get open without the ball.
Morgan is a bit more athletic than Dahlman, and a couple of times played some stifling defense on Dahlman, once blocking Isaiah's shot in the lane on a drive to the hoop. Morgan, at 6'8", has the skill to play both in the post and outside. He displayed a nice jump hook from about 8 ft on the right base line, then a series or two later got into the passing lane at the top of the circle to steal a pass, which he converted into a breakaway dunk on the opposite end.
Both Raymar and Isaiah have a quick first step and are not afraid to put the ball on the floor and create on their own. It was not surprising that they would be named to the Camp's All Star rosters later Saturday afternoon.
The Interview Room
After the Team Iowa v. Team MSU matchup, I ventured outside and across campus to University Place, which is a combination hotel/conference center; complete with a couple of restaurants and plenty of ambiance. It was where the players, camp coaches and counselors spent the week (Spartans' Mo Ager and Shannon Brown were there as counselors). It was also the home of the Nike Camp player interview/media room.
Unlike some other summer events, which at times can become a little circus like, Nike runs this one in a very professional manner. As media members we, were only allowed to speak with players in this room, and only during specified times; which on Saturday was only for one hour (Noon to 1 pm). Players interview dates and times were broken up according to their jersey number. Being that this was the last day of the camp; the only players who would enter that room to be interviewed were players whose jerseys were numbered 81-120. That meant that while I could talk to Raymar Morgan (#91) and Deshawn Sims (#96), I couldn't speak with Ramar Smith (#13), Durrell Summers (#17), or Isaiah Dahlman (#76).
Just so this story doesn't become longer than the script to Gone With the Wind, I'm leaving the actual interviews out of this piece. For those of you who have been reading for the last five minutes waiting for a quote or two from Raymar or Deshawn, sorry, nothing can be reported here that hasn't already been beaten to death already. For those of you currently cursing me, here is the cliff notes version of what they said to me Saturday:
Raymar Morgan said that the possibly that Jamil Tucker could become the fifth member of the Thad Five in Columbus has no bearing on his decision on whether to attend OSU or not. When I follwed that question by asking him if his final three schools remained Michigan State, Michigan and Ohio State, he smiled, shook his head vertically and said "Yes" (oops there's a quote).
As for Deshawn, the race for his signature between Michigan and Michigan State maybe tighter than it was two months ago, then again it may not be. It all depends on who you believe. While he continues to say that Syracuse remains on his list of schools, I think he is saying that so as not to offend orange lovers.
The Dog Day Afternoon
By the afternoon sessions, players, coaches, counselors, and media folks, were dragging. After four-straight days of games, practices, workouts and interviews, it wasn't a secret as to why. You could see the wear on everyone's faces and the play in the afternoon games was lethargic to say the least. Another telling sign was to see the coaches in attendance now hamming it up with each other a bit more freely. Watching and listening to Tom Izzo and "BG," Brian Gregory verbally jab each other about their golf games and basketball skills was nice to witness. Of course, when it was discovered that Gregory hands were smaller than anyone over the age of twelve, well then the jokes really started to fly.
The MHSAA and the All Star No-Shows
After dinner and more LMFAO Jud Heathcote stories (none of which can be printed here of course) with Jack and WLNS sports anchor, Lisa Byington, the three of us headed over to IUPUI's main gym to watch the back-to-back Camp All Star games. It was no surprise that when we walked into the gym and scanned down the front row of bleachers opposite the team's benches, there sat the Spartan trio of Tom Izzo, Mark Montgomery and Dwayne Stephens.
The games, as expected provided little defense and lots of scoring. Isaiah Dahlman and Raymar Morgan both played big in the second game, and Dahlman was named the Game II MVP. Scout.com's Dave Telep was there and provided a complete recap of the two games here. The thing I'd like to mention though is that while both Durrell Summers and Ramar Smith were named to the all star rosters, they were not allowed to participate due to the Michigan High School Athletic Association's (MHSAA) archaic rule forbidding their current student athletes from participating in any All Star Game activities.
Now I don't want to tar and feather the MHSAA completely, because I think they do as good a job as any similar organization in the country when it comes to high school athletics and the schools they represent. But for them I have to ask this:
Why is it a bad thing for these two kids, who have been in Indianapolis all week playing in what is essentially and "All Star" camp, to play in a celebratory exhibition game?
There is no admission charge to get into the games. The games are not televised, and none of the players are given any real prizes for their performances. It's not like the NBA All Star game, where the game's MVP receives a 2005 Cadillac Escalade and a complementary Lifetime VIP Card to Howard Stern's favorite New York hangout, Scores.
The MHSAA is crossing into the oddball territory that the NCAA rules committee traditionally has imminent domain over. There were rumors floating around Saturday night that Ramar Smith was thinking about playing in the game as a sort of protest. However, by not doing so, he made the right move; because if he would have played, it would have all but ensured his transfer out of Michigan for his senior season because he would have been ineligible to play under the current rules. By opting out of the game, he keeps all his options open.
Whether Ramar plays prep hoops in Michigan or not next year, this is a rule that the MHSAA really needs to readdress – hopefully with a little more common sense.
Questions or comments: Voice them on the SpartansInsider message board.