VALPARAISO | Long after the nets are cut down this evening at AT&T Stadium, Indiana and Illinois residents alike will continue to look back on the 2014 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament with great disdain.
History was made this season as both the Land of Lincoln and the Hoosier State were shut out of the NCAA tournament for the first time in 42 years. Before this year, a school from Indiana had been in the tournament every year since 1972, with the lone exception of 2005.
As bad as the state-wide exclusion from the Big Dance has been for both Indiana and Illinois, it’s not as if the two states didn’t have players participating in the tournament. Last weekend Lew Wallace product Branden Dawson had Michigan State two minutes away from a spot in the Final Four. Michigan, led by region stars Glenn Robinson III (Lake Central), Spike Albrecht (Crown Point) and the injured Mitch McGary (Chesterton), nearly knocked off Kentucky in the Midwest Regional final in Indianapolis.
Illinois stars Frank Kaminsky (Lisle) and Noah Boatright (East Aurora) reached the Final Four, leading Wisconsin and Connecticut respectively to a deep tournament run.
With all the talent in Chicago and Northwest Indiana, how did area programs allow these players to escape and find success at out-of-state schools?
“It comes down to the collegiate coaches and the direction they go in,” Sports Youth Foundation director James Dye said. “When Robbie (Hummel), Scott (Martin) and E'Twaun (Moore) were being recruited to Purdue, my phone would never stop ringing. I didn’t get those kinds of calls on Branden Dawson. I didn’t get them on Glenn Robinson and I didn’t get them on Mitch McGary. The calls and the interest just weren’t there.”
Through the Gary-based SYF Players AAU program, Dye has plenty of experience with the top coaches in the country. He’s seen the likes of Tom Izzo aggressively recruit players such as Dawson and Travis Trice as well as a coach like Tom Crean struggle to get acclimated to a new state when he moved from Marquette to Indiana in 2008. Moving to a new program often means falling behind in recruiting for not only that year, but the years following as well.
“Coach Crean and his staff were just getting their feet wet and Indiana (high schools) was new to them,” Dye said. “Mitch was in my program as a ninth-grader and he walked in the gym wearing Indiana red. That’s all he wanted to do, but he was not recruited to go there. At some point the kids need to go where they’re recruited.”
It’s not as if the local schools have stopped recruiting region talent. Dawson cited Purdue and Indiana as finalists when he picked Michigan State in 2010. Valparaiso was the first program to offer Robinson a scholarship when he was an underclassman at Lake Central. Often times when it comes to picking a school, geography just isn’t a high priority.
“Sometimes kids just want to blaze their own trail,” Midwest Elite associate head coach Chris Artis said. “With the social media age and the kids seeing different places like Michigan, they want to go somewhere else. It’s just a cycle. It’s not really an exact science to why they’re leaving. Hummel and his group stayed; this last group left. Maybe the next group stays, maybe they go somewhere else."
That next group includes a handful of solid Midwest Elite prospects such as David Skara and Zoran Talley. Artis is one of the coaches of the Merrillville-based program and has watched as schools such as Virginia Tech, Boston College and Old Dominion have aggressively pursued region talent.
If another batch of players decides to leave Northwest Indiana, they’ll likely rely on social media to maintain a close connection to the region. Sites such as Twitter and Skype have made the world a smaller place and can allow out-of-state players to feel connected to their friends and family at all times.
“These guys come home all the time,” Artis said. “I’d see (former Chesterton star) Zack Novak all the time when he was at Michigan. With the way technology works now, it doesn’t even feel like those kids are gone. They interact every single day with their friends. It’s like they never left.”
But they did leave. They left Indiana and Purdue with much earlier offseason tee times this year. They left Notre Dame and Illinois on the outside looking in. They even left 2013 participants Butler and Valparaiso without a spot in the dance.
“I might be stepping on some toes in saying this, but if we have a kid in this area who is a qualified basketball player, charity starts at home and spreads,” Dye said. “I just don’t see or hear from the coaches as much as I did in 2005 or 2006. I’m just not seeing that kind of activity anymore and because of that, the kids are losing that luster of wanting to wear the Black and Gold or wear the Crimson and Cream. I’m all for keeping the kid at home because that increases the probability of him remaining in the state (as an adult). Every kid I send away, we’re losing our assets.”