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Northwestern’s ‘historic’ NCAA tourney berth delights one of its rare ex-NBA players

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Evan Eschmeyer cherishes his six years at Northwestern in the 1990s. The last 25 years were filled with plenty of basketball-related pain, too.

There was nothing but joy as the 6-foot-11 Eschmeyer watched the NCAA Tournament Selection Show from his Colorado home on Sunday evening.

Northwestern made the NCAA Tournament field for the first time, ending a 78-year drought, the longest wait for any major conference school to join the Big Dance.

“It was historic, no other word for it,” he said by phone Monday. “A great deal of pride.”

No one player is associated with the Northwestern program’s history of futility more than Eschmeyer, who spent six years in Evanston in the 1990s. The Wildcats went 59-109 from 1993-99, including 19-85 in Big Ten play.

A rare top recruit to wear the Wildcats uniform, Eschmeyer is Northwestern’s only All-America team selection in the last 50 years and the only player drafted into the NBA in the last 40 years who played exclusively at the school.

In high school, Eschmeyer said his finalist list of schools included Notre Dame, Xavier, Michigan State and Purdue, all programs with NCAA Tournament histories.

“I wanted the highest-level education I could get, combined with the highest-level basketball,” the Western Ohio native said. “Northwestern was it. Today, that’s still the case.”

Eschmeyer also sought to reverse the program’s curse.

“I’m going to take these guys to the tournament, first year, go pro in two,” Eschmeyer said. “I was very arrogant.”

The pain started his freshman year. A broken foot kept Eschmeyer out those first two seasons.

Several doctors told him he’d never play again. He received a rare two medical redshirt years, making his college basketball stint the better half of a decade.

Eschmeyer led a Northwestern team that had won five games in 1994-95 to a 15-14 record in his last season. But that was only good enough for an NIT berth.

Eschmeyer grew up trying every which way to get out of school early in March to watch opening-round games. He filled out brackets for as long as he can remember. Even while at Northwestern, stuck in Evanston watching friends play across the country.

To this day. His 10-year-old twins registered for email accounts to enter bracket contests online starting a few years ago.

“It hurts that I never played,” he said. “It’s one of those few things that I have to live with as far as regrets for the rest of my life.”

In 1999, the New Jersey Nets took Eschmeyer with the 34th pick in the NBA Draft. But chronic knee problems forced him out of professional basketball after four seasons and five surgeries.

Eschmeyer remembers a nadir, feeling like somebody shot him in the leg warming up for a 2003 playoff game with the Dallas Mavericks. He received a cortisone shot solely for the purpose of propping him up should he need to enter the game later to foul somebody.

A doctor — from Northwestern – later told Eschmeyer that if he wanted to be able to play with his future kids, he needed to give up basketball.

Eschmeyer said he hasn’t played in an organized game since. Only in the last year has he played one-on-one with one of his 10-year-olds.

“I miss it daily,” he said. “Every day.”

Eschmeyer has lived in Colorado the last five years with his wife, former Northwestern player Kristina Divjak, and their three children.

He put that Northwestern education to good use. Eschmeyer is a CFO of a telecommunications development company, among other assets.

“Kind of a boring sort-of financial investor lifestyle,” he said, though his passions include hunting, hiking and teaching archery to area kids. The kind of pursuits that lead Midwesterners to the Rocky Mountains.

Eschmeyer’s basketball memories are mostly boxed up, but he is proud of one photo in his office. It’s of the center diving for a loose ball with his teammates.

Eschmeyer said he would gladly trade his personal success at Northwestern, which boosted his NBA Draft potential, to have played in the NCAA Tournament. But only if his teammates remained the same.

“It’s a special place where kids still stay for four years,” he said. “It’s a family. That’s what I’m most proud of.”

Eschmeyer is also proud of Northwestern coach Chris Collins. Eschmeyer said he actually hosted Collins on an unofficial recruiting trip to Evanston in the early ‘90s, even though Collins is one year older.

Collins, a McDonald’s All-American high school player, chose Duke, enrolling there after the Blue Devils won back-to-back national championships.

“It was definitely an uphill battle for Northwestern versus Duke,” Eschmeyer said, “but we got him out for a visit.”

