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Some Mater Dei basketball players have commitment issues

Katin Reinhardt started hearing it last December, when he committed to accepting a basketball scholarship from USC.

Great news, Trojans fans told him, but we hope you don’t transfer.

It’s true. Fans were talking about the possibility of his leaving before he arrived — or even had signed his letter of intent.

The reason? Two words: Mater Dei.

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The private high school in Santa Ana perennially challenges for championships and produces players who earn scholarships from the nation’s very best college basketball programs.

But something else also seems to happen just about every year.

An unusually high percentage of those players end up transferring — about two dozen have moved from their original Division I teams in the last 25 years or so.

Reinhardt, a junior at Mater Dei, knew the history and understood what prompted the questions.

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“I’m set,” he said. “ ‘SC is my school for however many years I’m going to be there.”

That’s what he believed at the time, anyway. Until, like so many Mater Dei basketball players before him, Reinhardt changed his mind.

A few weeks ago, he announced that although USC was still his school of choice, he wanted to hear what other universities had to offer. He was reopening his recruiting.

What he hadn’t anticipated was USC’s response. Trojans Coach Kevin O’Neill informed him that USC was no longer interested.

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So Reinhardt, a full year before he would be leaving high school, was already on his second college.

His reason for balking on his USC deal — how’s this for irony? — was that he wanted to be sure about his decision because he didn’t want to be among the many players who change schools after their freshman year in college.

“We wanted to make sure USC was the right fit,” said Reinhardt’s father, Ernie.

Transferring is something of a national trend. In 2009-10, the period for which the most recent numbers are available, 422 Division I basketball players transferred to another Division I university. That number was 385 in 2003-04, when the NCAA began tracking the moves.

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And with Mater Dei players, it’s even more than a trend.

“Everybody jokes around that it’s a Mater Dei tradition,” said Reinhardt, who last season helped the Monarchs to their eighth state championship, tying Los Angeles Crenshaw for the most in state history.

That tradition spans decades, dating to the school’s 1983-84 team. All five starters from that team received major-college scholarships, and all of them transferred from the schools with whom they originally signed.

Of course, there are also dozens of Mater Dei players who played their entire college careers at one university. Among them: Guard Miles Simon played four seasons at Arizona and was chosen the most outstanding player in the 1997 Final Four, in which the Wildcats won a national championship.

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In all, Mater Dei Coach Gary McKnight said, about 140 Mater Dei players have earned major-college scholarships in his 29 years as head coach.

“When you have that many [college] kids,” McKnight said, “you’re going to have some transfers.”

That includes several prominent ones in recent seasons.

Mike Gerrity, a starter at Mater Dei from 2001-05, played at Pepperdine, Charlotte and USC. Taylor King, a star forward for the Monarchs from 2003-07, originally committed to UCLA but signed with Duke and played there before transferring to Villanova and then Irvine Concordia, an NAIA school.

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Even more recently, twin forwards David and Travis Wear, who played for Mater Dei from 2005-09, left North Carolina for UCLA, and Gary Franklin Jr., who played point guard for the Monarchs from 2006-10, left California for Baylor.

Some observers, including McKnight, say Mater Dei players may be spoiled by a high school experience that in many ways already mirrors major-college athletics.

Mater Dei basketball players enjoy top-notch gymnasium and training facilities, a fervent fan base, an apparel contract with Nike, a schedule that includes national tournaments in sold-out arenas and near-constant media exposure.

They also win, and win, and win. “Some guys have gone to schools that have lost more games in one year than they did in all of high school,” McKnight said.

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Reinhardt said he and other top players received rock star treatment at Mater Dei.

"… Everybody wants to talk to you, everybody wants to get your autograph,” he said. “The coaches love you and they treat you like God.”

King, a former McDonald’s high school All-American, said McKnight “pampers” players because “he’s that kind of guy.”

It’s not like that at the next level, he added.

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“The next level is all about winning,” said King, the fourth-leading high school scorer in California state history. “No matter what anybody says, it’s a job.”

If there’s criticism to dish out, scouts deserve some, said Joel Francisco, ESPN’s West Coast recruiting coordinator. He said some Monarchs players are rated higher just because they attend Mater Dei.

“Let’s say if a Kawhi Leonard and a Derrick Williams were at Mater Dei, they would definitely be rated higher,” Francisco said.

Leonard attended San Diego State and Williams Arizona. Both were considered good players but not blue-chip recruits out of high school.

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Bob Gibbons, a North Carolina-based national recruiting expert, said for whatever reason some players seem to peak while at Mater Dei.

“Schea Cotton would be a prime example of that,” Gibbons said. “He was a kid who never played in college at the level he did at Mater Dei.”

Cotton, then only 16, was featured in Sports Illustrated after finishing his freshman season at Mater Dei in 1994. But after a road that included stops at Connecticut, Long Beach City College, Alabama and pro basketball overseas, Cotton no longer plays.

In fact, Cotton also switched schools in high school, transferring to Mater Dei as many athletes do. Indeed, in his early years, McKnight built the Monarchs around such players as Tom Lewis, Mike Mitchell, Stuart Thomas and LeRon Ellis — all transfers from other schools.

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Gibbons said because many Mater Dei players have transferred in high school, they are more likely to do it again once they get to college.

But, he added, if Mater Dei players carry a stigma, it hasn’t affected how they are recruited.

“Look at the local schools, UCLA and Southern Cal. Are they really still recruiting hard at Mater Dei?” Gibbons said. “The answer is yes. It comes down to the individual kid.”

baxter.holmes@latimes.com


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