MINNEAPOLIS -- It all starts with recruiting.
Yeah, I know. Duh.
As Casey Stengel once famously observed, ''I couldna done it without my players." Neither could Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Calhoun, or any of the other 14 coaches whose teams have reached the 2006 Sweet 16, and that includes, of course, Al Skinner, who has certainly proven over the last six years (143 wins, five NCAA appearances out of two power conferences) that if you give him some decent players he can coach 'em up pretty darn good.
As most of you know, these 16 quality teams weren't assembled by a coach posting a sign back on Oct. 15, saying ''BASKETBALL TRYOUTS TODAY." They have been assembled due to the incredibly hard work of oft-anonymous assistant coaches, who start tracking prospects from age 13 or so, and who present names to their higher-profile head guys, who then come in for the kill, so to speak. Oh, sure, most of the head guys get out there to see and be seen, too, but make no mistake: It's almost always the assistants who are responsible for finding the players.
That is most assuredly the case at Boston College, where the chief recruiter is associate head coach Bill Coen, who not only knows talent when he sees it but, more importantly, knows the kind of talent his boss likes. That was the case when they worked together at the University of Rhode Island and Coen presented Skinner with the likes of Tyson Wheeler and Cuttino Mobley, and it continues to be the case at BC, where the current starting five includes at least three players -- Craig Smith, Jared Dudley, and Louis Hinnant -- whose attributes may not have been as important to other coaches as they are to Al Skinner.
And as much as everyone now realizes that Smith and Dudley (America's premier inside duo, by the way) were recruiting coups, there is no player on the roster who more embodies the psyche and personality of the head coach than the vastly underrated Hinnant, the methodical point guard who has always been the apple of the coach's eye for how he takes care of the basketball, and who in recent games has added offensive exploits to his package of skills.
''Craig and Jared are obviously great college players," says BC assistant coach Ed Cooley, ''but Louis Hinnant is our team MVP. Team, you understand?"
In the Eagles' case, they take their players where they find them. Over the years, in any regime, BC has always tried hard to get the best local talent. But if there isn't any, or if the young man just isn't interested (e.g. Torin Francis), they must look elsewhere. Without question, this is the most aggressive regime BC has ever known. Take it from me, BC '68: In no basketball dream did I envision a BC team entering the Sweet 16 with three California starters. Dino Martin once recruited from the Tech Tourney. Bob Cousy recruited I-95. Al Skinner & Co. recruit America.
What about the other 15 left standing? How were those teams constructed? I see them grouped as follows:
I: TRUE NATIONAL
Duke, Connecticut, BC, Georgetown
Duke has never really been a Carolina school. Coach K is following the old Vic Bubas blueprint. Coach K's 2005-06 nucleus features players from Virginia (J.J. Redick), Oklahoma (Shelden Williams), Indiana (Josh McRoberts), Illinois (Sean Dockery), New York (Greg Paulus), California (DeMarcus Nelson), and Pennsylvania (Lee Melchionni). Jim Calhoun took UConn national more than 15 years ago. His current core group has one player from Connecticut (freshman Craig Austrie). Big John Thompson made Georgetown a national school a long time ago, and Little John is similarly inclined, with key players from California (Brandon Bowman, Ashanti Cook), Louisiana, Alabama, and only one significant local player, 7-foot-2-inch Roy Hibbert from nearby Maryland. And, of course, BC is now a version of America's team.
II: MODERATELY NATIONAL
The Gators normally like to corral all the best in-state talent, but this group has only two key Floridians (Taurean Green, Chris Richard). Billy Donovan's squad also features players from New York City, Tennessee, Texas, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic. In the old days, a Memphis State team might have 12 players from city high schools (There was always talk about ''putting up a wall around the city."), but now John Calipari only has two (Shawne Williams, Andre Allen). He's winning with players from Indiana, Florida, Michigan, and Washington D.C.
III: ESSENTIALLY REGIONAL
West Virginia, Villanova, Wichita State
West Virginia will always covet the state's elite players (Rod Thorn was actually declared a ''state resource" by the legislature in order to keep him at home), and their star, Kevin Pittsnoggle, is a Mountaineer classic from Martinsburg. After that this club has assembled players from Ohio, Texas, Florida, Virginia, and Germany. Villanova was the first Big Five team to go national, but Jay Wright has found success by staying fairly close to home, with key players hailing from New Jersey, New York City, Maryland, and two from Philly. Wichita State has no key Kansas-bred players, but their best five come from Missouri, Colorado, and three from Texas, which isn't that far away.
IV: HEAVILY LOCAL
UCLA, LSU, Texas, George Mason, Gonzaga, and Bradley
No one can touch UCLA for local flavor, with six current regulars either from a Los Angeles high school or from neighboring municipalities, and a seventh player from less than two hours away. LSU boasts six players from Louisiana and an astounding four from Baton Rouge itself. George Mason may not have any key Virginians, but how about five key guys from Maryland, which is like having a campus in Braintree and then recruiting from Saugus? Gonzaga has six notable players from Washington, and star Adam Morrison is pure local, from Spokane's Mead High School. In keeping with a known international touch, center J.P. Batista is from Brazil. Texas offers up five key native Texans, with other regulars coming from California, Alabama, and North Carolina. Bradley can claim two regulars from right there in Peoria, as well as players from Minnesota, Illinois, Missouri, California, and Texas.
V: TOUGH TO SLOT
The Huskies traditionally lust after the best in-state talent, and are now engaged in a fierce recruiting rivalry with Gonzaga, in addition to their ongoing bitter thing with Washington State. Lorenzo Romar's best player is Seattle-bred Brandon Roy, and he also has three other Washington players, to go with key squad members from Illinois and Washington's traditional alternate recruiting territory, California.
I'm sure there are a lot of great recruiting tales in all of this. Many of them we probably don't want to know.
Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is email@example.com.