The coach brought Eschmeyer back this season to speak to the team after a win over Iowa on Jan. 15.

“[Collins] made some very kind comments about what I had done when I was there, and just the history of the program,” said Eschmeyer, who tried to attend about two games per year. “I think that, from comments he made and the rest of the staff has made, it was important for them to build some sense of family around the program.”

Eschmeyer empathized with the current players carrying the weight of the program’s history.

“I don’t want to say they’ve been playing tournament games for the last four weeks, but there’s been a high level of pressure on them,” he said. “Everyone’s been counting games. Everyone’s been doing the math every time. That’s tough for anybody, especially when you’re 19.”

Eschmeyer has carried some of the burden, too. He hates being remembered as the star of a team that never made the tournament.

“Now [junior point guard] Bryant McIntosh will get phone calls instead of me,” Eschmeyer said, laughing. “It’s not that I don’t like a little attention once in a while, but no one likes attention for negative reasons, right? I will be very happy to pass being the last guy to be X, Y, Z to some young blood that has better things in their bios for what they accomplished at Northwestern.”

Eschmeyer spent the first day after the bracket announcement on message threads with friends and former players firming up travel arrangements.

Eighth-seeded Northwestern will play No. 9 Vanderbilt in Salt Lake City on Thursday. If it wins, No. 1 seed Gonzaga likely looms Sunday.

Eschmeyer will be in the crowd, perhaps the tallest person in the building wearing purple. His bracket will be filled out with Northwestern winning it all.

“There will be a sense of nostalgia,” Eschmeyer said. “I’ll be with a lot of old friends enjoying the moment.”

NEXT ONE? Hoops phenom at 13 has college offer, NBA height

AP Photo/Paul Sancya
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ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) — Emoni Bates walks out a front door of Clague Middle School with just inches to spare.

A wide smile tops his 6-foot-7, extra-lean frame. He’s holding a seventh-grade honor society certificate in his right hand. His braces gleam in the afternoon sun.

Meet the best 13-year-old basketball player in America, according to some recruiting services. One of his highlight reels on YouTube has been viewed about 1 million times.

“I don’t really pay attention to it,” Emoni insists in a voice just louder than a whisper, “because if I pay attention to it, it’s just going to get to my head.

“And I don’t want it to get to my head. I just want to play basketball.”

He’s got the pedigree.

Emoni’s father, E.J. Bates, has been around the game most of his life. He picked greens and baled hay as a kid in nearby Milan, Michigan, then developed into a smooth-shooting guard. But he didn’t take school seriously until it was too late. Instead of playing for a basketball power like Kansas and maybe even in the NBA, E.J. wound up going to Kentucky Wesleyan and settling for pro hoops in Switzerland.

E.J. is determined to make sure his son doesn’t make the same mistake. The academics are a sign of that. House rules bar Emoni from picking up a basketball until his homework is done.

Yet E.J. knows when kids are this good this early, distractions roll in like waves. Already, it seems, lots of people want a piece of Emoni. Prep, private and public high school coaches are lining up. Colleges have him on their radar. DePaul took it a step further, offering Emoni a scholarship in late August. Two other much-touted players in the Class of 2022 — Amari Bailey of Illinois and Skyy Clark of California — also have offers from DePaul.

E.J. knows the shoe company bird dogs and other hustlers looking to buy favors are lurking, too. So he and wife Edith, who works for the Red Cross, keep their inner circle very tight.

“I’m his coach to keep the snakes away,” Bates says, sitting on one of Clague’s concrete benches. “We’re not for sale.”

The Bates family has agreed to provide The Associated Press with a rare, behind-the-scenes look at the life of one of the most coveted basketball prospects in the country for at least the next five years. The periodic series will include video, photos, audio and text updates to track his progress.

Will Emoni stay near his current home to attend a public high school? Or will he take his next step at a private school like Detroit Country Day, like Michigan native Chris Webber?

Will he follow the footsteps of Marvin Bagley III and other five-star prospects, reclassifying to finish high school in three years? Bagley did to play college ball at Duke this coming season — and potentially to get a jump on a pro future.

