In advance of the 2017-18 season, the Big 4 basketball coaches joined The Buffalo News for a conference call on a variety of subjects. Here, UB coach Nate Oats and Canisius coach Reggie Witherspoon share thoughts on local recruiting:
Q: Nate, now that you've been here for a few years and know the basketball culture, and Reggie can speak to this, too, is it tough when you really don't have anything in your own backyard in terms of local players with name recognition to help with recruiting?
Oats: You know what? There are some players in Buffalo. It's just a matter of whether they get the grades. There was a kid here who I think broke the Western New York scoring record last year, but he had to go to prep school. There's a few. I know before I got there that Niagara Falls had all those players, and it was a little bit better. We're trying to recruit the area a little bit. But I do think, with the local fan base, most of our players are from out of the area. We've got one kid from in the state, and the rest come from around. They have to familiarize themselves with the players once we get them here. And then it takes a year or two. We get some junior college kids and, by the time (fans) get to know (the players), they've only go one year left. It probably doesn't help in some regards.
Mark (Bona coach Mark Schmidt) and Reggie have been around a lot longer than me in this area. They know the history of basketball in this area. But there are players here. It’s whether we can get them to stay here, whether they qualify, if they're the right fit, and sometimes players are trying to get away from home. They want to go somewhere outside of home. When I coached high school in Detroit, you had kids that were not going to stay there because they wanted to get away from the area they had grown up with. For whatever reason, there hasn't been that many. I can't give you the best answer, to be honest with you.
Q: There used to be, in the '70s and '80s, a lot more legitimate Division I basketball players that came through here. For whatever reason, it has been down. I don't know if it's because – and I've often attributed at least part of it was because when the Braves were in town there was more interest in basketball overall – and when the Braves left it kind of fizzled out. There just weren't as many. Look at what happened in Toronto when they added basketball. All of a sudden, you had tons of kids coming out that area that can really play.
Witherspoon: You're right. When you have the sports being exposed at that high level, the highest level being the NBA, it helps the grassroots part of as well because of the exposure to the sport. A couple of things, from a historical perspective – and people had this discussion down at the area, "How come we can't have what we had with (Bob) Lanier and (Calvin) Murphy?" – those were the glory years. There's no argument about that. Those were two of the top five consensus All-Americans, and Bob Lanier was the No. 1 player picked in the NBA draft. But there was a different dynamic back then that some people don't quite understand.
No. 1, you didn't have as many conferences. Conference affiliation was different. ... Probably, No. 1 is that, like, Bob Lanier couldn't go play in the ACC, and neither could Calvin Murphy, or the SEC. Their choices, and there were less than a hundred Division I schools, so their choices weren't as great. And they stayed locally. At least in the case of Bob Lanier, he stayed locally. Calvin was from Connecticut. Automatically, who you have in your programs, they're pretty good, obviously. From a local standpoint, yes, there was more local talent, without question. It was getting the local kids to want to stay because the schools were playing on such a big stage, wasn't as hard. It started getting a little bit harder as you began to have more Division I schools, they had more games on television, and conference affiliation began to set in.
If you get to the mid-'70s, and there were some more options available that weren't available earlier, in the late '60s. So if you get to anything really past the mid-'70s – '74 or '75 – Syracuse is a different-looking Syracuse. Jimmy Williams came out of East High in Buffalo, and he goes to Syracuse. He graduated from East High in 1973 and was the New York State Player of the Year. Before he leaves, (Syracuse) is in the Final Four and Syracuse starts to look a little bit different with the Big East coming. Jimmy was really strongly considering staying here and playing locally. He had a brother that came out the next year. Those guys started spreading out. By the end of the decade, you have more games on TV, you had conference affiliation, a lot more Division I schools, and black kids could go play basketball in the South.
Now, you have a couple things working against you. Although we still had a lot of really good talent, and really good balance in the '70s – Ray Hall was able to stay locally – by the mid-'80s, you had a lot more options. You have slightly less kids that could play at that level and more of them not wanting to stay home.
Q: But if you look at Cliff (Robinson) and Christian (Laettner), those kids were going to go play anywhere. It's almost like the mid-major kids kind of dissipated. We don't really even see them. Those are the guys that fit the schools that are (in the Big Four).
Witherspoon: You're right. There aren't as many of those. Cliff and Christian and Keith (Robinson). What you're saying is the Gary Bosserts, guys like Vory Billups and Mike House, you're absolutely right on about that. There's no doubt about that. I will say this: The kids at that level want to be at the same level as Keith Robinson and Cliff Robinson and Christian Laettner. And because those schools are on TV so much, you can't tell them that they're not. They're trying to leave.