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Troy coach: Recruiting is ‘doggone dog fight’

Troy University’s head basketball coach Don Maestri said he’s been coaching at Troy “since before the Dead Sea got sick,” but the many changes through the years have made his 28 years at the helm seem like a number of different jobs.

“We went from Division II to Independent and have played in five different Division I conferences,” said the man whose team was the regular season SunBelt Conference champion this year. Maestri spoke to the Andalusia Rotary Club Tuesday.

The changes have allowed him to take teams all over the country and abroad.

“We’ve played in Alaska, Hawaii, the Bahamas and Europe,” he said. “This past summer, we played in Belgium, Amsterdam and Paris.”

Maestri, who was an assistant to Wimp Sanderson at Alabama before turning Troy’s basketball program around, said recruiting is one of the major changes in the game.

“It’s a doggone dog fight and it’s ruthless business,” he said. “There are 340 Division I basketball programs.”

More emphasis is placed on academics now, Maestri said.

“Back when I worked for Wimp, he’d tell me to go get a player,” Maestri joked, holding up an open hand and a fist to demonstrate. “We’d ask him, ‘Which hand’s got the marble’ and if the recruit could figure it out, we’d sign him.”

Now, teams earn points for players remaining eligible and for players returning, and must maintain an average higher than 92.5 percent.

“If I’ve got 13 players and all 13 are eligible and they all return, that’s 26 points,” he explained.

For all the challenges, the academic focus is a good thing, he said.

“We’ve got more players graduating than ever before.”

Troy is building a new basketball arena that will seat 5,500, he said, adding that the 20-month project will be completed in time for the 2011 season.

“I believe we should build it with a chance to pack it,” he said. “All arenas look the same when they’re packed.”

He’s excited about the new facility but joked that he won’t spend any time watching it being built.

“They built a new arena at Auburn and the coach watched every day,” he said. “But Lebo lost his job.

“I told my wife, we’re not watching the construction,” he laughed.

Asked about how well his 2009-10 team played together, Maestri said great chemistry among the players is one of the keys to success on the basketball court, perhaps more than in any other sport. It was one of the keys to fairytale Butler’s trip to the Final Four, he said.

He said Butler recruited “a number of kids who were under the radar” and had a phenomenal season.

Ironically, Butler’s head basketball coach, Brad Stevens, wanted to come to Troy a few years ago as a volunteer coach.

Stevens was a marketing associate just out of college when he decided to quit his day job and pursue a coaching career. Stevens, who is from Indiana as is Maestri’s wife, was willing to volunteer for a year. Someone called Maestri with the offer.

“Bad mistake,” Maestri said. “I said we didn’t have room.”

Instead, Stevens became a volunteer in the Butler basketball office and worked his way up the staff directory, becoming head coach in 2007 at age 30.

Since his team’s recent success, he’s been given a 12-year contract extension.

“Some people thought he shouldn’t have taken it,’ Maestri said. “But I think winning’s more important to good coaches than money. In 12 years, he’s 45, he can have any job he wants.”