Will E.J. and Emoni emulate the father-son team of LaVar and Lonzo Ball, grabbing headlines while hawking their own brand at every turn?

No one knows.

E.J. says all options are on the table. But he won’t be loud, unlike LaVar Ball in the lead-up to his son Lonzo being drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers.

“I don’t have to brag about what we’re doing,” E.J. says. “I let other people do all the talking about how good Emoni is because word of mouth is the best advertising there is.”

A POTENTIAL STAR IS BORN

Emoni James-Wayne Bates was born Jan. 28, 2004, at the University of Michigan hospital. He was on the light side — 6 pounds, 7 ounces — and a little long at 21 inches. Just over a year later, Emoni slept with his head cradled in his left arm and his right wrapped around a black and red basketball. A cherished photo was made.

“He would always sleep with the ball,” his father recalls, holding a framed picture in his Ypsilanti, Michigan, home. “If the ball wasn’t around, he would cry about the ball. Even to this day, he has a mini-ball he keeps with him, which is crazy to me.”

There were more hints. During a second visit to the doctor, E.J., who is 6-foot-4, and Edith, 5-9, asked how tall their son might grow.

“He was off the charts,” E.J. laughs, “so they couldn’t tell us.”

Emoni has shot up 7 inches in the last two years. He’s tall enough right now to play shooting guard at any level. He handles the ball like a point guard and launches 3-pointers like a savvy veteran. He can create his own shot like a wing or drive the lane and dish off to a teammate like another rail-thin former prodigy, Golden State Warriors star Kevin Durant.

But adding weight and muscle is an ongoing challenge. He weighs just 155 pounds — not heavy or strong enough to play a dominating inside game that would complement his fluid perimeter skills.

“We try to stuff him full of food at night and hope it sticks,” E.J. sighs.

TEEN CELEBRITY

The Adidas Invitational in Fishers, Indiana, attracts some of the Midwest’s top seventh-grade AAU teams. Inside Best Choice Fieldhouse, talk centers on whether the Bates Fundamentals squad starring Emoni and coached by E.J. can live up to the hype.

“They’ve been hearing a lot about him,” says Bernetta Kelly, watching her son’s Peoria Area Elite team take its shot.

Bates Fundamentals wins 95-44 and Kelly understands why. She approaches Emoni and asks for a photo with her son and his team.

“I’ve seen the best players from Pittsburgh to Vegas the last four years, and he’s been the best in his class,” Peoria coach Zach Martin says. “I told the guys, ‘There are not many times you will be able to say you played an NBA player, but you just did.'”

After another lopsided victory in the two-day tournament won easily by Bates Fundamentals, Emoni walks off the court. A younger competitor darts out of his team’s pregame layup line to slap his hand. Moments later, the excitement follows Emoni out the door.

“Hey, that’s him,” a young boy entering the facility says to teammates.

How does a 10-year-old from Fort Wayne, Indiana, know who Bates is?

“YouTube,” he says.

Duh.

The highlight reel posted last summer had nearly 1 million views before Emoni walked into the doors at Clague for the first time as an eighth-grader. Several other videos have racked up 500,000-plus views in less than one year.

By the spring of 2018, the suspense about where he plans to attend high school may be its own mini-drama. Then a few years later: Which college?

E.J. and Edith hardly need reminding that’s still a long way off. As good as the recruiting services have become at projecting stars, it’s easy to forget the object of all that attention is still just 13. At times, the recruiting experts simply miss.

“It’s always a crap shoot,” E.J. says. “You don’t know what life will deal you. You never know what can happen with injuries, the loss of motivation or pressure getting to be too much.”

Yet fans of two college basketball powers with the inside track can already start thinking about the fall of 2021, when Bates can officially sign a scholarship offer. In quiet moments, Emoni sometimes does, too.

Asked about his favorite programs, the soft-spoken kid doesn’t hesitate to name the early front-runners.

“Michigan State and Kentucky,” Emoni says.

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Follow the series: https://www.apnews.com/tag/TheKid

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Follow Larry Lage at http://twitter.com/larrylage

NCAA punishes Pacific men’s basketball for violations

AP Photo/Young Kwak
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STOCKTON, Calif. (AP) — The men’s basketball team at Pacific has been punished by the NCAA for academic and recruiting violations under former coach Ron Verlin.

