<
>

Drejer's decision cause for concern

Christian Drejer walked into Billy Donovan's office 30 minutes before Monday's practice and told the Florida head coach he was leaving. He was headed back to Europe, where a professional contract to play basketball awaited the Danish forward.

Sure, Drejer was a bit emotional. But any tears dried as quickly as the newest destination stamped on his passport. Within 48 hours, the 21-year old sophomore guard was gone, withdrawing from school, never to play again for the Gators.

"There's no question this has hurt our basketball program," Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley said. "We're heading toward the most difficult stretch of the season."

Drejer arrived in Barcelona on Friday to play for F.C. Barcelona. He passed his physical and was presented to the international media. He signed a contract through 2005, with an option to sign on for another two years. The figures of the deal are conflicting, but Drejer is expected to earn at least $1 million over the next two seasons.

Let's review:

Florida, which is out of the top 25 after being ranked No. 1 in December, now must figure out how to save its postseason hopes without its starting forward and fourth-leading scorer. The Gators (14-8, 5-6 SEC) have five regular-season games remaining before the SEC tournament, and with four losses in their past five games, are getting dangerously closer to the bubble than the NCAA Tournament. Barcelona, meanwhile, is getting ready for the Spanish Kings Cup in Seville next week and Drejer greeted reporters upon his arrival Thursday by saying, according to the club's website, that he was really excited about beginning a new phase of his career in Barcelona.

Huh? This wasn't an NBA trade. This is college basketball. But Drejer just moved on to his next team like he was a pro.

Drejer's decision is all but unprecedented. The last prominent foreign player to leave a college team in the middle of the season to play professionally overseas was Rodrigo de la Fuente, who left Washington State on the eve of the 1998 Pac-10 season. De la Fuente was the Cougars' leading scorer and left for a professional contract in his native Spain.

Erazem Lorbek at least finished the season for Michigan State a year ago. But the way Lorbek left wasn't that much different than Drejer's departure.

Tom Izzo planned Michigan State's 2003-04 schedule with Lorbek as his starting forward. He wanted to beef up the nonconference slate because he knew he would have sophomores Lorbek and Paul Davis in the frontcourt. So, even though Lorbek didn't bolt on Michigan State during the season, the timing of his departure certainly affected this season. Michigan State lost tough games against Duke, Oklahoma, Kentucky, UCLA and Syracuse.

"My situation was similar," Izzo said. "I already scheduled with him being here. Half of my problems early were because of what happened. That's an excuse, but it's also the reality."

Lorbek, like Drejer, gave no foresight into his decision process.

Once the spring semester ended, Lorbek went back home to Slovenia. The plan was for him to return and work with the team over the summer. During finals week, he worked out in the gym "morning, noon and night," according to Izzo. When his grades came back, Izzo called to tell him he got a 3.2 grade point average and to make sure he had a return plane ticket.

"He said, 'Thanks coach. Oh, coach, I've got bad news. I signed with an agent last night. I not come back,' " Izzo said. "I said, 'What?' That was it. He signed with an agent. Bad news?"

Izzo talked about the lack of loyalty and commitment shown by Lorbek. The same can be said about Drejer at Florida. Izzo said the Lorbek experience has left him jaded about going back overseas to look for another player like him.

High school kids do the same thing to coaches, telling them one thing, even signing letters of intent in some cases, only to bolt straight to the NBA. But both Donovan and Izzo say a high school player who never gets to campus doesn't affect a team nearly as much as the cases of Lorbek or Drejer.

Such was the case when Kwame Brown signed with Florida but never played for Donovan, instead becoming the top pick in the 2002 NBA draft. It happens each spring around the country, as in the cases of DePaul with Eddy Curry, Mississippi State with Jonathan Bender and Travis Outlaw, Arizona with Ndudi Ebi and Memphis with Kendrick Perkins. All of these players signed and then declared and stayed in the NBA draft, ending up in the first round.

Izzo recruited Drejer, too, since Magic Johnson knew him from a traveling all-star team that had played in Drejer's native Denmark. Izzo is now glad he didn't get Drejer. The Spartans lost out early in a race that came down to Gonzaga and Florida. Now, two seasons later, Drejer leaves for Spanish riches with five games left in his sophomore season after injuries limited him to only 18 games as a freshman.

"I feel for Billy," Izzo said. "This is a low blow. It's so insulting. Drejer was a little bit like Lorbek. He wasn't their best player and Lorbek wasn't ours. But Lorbek could shoot the pick-and-pop and had a 7-foot, 2-inch wingspan. He was like Drejer in that he was an oddity.

"Drejer was 6-9 but could bring the ball up. He wasn't their best player, but he was one of their best glue guys. He could play different positions and a lot of people won't see the value of him. Like Lorbek, he was a good person, a good kid, too."

But what should and does burn both Izzo and Donovan is deals like those signed by Drejer and Lorbek just don't happen overnight.

According to a story on FIBA's web site, Barcelona chased Drejer's signature "for days." Antonio Marceiras, Barcelona's director of basketball operations, told El Mundo Deportivo that the club was pleased that "the player (Drejer) has positively valued our move to bring him over midseason. This is not unusual in university basketball."

Donovan said the last statement is the problem between NCAA basketball and the international game. The mentality is simply different. Drejer was used to playing for club teams and moving from one club to another. As a result, this move didn't register as odd, even though he was going from a major NCAA Division I school to a club team in Europe.

Ultimately, the Drejer and Lorbek cases could affect the way college coaches recruit foreign players who have a chance to earn significant money overseas.

