By Jimmy Hyams
Desmond Oliver had heard the talk, the chatter, the premise that Tennessee’s team was built on a bunch of three-stars that few other teams wanted.
Tennessee’s assistant wanted to set the record – as he sees it – straight.
“Every few weeks the storyline changes – like this team is filled with three-star guys and Grant Williams only had offers from the Ivy Leagues,’’ Oliver said recently at the Big Orange Tip-Off Club.
“That is so not true, but it sounds cool, so I go with it.’’
Actually, it is true. Each of the top seven players in the UT’s rotation, with one exception, was a three-star prospect. Yves Pons was No. 127, Lamonte Turner 144, Jordan Bone 171, Williams 191, Admiral Schofield 251, Jordan Bowden 262 and Kyle Alexander 362, according to Rivals.
Pons is the four star, and he saw his minutes diminish as the season progressed.
With that as a backdrop, two-seed Tennessee (29-5) takes on 15-seed Colgate (24-10) today at about 2:45 on CBS.
Williams, the two-time SEC Player of the Year, narrowed his final three schools to Yale, Richmond and Tennessee. Tennessee was the only major school to offer Williams.
But Oliver has a different version.
“From Day One, we have felt Grant Williams has been a five-star recruit,’’ Oliver said. “I saw him in the ninth grade and he was this little chubby dude. If he could stop eating the whole box of chicken and eat a couple of slices, he is going to be a great player.
“Williams was a legit four-star. He was a bad dude. He was outplaying the kids that would make it to the NBA.’’
No recruiting service that we saw ranked Williams a four star, perhaps because he was a chubby, undersized inside player who ate the whole box of chicken. But he did hold his own against higher rated players in AAU competition, and that got Tennessee’s attention.
Turner re-classed up due to his age and had to sit a year to gain eligibility at Tennessee. While Oliver says Turner was a four-star and a top 55 or 60 player, no ranking we saw had him nearly that high.
Mike DeCourcy, senior college basketball writer for The Sporting News, followed Oliver to the podium that day and disputed pretty much everything Oliver said.
DeCourcy said UT had to have “incredible coaches’’ to notice the potential of the three-star recruits even though they “look at it as insulting to their recruiting. It is not.
“It is flattering to them that they have a team filled with three-stars and they are doing this (a No. 1 ranking for a month, a 29-win season heading into the NCAA Tournament).’’
DeCourcy said a couple of things are at work.
“One, they have to be incredible scouts to find these players.
“Two, they had to be fantastic coaches to be able to turn to turn a three-star player into an almost certain first-team All-American and an SEC Player of the Year (Williams).’’
DeCourcy called Bone “one of the five most improved players in college basketball.’’
DeCourcy said he asked a college scout how Williams got overlooked. The response: Williams was undersized, played within 10 feet of the basket and couldn’t stretch the floor with his shot.
“The concern was how would that translate (to college),’’ the scout said.
“Well,’’ DeCourcy said, “it translated really damn well.’’
DeCourcy said no team since the 1970s achieved a No. 1 ranking without having a McDonald’s All-American. UT does not.
He said the last team to win an NCAA title without a first-round NBA draft pick was Indiana in 1987. He thinks UT could match that.
He also said only Maryland in 2002 has won a national title since 1977 without a McDonald’s All-American.
“You’re seeing something extraordinary,’’ he said of UT.
Oliver said he remembers Schofield telling him one summer that he wanted to one of the SEC’s top players and he wanted to inherit Robert Hubbs’ position at small forward.
“At the time, he couldn’t dribble better than most of you guys,’’ Oliver said to a crowd that averaged about 60 years old. “His handles were so awful that I was thinking, `There was no way in heck that this guy will be skilled enough to be a small forward.’
“I was dead wrong.’’
Rick Barnes has yet to coach a five-star at Tennessee, though he has signed one for next year: Josiah James.
Oliver said Barnes has stayed away from certain five stars in the past.
“Because the five-star guy has been told for the majority of his life that it is all about you,’’ Oliver said. “The majority of five-star guys come in with the idea of one-and-done.
“If you are a five-star and you do not want to be one-and-done, then there is something wrong with you, based on perception.’’
Oliver said whether a prospect is a five or four or three star, “We have to find the guys who have the right mindset because one thing about Rick Barnes is, the mindset has to be right about being a hard worker.’’
Oliver said it’s important that your best players – like Williams and Schofield – are “high character people.’’
Oliver admitted if you’d told him last year the Vols would inhabit the No. 1 ranking for four weeks, he would have said “there is no way.’’
Oliver believes Williams and Schofield will play in the NBA for a long time. And he said NBA scouts are calling about Bone.
Oliver said the narrative on Bone has changed dramatically.
“Last year,’’ he said, “people were calling in and saying, `I do not think he is good enough to get you guys in the Final Four and win the championship.’ That has changed.’’
Oliver said UT has a common theme when recruiting players.
“We want to bring in guys that continue to make you proud,’’ Oliver said.
“We want to keep bringing in those kids who are tough, blue collar, humble workers.’’
So far, so good.