The Journal Gazette
Sunday, April 05, 2020 1:00 am

College coaches face challenges

Must find new ways to evaluate, sign recruits to teams

DYLAN SINN | The Journal Gazette

College sports recruiting is a complicated give-and-take process that plays out over multiple years. Players spend their recruitment trying to maximize their opportunities athletically and academically, looking for the school that is the right fit for everything they want to accomplish. At the same time, coaches are trying to find the mix of players that will help their team jel and produce championships and successful graduates.

If that process wasn't already complex enough, a significant wrench has now been thrown in the middle of it: Players and coaches can no longer meet face-to-face because of fears about the spread of COVID-19. The NCAA has announced a recruiting “dead period” that will extend through the end of May, during which no in-person contact is allowed in an effort to mitigate the spread of the virus. 

With that moratorium in place and no firm idea of when it could be lifted, coaches across college basketball have been scrambling to adjust their recruiting strategies and find ways to evaluate players that they otherwise would have seen perform in now-canceled high school and AAU tournaments.

The new way

“We really try to get to know our recruits because we want to recruit the person, not just the basketball player,” Indiana Tech women's basketball coach Jessie Biggs said. “They've got to be a great fit academically for us, great fit personality-wise, get along with the players we have on our current team. So I think that's going to be the hardest part is, just to develop those relationships, it takes interaction and a lot of times face-to-face interaction.

“That's going to be the challenge is to develop those relationships just over technology or FaceTime.”

For many colleges, video calls, whether through FaceTime or the suddenly ubiquitous Zoom, have filled in some of the gap left by the lack of in-person communication. Biggs said she is generally an introverted person, but she has embraced the technologically driven communication with recruits as a way to practice what she preaches with her players.

“The whole technology and FaceTiming stuff is a challenge for me sometimes, but it's helping me step out of my box as a person a little bit and find new ways of communication. ... We talk to our players about growth and not being just comfortable where they're at and trying new things, so ... (this new type of recruiting) is helping me grow as a person.”

While video calls have replaced face-to-face meetings, coaches at some programs have also found ways to replicate the traditional campus tour, even as campuses are closed and students have been sent home.

In the Purdue Fort Wayne men's basketball program, coach Jon Coffman got his staff together several weeks ago and began brainstorming ideas for a virtual tour that would allow his coaches to demonstrate the advantages of PFW's campus and student life without needing the recruit to step on campus. 

The result is a digital walk-through of Fort Wayne that starts with a facsimile of the recruit arriving on a plane at the Fort Wayne International Airport and features voice-overs and video clips that help explain what makes the program and the university unique. Coffman has embraced the technique and believes it has advantages over a typical campus visit.

“(Usually) if I tell you, you may think, 'Oh yeah, sounds fun,' but you can't visualize it well,” said Coffman, who noted that the Mastodons had 10 virtual visits scheduled for the week. “While we're talking about it (on the virtual tour), we throw these video clips or these pictures of it (on the screen) and honestly it really turns into almost a better visit other than you're not looking face-to-face with somebody and it's harder to engage with somebody because you're not seeing the facial expressions.”

Coffman added that the ability to do tours virtually has made gaps between visits almost unnecessary. Players can “visit” more campuses in a smaller window of time while coaches can “host” more recruits.

Evaluation a challenge

Where the virus has really made recruiting more difficult is in player evaluation. Coaches need to watch potential recruits play live games in order to get a feel for whether they would be the right fit. With so many games canceled and no timetable on when they might resume, that's difficult right now. 

That's especially true in basketball, where mid-April and May are when the AAU season begins to ramp up. Notre Dame men's basketball assistant coach Rod Balanis said that ND staff has seen, by his estimation, triple the usual communication from players interested in being recruited by the Irish.

“There's a lot of unsigned (players) that actually play in the spring events, especially April,” Balanis said of players from the 2020 class. “Now those (events) are gone, I'm sure a lot of kids are probably desperate in a way and trying to get (their tape) out to as many as schools as they can. I feel bad for some of those kids because there's a lot of kids that earn scholarships in April, they really do.”

Balanis added that, because the NCAA season ended so abruptly with the cancellation of many conference tournaments and the NCAA Tournament, the transfer portal has been flooded with players whose seasons all ended on the same day. That has created a crunch for teams as they try to do their due diligence and identify players they might be interested in recruiting.

Purdue ahead of game

The cancellation of so many games has also rewarded teams that have their rosters mostly set for upcoming seasons. Purdue, for example, has already filled its roster for the 2020-21 season, with three players departing from the 2019-20 team and three freshmen coming in from the 2020 class. With Blackhawk Christian star Caleb Furst's recent commitment, the Boilermakers have also filled one of the two scholarship slots that will open when Nojel Eastern and Matt Haarms are scheduled to depart the program prior to the 2021-22 campaign.

That leaves the Boilers in better shape than most as they try to weather the loss of upcoming evaluation periods.

“The guys we've really targeted for (the) 2021 (high school class), I was able to watch this year anywhere from three to four times with a handful of those guys,” said coach Matt Painter, who watched Furst play at Homestead during the high school season. “We've really built relationships with those guys anyway, so we feel like we're in a good position, but we're also fortunate because we don't have a lot of scholarships to fill.”

A crucial part of the recruiting cycle has changed drastically with little warning. How well coaches adjust will and how quickly will play a key role their programs' success in upcoming seasons.

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