"This opens up a whole new door," Izzo said. "This gives the green light for other kids to do it. We already have the most selfish sport, and now we've made it worse. Kids don't even wait until the end of the season? It opens up for an agent to tell a player that is doing well -- like Vedran Vukusic at Northwestern -- that he could get him $500,000 and take him at Christmas time."

That exactly the sort of thing that happened to former Washington State coach Kevin Eastman in the case of de la Fuente. The offer to play in his native Spain came from a representative of the team, prompting de la Fuente's brother and another family member to fly to Pullman, Wash., to meet with Rodrigo and Eastman. The decision had probably already been made. And, like Drejer, de la Fuente was told that the money wouldn't be available to him if he waited until after the season.

"It didn't make sense to me," said Eastman, who now runs basketball camps in Richmond, Va., and works for Nike grassroots basketball in the summer. "I didn't have time to research it. It happened so quickly. We wanted him to take time, but the pressure was coming from the club. We wanted him to think about where he was going and whom he was leaving. Rodrigo got teary-eyed when he made the decision."

Sound familiar? It sure does to Donovan, who said Drejer did the same thing when they met Monday.

Eastman also said de la Fuente was a "great kid, but in a very pressure-packed situation. He felt like he would lose the money right then."

The fact remains, these international teams know how to sell the players on leaving. Eastman said coaches shouldn't be too discouraged since these are two high-profile cases that left in the middle of the season in the past six seasons. But he said coaches should know which teams are willing to do this.

Oh, and de la Fuente plays for F.C. Barcelona. Coincidence?

"When it happened to us, I thought it wouldn't happen to someone else," Eastman said. "And then it did."

As for any repercussions off the court, the NCAA isn't pursuing a case against Florida to see if Drejer signed with an agent while he was still playing with the Gators. But Bill Saum of the NCAA, who handles agent, gambling and amateurism issues, said the Drejer debacle should be a warning shot to coaches.

"I hope coaches will pay attention to this," Saum said. "We were looking at this on the front end. It just doesn't surprise us. You've got to closely scrutinize their playing background."

Florida got burned in February. Michigan State felt betrayed last summer. Washington State got ambushed in '98.

Who's next?

What else we're hearing ...
At Michigan State: The Spartans are atop the Big Ten, but Izzo has no idea how good the Spartans are because of the, let's just say, parity in the Big Ten.

"I don't know where we are in comparison," Izzo said. "We got smashed in the mouth during our nonconference schedule. But we're a lot better now. I'd play Kentucky home or away now."

Izzo said his team finally "checked" a team the way he wanted on defense. They did that against Purdue. Translation: they were physical and went to the boards.

Oh, one other thing. Izzo said outside of getting the No. 1 or 2 seed, the remaining seeds won't matter much in this year's NCAA Tournament. "The only one you don't want is the No. 8 or 9," Izzo said. "I bet someone will hate to play us early in the tournament."

About fans storming courts ... Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley said he wants something to be done about court storming and will bring it up again at the SEC athletic director's meeting in the spring. Foley had to step in between the Gators' Matt Walsh and a Georgia fan after Georgia fans stormed the court following the Bulldogs' upset earlier in the week. The tape showed that someone had hit Walsh in the back of the head. Florida was upset that it couldn't exit the floor without going through the fans and then through the student section. "It's frustrating," Foley said. "I don't believe it's harmless." No team gets stormed more than Duke when the Blue Devils lose on the road. NC State's and Wake Forest's fans stormed after beating Duke. The Blue Devils were protected by security in Raleigh, but had to weave their way through the Demon Deacon fans in Winston-Salem. "Students should have the right to rush the floor," Duke assistant coach Steve Wojciechowski said. "But the opponents should have a right to leave the floor first."

About Navy ... Michigan State assistant coach Doug Wojcik has to decide if he wants to pursue the Navy job in the coming weeks. The former Navy guard would be the perfect fit for the job. But if he makes the move, he has to realize that he's going there as a destination, not a stepping stone.

About Stanford ... Stanford's assistant coaches believe forward Justin Davis won't return until the Pac-10 tournament. He's out with a knee injury and missed the past five games. Davis is being told he doesn't want to seriously injure the knee and have his potential professional career be jeopardized by not being able to fully function on the basketball court. So, he must wait until he's pain free.

At Georgia ... According to the Georgia coaching staff, university attorneys say that they shouldn't expect further penalties from the NCAA after last year's alleged NCAA violations forced the team to sit out the SEC and NCAA Tournament. First-year coach Dennis Felton saw what happened to St. Bonaventure on Thursday and was reassured that the Bulldogs wouldn't suffer the same fate. The Bonnies are banned from the 2004 NCAA Tournament even though they took themselves out of contention for the 2003 postseason. Georgia's case doesn't come before the committee of infractions until the spring. But the self-imposed penalties of no postseason and the removal of the coaching staff could end up being enough to placate the committee. At least that's what Felton is being told.

Coaches on the comeback trail ... If a job opens up in Texas, regardless of its level in Division I, don't be surprised to see James Dickey's name attached as a candidate. Dickey is making a comeback after being forced out at Texas Tech so that the Red Raiders could hire Bob Knight. Dickey is a trusted assistant to Eddie Sutton at Oklahoma State. The Cowboys' rise to the top of the Big 12 and as a potential No. 1 seed will do wonders for Dickey's profile.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com. His Weekly Word on college basketball is updated Fridays throughout the year.