The NCAA said Wednesday that Verlin failed to promote an atmosphere of compliance when he violated academic misconduct and recruiting rules to get prospects eligible. He also failed to monitor his coaches and violated NCAA ethics rules when he encouraged others to give false information during the investigation.

The baseball program was also cited because former coach Ed Sprague impermissibly provided an athletic training student with a $16,000 scholarship to help with the housing costs of two baseball student-athletes, including her brother.

Penalties for the school include two years of probation, recruiting and scholarship reductions, a $5,000 fine and a vacation of all games in which ineligible athletes participated.

Memphis lands commitment from 2018 center Connor Vanover

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Memphis picked up its first commitment in the Class of 2018 on Wednesday night as unique center prospect Connor Vanover announced his decision on Twitter.

At 7-foot-2, Vanover brings elite size to the interior for the Tigers and he’s also skilled enough that he was a 43 percent three-point shooter during his stint playing with Pro Skills in the Nike EYBL this spring. Although Vanover needs to add strength and athleticism to adapt to the college level, he simply has size that you can’t teach. Pair that size with an intriguing perimeter jumper and it’ll be interesting to see how head coach Tubby Smith is able to develop Vanover the next few years.

A three-star prospect according to Rivals, Vanover averaged 9.1 points, 5.5 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game during the spring. Originally from Arkansas, Vanover is spending his senior season of high school ball at prep school powerhouse Findlay Prep.

Bill Self unsure of how long he will continue to coach

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Kansas head coach Bill Self is one of the most decorated college basketball coaches of all time.

Recently inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame earlier this month, Self has won a record 13 consecutive Big 12 regular-season championships while also claiming a national title for the Jayhawks during his storied career.

But while most legendary coaches in contemporary college basketball have stayed around to coach well into their late 60s or early 70s, the 54-year-old Self doesn’t necessarily see his career playing out that way.

Speaking with ESPN.com reporter Myron Medcalf on Wednesday, Self acknowledged that he’s thinking about potentially retiring once his next contract ends after the 2021-22 season. With five more years left on his current deal, that would mean that Self would be retiring before he would even turn 60.

“I’ve said all along that if I could go to my late 50s, that’d be good for me,” Self said to Medcalf. “Now that I’m getting close to my late 50s, I’m like, ‘Well…’ but my contract runs until I’m 59, so I’ve got five more years left. I definitely want to do that. Then whatever happens after that I’d be happy with whatever. But I don’t want to [coach too late].”

While Hall of Fame coaches like Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim (72 years old), Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski (70 years old) and North Carolina’s Roy Williams (67 years old) are showing no signs of slowing down, Self acknowledged to Medcalf that coach, and specifically recruiting, has started to take its toll on him.

“With recruiting the way that it is, it just wears you down,” Self said to Medcalf.

With Kansas pursuing so many potential one-and-done prospects over the past few seasons, it means that Self usually has to recruit sizable recruiting classes

Self is certainly entitled to do what he wants with his career and his life but it would be a shame to see one of the game’s greats hang it up at that point in his career. Potentially retiring at that age means that Self won’t chase 1,000 wins or any additional longevity records

Ohio State lands second pledge in two days with 2018 guard Duane Washington

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Ohio State stayed hot on the recruiting trail on Wednesday as the Buckeyes landed a commitment from Class of 2018 guard Duane Washington.

The 6-foot-3 Washington is the second commitment for Ohio State and new head coach Chris Holtmann in the last two days after four-star forward Jaedon LeDee pledged to the Buckeyes on Tuesday.

One of the better shooters in the Class of 2018, Washington averaged 14.9 points per game on tremendous shooting splits (48% FG, 87% FT, 45% 3PT) playing with The Family in the Nike EYBL this spring. A Michigan native who now resides in California, Washington gives Ohio State a much-needed guard commitment in the Class of 2018.

With the Buckeyes needing to fill a lot of scholarships due to roster turnover, Washington is a solid start to their perimeter class. While Washington isn’t likely to play point guard, he can play multiple perimeter spots and should be a solid addition to the Buckeye rotation.