Varsity Xtra: Western Pa.'s Division I basketball talent is on the rebound

WPIAL, City League players having impact on basketball courts on major-college level


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The starting point guard for the No. 1 team in the country is from the WPIAL, and the Big 12 Conference player of the week is from the City League.

The freshman starting at point guard for an ACC school is from the WPIAL, and so is the kid shooting 60 percent from 3-point range for Duquesne. A few other players from the WPIAL are having major impacts at Division I schools.

Next year, Pitt will have two WPIAL players on its team for the first time in more than two decades and another WPIAL sophomore has already verbally committed to Pitt.

Enough already? All of those are examples that might prove basketball talent in Western Pennsylvania high schools is on the upswing.

No, the Pittsburgh area isn’t close to what it was in the 1960s and 1970s, when it wasn’t uncommon for more than 25 players from the WPIAL and City League to go to Division I colleges, and some of them big-time programs. Heck, there have been years recently when a WPIAL and City League senior class has produced maybe one or two Division I players. And this area still isn’t close to Philadelphia, Baltimore and other cities in terms of producing Division I players.

But you might be scratching your head to come up with the last time Western Pennsylvania has had so many players having impacts at the Division I level at the same time. Plus, a few other former WPIAL players are doing good things at the Division II level.

And next season, Hampton senior Ryan Luther will be at Pitt along with former Beaver Falls star Sheldon Jeter, who transferred from Vanderbilt. Plus, Lincoln Park sophomore Maverick Rowan already has accepted a scholarship to Pitt. You have to go back to the early 1990s to find the last time Pitt had two scholarship players from the WPIAL on its roster.

“I say to everybody all the time that there are more guys here in this area who can play than people think,” said legendary former Blackhawk coach John Miller. “The thing is, some people don’t want to give basketball some breathing room, just because they think it’s total football in Western Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, we’ve got some guys doing some good things.”

Miller’s son, Sean, is the coach at Arizona, the No. 1 team in the country. Former Chartiers Valley star, T.J. McConnell, is Arizona’s starting point guard. Another one of Miller’s sons, Archie, is the coach at Dayton, and Dayton was one of the finalists to land Hampton’s Luther.

John Miller still coaches some boys and girls AAU teams in the Pittsburgh area.

“I think we might have some more players coming that maybe nobody is talking about,” John Miller said.

Think of this: When was the last time you saw three college players from the WPIAL or City League among the top 40 in the country in assists? But that’s the way it is this season with Arizona’s McConnell, Iowa State’s DeAndre Kane (Schenley) and Virginia Tech’s Devin Wilson (Montour). Here are some of the former district players who are making impacts:

• McConnell, a junior who transferred to Arizona after two years at Duquesne, is 13th in the country in assists at 6.5. He hasn’t shot much and is averaging 6.5 points a game. He also averages 3.8 rebounds and leads the team in steals.

“What’s funny is that the year he was sitting out after transferring [from Duquesne], a lot of people would ask me if T.J. would play much at Arizona,” John Miller said. “I would say, ‘Play? He’s going to be their starter.’ Sean didn’t bring him out there to sit around. He brought him out there because he can play.”

• Kane is this week’s Big 12 Conference player of the week. He has helped Iowa State to a 12-0 start and a No. 13 ranking in the country. Kane, a senior, is 34th in the country in assists (5.5) and also is averaging 14.9 points and 7.5 rebounds.

• Montour’s Wilson is starting at point guard as a freshman at Virginia Tech and is third in the ACC in assists and 39th in the country at 5.4 a game. His 65 assists are the most by a Virginia Tech player through 12 games since Bimbo Coles in 1986-87. Wilson is averaging 6.7 points and 4 rebounds.

• Duquesne sophomore guard Micah Mason, a graduate of Highlands High School, has missed some games because of a broken hand. But he is back playing and is averaging 10.5 points and shooting 61 percent from 3-point range (17 of 28). He doesn’t have enough attempts to qualify for the NCAA leaders, but the top 3-point shooter in the country is shooting 59 percent.

• Davidson senior guard Tom Droney, a graduate of Sewickley Academy, is averaging 11.9 points and 3 rebounds and scored 16 points in a game against Duke.

• Former Plum standout Nolan Cressler, a sophomore at Cornell in the Ivy League, is averaging 16.7 points and 4.8 rebounds.

• Jesse Reed, a graduate of Greensburg Central Catholic, is the second-leading scorer at American University at 12.4 points.

Some other former WPIAL players are getting minutes at lower Division I colleges and one of the leading scorers for the No. 1-ranked Division II team in the country is from the WPIAL. West Mifflin graduate C.J. Hester is averaging 14.6 points and 8.9 rebounds for West Liberty.

“Talent comes and goes,” said Pitt coach Jamie Dixon. “Size is always a major factor. There may be better basketball [in the district], but size often outweighs how many players go on and play [at the major-college level].

“I don’t think Memphis, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., are running scared of this area at this point, but it’s good and you always hope there are guys who end up succeeding.

“First and foremost, you’re talking about players [from this district] at the low-major or mid-major level. The remarkable thing is there was a dearth of players for that level for so long.”

Besides Luther, there are a handful of other WPIAL or City League seniors who have Division I college offers or are getting Division I interest. They include Obama guard D.J. Porter, Our Lady of the Sacred Heart guard Cam Johnson, Beaver Falls guard Elijah Cottrill and Lincoln Park forwards Elijah Minnie and Ryan Skovranko. Also, Kiski School (Saltsburg, Pa.) is not in the WPIAL, but has 7-foot center Satchel Pierce, who has signed with Marquette.

Porter’s father, Darelle, played at Perry and Pitt and also was the head coach at Duquesne University for a few years. He thinks the Pittsburgh area is making a small comeback.

“I think we have just as much talent as any city with the same population,” Darelle Porter said. “You can’t compare us with Philadelphia because that city is so much bigger. A lot of the country looks at Western Pennsylvania as a football area and some college coaches go with that stereotype but I think you’re seeing more good basketball players from this area lately.”


For more on high school sports, visit the Varsity Blog. Mike White: mwhite@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1975 and Twitter @mwhiteburgh.

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