- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Virginia Commonwealth’s Larry Sanders has never forgotten the humiliation of his youth.

Then a rawboned ninth-grader, Sanders would show up at the playground courts in Port St. Lucie, Fla., seeking some fun and friendship. Other ballers would watch the 6-foot-6 kid with extraordinary length and leaping ability hammer down a few gravity-defying dunks and argue over his pickup services.

Then the actual game would begin.

“All of the basketball I played was streetball,” Sanders remembered. “You didn’t get any love in those games for rebounds and blocked shots. If you wanted to play, you better know how to shoot and dribble. I couldn’t do either. I could dunk like crazy, so because of that and my height, I was usually the first guy picked. And then they saw me play, and I never got picked again. It was frustrating. I stunk at the things they valued, so I just quit showing up.”

Sanders did turn up for junior varsity tryouts his junior year in high school, lured by the shiny new high tops. His first four years of organized hoops later, Sanders is the heir apparent to Eric Maynor’s star scepter at VCU. And again, a group of dazzled onlookers hope to add him to their team… this time as a likely NBA lottery pick.

Though Sanders is an atypical talent, his back-road path to semistardom is almost common among college basketball’s minor-conference standouts. As the new season begins this week, elite players with similar stories are scattered across rosters around the nation’s smaller conferences.

Most were late bloomers, guys who never played AAU ball and never appeared on the national recruiting radar. Some have pro futures, a few as NBA first-rounders. Most would be significant contributors for any team in America.

And should a major-conference, perennial-power program happen to encounter them in a pre-league tuneup or postseason tournament, it better leave its minor-conference perceptions in the locker room. These are college basketball’s second-tier terrors, and all of them are capable of turning big league hubris into a humbling, 40-minute nightmare.

“The public perception of the difference between mid-major talent and major-conference talent is much greater than the reality,” Georgetown coach John Thompson III said. “Having spent many years as a player and coach at what would be considered a low-major [Princeton] that delighted in knocking off those big programs, I hope I’m the last guy who would fall into the trap of overlooking anyone.”

Thompson and the Hoyas will get a firsthand look at two of the game’s top sub-major players when Georgetown faces Butler on Dec. 8 in the Jimmy V Classic at Madison Square Garden.

The Bulldogs boast a pair of mid-major gems in forwards Matt Howard and Gordon Hayward. A 6-8 junior, Howard was the Horizon League player of the year last season after averaging 14.8 points and 6.8 rebounds. But it’s Hayward who left NBA suits stammering this summer when he followed his superb freshman season with a brilliant performance for Jamie Dixon’s gold medal-winning U.S. under-19 team.

“I’m hesitant to name an MVP because I thought what made us so good was our unity and unselfish play,” Dixon said. “But Gordon was terrific for us [in New Zealand]. He’s a big-time player.”

Hayward was a tennis standout at Indiana’s Brownsburg High hoping to pursue hardcourt dreams of a different sort at Purdue before he sprouted from 5-11 as a freshman to 6-8 as a senior. After leading Brownsburg to the Class 4A basketball title as a junior, Hayward skipped AAU ball that summer in an attempt to win the state singles title. As a result, no major-conference coach discovered Brad Stevens’ recruiting coup until the Butler coach put the eventual Horizon League newcomer of the year on the floor last season.

A classic matchup headache for opposing coaches, Hayward can comfortably play every position but center. He averaged 10 points and 5.7 rebounds for the U.S. team, shooting 41.4 percent from behind the 3-point arc.

“I’ll play wherever coach needs me,” Hayward said. “But aside from the odd possession, I’m not sure you’ll see me bodying up on [Georgetown center Greg] Monroe too often. I’m still a little scrawny to go down inside and bang against serious wide bodies.”

Much like Hayward, Vermont’s Marqus Blakely owes his remarkably versatile skill set and the fact that he was totally overlooked during the recruiting process to a freakish growth spurt.

“My sophomore year in high school, I was only 5-7,” said Blakely, a 6-5 senior and the nation’s only hoopster who can claim to have won his league’s player of the year award the past two seasons. “I grew six inches over that summer, and my knees were so sore from the growth spurt that I couldn’t even play my junior year.”

Two seasons ago, Blakely became only the second player to lead the America East in scoring (19.0), rebounds (11.0) and blocked shots (2.7). Last season, Blakely led the Catamounts in scoring (16.1), rebounds (9.0), blocks (2.7) and steals (2.0) while finishing third in assists (2.5).

The best rebounder in the college game also might be playing in the minor-conference shadows. Radford’s Art Parakhouski is a 6-11 native of Belarus whom Radford assistant Ali Ton discovered while scouting the European junior championships five years ago. The Big South’s reigning player of the year averaged 11.2 boards last season thanks to a body that would make Ivan Drago weep with envy.

“At 6-11, 270 pounds with only 6 percent body fat, he’s a specimen,” said Radford coach Brad Greenberg, who knows an NBA big man when he sees one after spending a dozen years in varying roles for the Clippers, Knicks, Trail Blazers and 76ers. “Art would be a factor as a rebounder in the NBA right now, and he’s on their radar for sure.”

And then there’s Sanders, who is more than just on the NBA’s radar thanks in large part to his 7-7 wingspan, the widest at any level since Gheorghe Muresan (7-10) tormented opponents with his shot-swatting, rebound-corralling length.

How long is the 6-9 Sanders? He can stand flat-footed and pin a basketball to the rim.

“What really wows you about Larry is that not only does he have all these physical gifts, he’s got a ridiculously high ceiling,” coach Shaka Smart said. “He’s come a long way, but he’s not anywhere near his plateau. … He’s a unique kid all around. Nobody his size can run faster, jump higher or has a bigger wingspan. Yeah, he’s really rare. He’s special.”

Take a look below the major-conference level this season, and you’ll find that’s routinely the case.

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