By KEVIN McNAMARA
If you want to boil down the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on the basketball world it’s best to check in with someone like Mike Hart.
Forget LeBron, the Celtics and all their Bubble Boy pals in Orlando. They’ll find a way to survive just fine, thank you. It’s hard not to feel for the college senior whose final lap is currently threatened but, God willing, the Big East, Atlantic 10 and everyone else will find a way to play some sort of a hoops schedule this winter.
It’s deep in the basketball weeds where Hart and other coaches at high end high school and prep schools toil where you can see worlds seriously turned upside down. Since Covid-19 shut down high school playoffs and all-star games last March, coaches and their teenage prospects with big college dreams have been on a chase with no answers. Unfortunately there is no end in sight.
“It’s been awful, just horrible for these kids,” said Hart, the coach at the St. Andrew’s School in Barrington, R.I. “They lost their spring and then the summer. Now they’re coming back to school and no one knows what’s happening just yet.”
In mid-September the NCAA’s Division I Council extended the recruiting dead period through Jan. 1, 2021. The Council has kept extending the dead period on a regular basis since April. A dead period precludes all in-person recruiting. Phone calls, Zooms and texts are the only connection between coaching staffs and prospects.
Hart has produced a conga line of big-time players over his 20-plus seasons in the powerhouse New England prep leagues. He’s helped launch the career of an NBA Rookie of the Year (Michael Carter-Williams), and sent players to Providence, Syracuse, Connecticut, Villanova, Purdue and many other high-majors. Last year’s Division One product was Miles Wilmoth, a talented 6-9 shooting forward who landed at Butler in the fall of 2019. Hart sent eight players to some level of college basketball off last year’s team but pulling that off wasn’t easy.
“The best move we made was investing in a Hudl camera,” Hart says. “Coaches couldn’t come and see our guys in the spring and we had half the team still looking for schools. I used the video and emailed film of our games and some workouts. We ended up placing seven of our eight guys late, which was a minor miracle.”
With the Class of 2020 kids accounted for, Hart’s focus turned to the 2021’s and several underclassmen. Their AAU seasons were blown up in the spring and only a smattering of kids were able to play in the limited event schedule over the summer. Not having showcase events sponsored by New England and regional companies like Zero Gravity, Hoop Mountain and Hoop Group left it up to Hart and his connections with schools at the Division 1, 2 and 3 levels to push the recruitment of his players.
“All the inroads those guys made playing as juniors or at their other schools before they came here as post-grads certainly help,” Hart said, “but there are so many roadblocks for this class. Coaches have to get to know these kids and see them play. That’s not an issue for the Top 100, 150 kid. What about the kid who I know is a Division One player but hasn’t been seen since he was trending as a D-2 kid? He’s grown a few inches, added 25 pounds. This happens all the time with 16, 17-year olds.”
Then there is the uncertainty that every college player and coach is dealing with that is trickling down the basketball food chain. The NCAA is expected to vote in a change to its transfer rule by January of 2021, basically allowing players a one-time free transfer. This will make roster management a horror show for coaches and for all the do-gooders who feel this freedom is great for the players Hart says consider this eventual scenario. After the fall signing period a Maryland, Monmouth or Miami (Oh.) chooses to retain two open scholarships. Do you target the unsigned big-timer, the late-blooming high schooler or the transfers who are knocking on your door? Don’t forget the JuCo kid who has fallen through the cracks.
Hart says the wiser move is the sure-thing, the transfer who owns a bit of a track record as a collegiate player.
“So much hinges on this transfer rule. That could kill this class,” Hart said. “I think coaches will hold off and see what happens with all these potential transfers and not go for the high school seniors. Kids who wait until the spring could get squeezed out. That puts a premium on signing kids early but the coaches haven’t been out to see anyone in person all summer (due to the NCAA’s Covid restrictions), most of the campuses were closed to visits and now coaches can’t come see my guys work out in September, October? It’s a mess.”
Like his contemporaries at New England prep powers Brewster Academy, New Hampton, Worcester Academy and others, Hart is attracting a few youngsters who’ve arrived in September for one-year stints at his school. Most came to Barrington with some attention from college recruiters but without open gym runs in September and October that normally attract 20 or more coaches a day, the players will see another exposure opportunity go up in smoke.
He says he’ll use the Hudl camera again and email out film of the runs to interested programs but it’s just not the same. The Covid Curse is crippling the game at all levels, from LeBron to the guys at Kentucky and Virginia and all the way down to a gym in sleepy Barrington, R.I.
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