Texas exodus keeps state schools out of Final Four

When Steve Fisher assembled the greatest recruiting class in the history of college basketball he went to Detroit, Chicago and Texas.

Two-fifths of the Fab Five were Texans.

Twenty years after that class reached the first of two national championship games, the former Michigan coach easily recounts how he was able to sell a pair of Texans -- Ray Jackson and Jimmy King -- on the idea of attending school in the north, thousands of miles from home.

It really wasn't that hard.

Fisher, who is now the head coach at San Diego State, offered this blunt assessment why a state with so many Division I programs and a high grade of talent has been unable to win college basketball's biggest prize in decades: "You want to know the real answer?" he asked. "It's called football. Capital letters."

The NCAA Tournament begins this evening, and there are three teams from Texas in the field of 68. Only Baylor, which is the third seed in the South, is considered to have a real shot at reaching the Final Four.

The priority of basketball in Texas has improved since Fisher stole Jackson and Rose in 1991, but the state is still without a title since UTEP broke the color-barrier and won in 1966.

Since 1985, the 21 Division I basketball programs from Texas have one Final Four appearance: Texas in 2003.

Since 1994, the three NBA teams from Texas have won six titles: the San Antonio Spurs (four), the Houston Rockets (two) and the Dallas Mavericks (one).

Fisher points out the obvious -- the best players want to attend the schools that make basketball the priority. That is just about impossible in Texas.

It is one of the reasons why coaches whose teams have no regional or conference ties to the state routinely troll Texas in hopes of signing a legitimate recruit. There might not be a more over-recruited state in the country.

"We all like to try to come in there," said Missouri coach Frank Haith, whose program had a big one just two years ago in forward Tony Mitchell, who is from Dallas. Mitchell was the highest-rated recruit Missouri had ever signed, but because of academic troubles he transferred to North Texas, where he just finished his freshman year.

"There is a lot of great talent because it's such a large state," Haith said, "and teams have gone in there to recruit because there are so many good programs."

Larry Johnson (Dallas Skyline), Shaquille O' Neal (San Antonio Cole), Kenyon Martin (Dallas Adams), Chris Bosh (Dallas Lincoln) and Deron Williams (The Colony) are just a handful of the All-Star NBA players who attended high school in Texas but elected to leave the state for college.

But when the best players in the state routinely go to Kansas (Darrell Arthur, from Dallas South Oak Cliff), Georgia Tech (Bosh) or other basketball schools rather than stay home, winning a title can't be expected.

"One of the reasons was we did not have the facilities and the fan interest of some of the other basketball powerhouses," Texas A&M basketball coach Billy Kennedy said. "That has changed, and it's been more balanced than it's ever been. We have been able to keep our kids in state and home. Once we get them on campus and see they have a legitimate chance, we can get kids that we wouldn't have gotten 10 years ago."

Coaches in Texas say the man most responsible for this gradual shift is Rick Barnes. Since arriving in 1998, he has developed a program that not only keeps Texas kids in state but is mentioned in the same sentence as UConn, Kansas and other basketball schools.

In 2000, Fort Bend Willowridge guard T.J. Ford could have gone anywhere. Since Barnes convinced Ford to attend UT, some of the best players in the state have decided to stay at home.

"Coach Barnes has done a phenomenal job of keeping the best players in state," Baylor coach Scott Drew said. "That has opened the door for us, for Texas Tech and for Texas A&M. Coach Barnes changed things and the rest of the schools have followed that. Our facilities have improved and our records have improved."

Before Barnes, the most successful program in the state was Houston. The Cougars reached three consecutive Final Fours from 1982 to '84, and were one miracle shot against North Carolina State from winning a title.

Now players such as Ford, LaMarcus Aldridge of Seagoville (Texas) and Perry Jones III of Duncanville (Baylor) have stayed at home. And 7-foot Isaiah Austin of Arlington Grace Prep, considered one of the top five prospects in the country, is headed to Baylor.

Since Barnes' arrival, Texas A&M, Baylor and Texas Tech have also reached the Elite Eight. Just no title.

"It's a matter of time," Drew said. "Before [the Big 12 was formed in 1996] we didn't have the national media spotlight. I thought the elite players [from Texas] had to leave to get that. It's tough to win a national championship. If the Big 12 was around in the 1950s, we'd have a couple of national championships by now."

One would be nice.

Mac Engel, 817-390-7697

Twitter: @MacEngelProf

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