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Padding the Stats: A Hard Look at the College Basketball’s Rule Changes

August 11, 2018

This week, the NCAA passed some of the rules changes the powers that be have been promising ever since the FBI probe revealed the corruption that has plagued college basketball. Once the FBI shined the light on what most expected to already be the case, there’s no way the NCAA was going to let the status quo continue.

The NCAA formed the Commission on College Basketball led by Condoleezza Rice to examine college basketball as it was, and then formed sub-committees to look into enacting some of the changes suggested by Rice’s commission. The results of that process were announced on Wednesday and they will dramatically change the way college basketball works.

Some of the changes are a step in the right direction, but even those come with serious problems in terms of how they will be put into practice. For this column, however, I’ll be focusing solely on the changes to the recruiting calendar for Division I basketball coaches.

For those that don’t know, I’ve been covering high school and AAU basketball for the past six years or so. I’ve been coaching at Omaha Sports Academy for the past four years. I’ve been in and around summer basketball for some time and I know how it works. With that background in mind, the changes made by the NCAA are problematic and will not accomplish what they hope they will.

To recap things, the typical recruiting calendar for Division I coaches has included two evaluation periods (called live periods) in April and three in July. Those windows are when the biggest AAU tournaments that draw coaches from all over the country take place. Those tournaments are called live events and must be certified in order for coaches to attend. Those periods allow coaches to see prospective recruits play with an against a higher level of talent than they typically do for their high school teams.

In June, kids take a break from their summer teams to participate in summer leagues and team camps with their high school teams. That includes team camps hosted by Division I programs, which is the only time when Division I coaches can be in the gym.

Under the new rules, the last two live periods in July have been eliminated, leaving just the two in April and one in July. For the 2019 calendar, however, there will only be one April live period because of where Easter falls on the calendar. So these rules have in essence cut live periods from five to two for next year.

In place of the live periods for AAU teams, the NCAA is creating a nationwide camp for elite players to take place in July during what otherwise would have been a live period event. The NCAA is also allowing coaches to attend events during June when players are with their high school teams. This is problematic.

First of all, the purpose behind these particular changes is to limit the influence of AAU coaches and increase the involvement of high school coaches because apparently high school coaches are much more trustworthy than AAU ones in the NCAA’s eyes (despite the fact that there is significant overlap between the two in many programs). Honestly, if you asked those high school coaches I’m not entirely sure they’d want to be more involved, but that’s besides the point.

The truth is there are far, far more AAU coaches that truly do have their players’ best interests at heart and that know their stuff than there are the bad eggs that the NCAA is so worried about. I can state from personal experience that Nebraska has many, many of these kinds of coaches helping kids develop and gain exposure throughout the spring and summer. Conversely, not every high school coach has the knowledge or the connections to give his or her players the best opportunity to make it to the next level.

Second, the rise of AAU basketball has happened for a reason: it’s much more efficient for college coaches. 

Go to any AAU tournament during a live period and look over at the coaches section: you’ll see polos from every level of college basketball from Division I all the way down to NAIA. AAU teams are typically made up of players of different ceilings, so it makes sense for coaches from all levels to watch the same teams. One squad might be highlighted by a 5-star prospect only the Division I blue bloods have a chance at landing, but perhaps the third-best player on that team is a mid-major kid, the fourth a Division II prospect and the 6th man a future NAIA star. These tournaments bring hundreds of teams with thousands of players to one central location.

This tournament format has given countless kids who are under — or completely off — the radar a chance to catch a coach’s eye. Consider the case of Mike Daum, a native of Kimball, Nebraska, who has developed into one of the best players in college basketball at South Dakota State. Daum basically turned one spectacular — and fortunately-timed — performance into a scholarship offer from the Jackrabbits. Under the new rules, Daum’s opportunities to have that eye-catching performance he needed would have been severely restricted, and he might never have received a Division I offer. 

A couple more kids from Nebraska who are good examples are Sam Griesel, a Lincoln East product who will be a freshman at North Dakota State, and Teddy Allen, a Boys Town graduate who spent his freshman season at West Virginia but has since transferred to Wichita State. Both players attracted some interest early but truly blew up during the last week of July. Had those two come along under the new rules, chances are they end up going to schools at lower level than the ones at which they ended up.

That brings me to the camps. Beyond the logistical issues, players like Daum, Allen and Griese likely never would have gotten an invitation to that camp. So in essence, the NCAA is taking away the events that landed those players scholarships and replacing them with one the players would not have had a chance to attend. One of the ideas behind the camp is to have college coaches nominate players for the camp, but I was flat-out told by a Division I coach that he’s not nominating anybody. So if the coaches don’t nominate any of their under-the-radar targets out of fear that some other school might swoop in and steal them away, who does get to attend behind the top players that populate recruiting rankings?

The other issue with a mega-camp is that it is a terrible way to evaluate players. Coaches want to see kids in a more natural setting, competing alongside teammates they’ve developed chemistry with. Typically, camp settings promote individual interests over unselfish team basketball.

As for the June events, I’m not even sure what those are going to look like. There are so many details that still have tone fleshed out about what constitutes a sanctioned event that coaches can attend, where those events take place and who can be involved with organizing them. 

Also, as mentioned above, the reason college coaches focus on recruiting at AAU tournaments is because AAU teams bring the best players together. Creighton Prep forward Akol Arop, who Nebraska offered after a particularly impressive showing at an AAU tournament in July, is the only Division I basketball prospect on Prep’s team. What sense would it make for coaches to devote resources to going out to a tournament where they only get to see maybe a few Division I prospects? The answer is none. What about a kid like Daum whose high school is way out in Western Nebraska? How is he supposed to get in front of college coaches playing with Kimball?

At its core, AAU basketball is about two things: fun and opportunity.

Taking road trips with one’s team to tournaments all over the country is a fun way to spend a summer. It gives kids chances to see parts of the country they might otherwise not ever visit. It gives them a chance to build strong friendships with other kids and compete against some of the best players in the country. As for opportunity, the more chances kids get to play in front of coaches, the more likely they’ll impress one of them and earn a scholarship offer. 

As it stands moving forward, it’s going to be a lot more difficult for coaches to properly evaluate and recruit players. More than ever before, players are going to slip through the cracks — especially those at smaller schools outside of major metropolitan areas. An unintended consequence might just be an even bigger rise in transfers as players end up at lower levels then seek to move up after they outperform their landing spots.

The bottom line is that these and other changes seem to have been made with only the elite players in mind, considering that’s where the corruption the NCAA is so worried about is focused. Never mind about the fringe kids who might be on the borderline between high and mid-major or low-major to Division II who need every opportunity possible to prove they belong. The sad part is these changes likely won’t do much to fix the baseline issue.

AAU basketball isn’t the cause of the corruption; amateurism is. But we certainly won’t be seeing any hastily organized committees rushing to suggest changes to that, now, will we?

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