College coaches (right) check out the action at DMV Live at DeMatha. (Marcus Helton)
HYATTSVILLE, MD - At first glance, the scene looked like any high school summer league contest, with returning players on both sides shaking off rust, and newcomers looking to carve out roles.
The opposite sideline, however, said otherwise. Seated several rows deep were chairs filled with college coaches, eager for an up-close look at potential recruits.
The DC area got its first taste of the NCAA’s revamped recruiting calendar, which added two high school-focused live periods - the windows in which Division I coaches can come out and evaluate players in person - to June while eliminating a weekend of shoe company-sponsored travel team events in July.
DeMatha Catholic High School played host to the DMV Live I event - #2 is this weekend - while the District of Columbia State Athletic Association (DCSAA) hosted DC Live at Maret School. A number of Virginia private schools took part in the Virginia Live Period Shootout at Blue Ridge School, near Charlottesville.
The feedback on the events was overwhelmingly positive, and they attracted an impressive list of college coaches to the area. North Carolina’s Roy Williams, West Virginia’s Bob Huggins, Notre Dame’s Mike Brey, Iowa’s Fran McCafferey, St. Johns’ Mike Anderson, South Carolina’s Frank Martin, Vanderbilt’s Jerry Stackhouse and Providence’s Ed Cooley were among the out-of-area head coaches who flew in, along with assistants from Virginia, Maryland, Georgetown, Michigan, Syracuse, Texas and Tennessee, to name just a few.
“Yeah it's definitely a good idea,” Good Counsel (Md.) 2020 forward Phillip Carter said. “ I think players definitely buy into the competing more and trying to do better things for themselves and for their teammates to better their school’s brand and stuff. … It’s different: it’s more competitive than summer league, but its not regular season. It’s a good mix; I like it. I think they should start doing it more often.”
The change was one of several aimed at giving high schools an equal chance to showcase their talent during the summer sessions typically reserved for AAU.
“I think it swings the pendulum back in the direction of the high school coaches,” Flint Hill School (Va.) coach Rico Reed said after a game at DeMatha. “ I mean, it gives us a chance to be involved with our kids in a very, very important stretch where they’re being observed by coaches. I think there’s so much talent in the region - it’s interesting how we have a DC and Virginia and this DMV event - but I think it creates an opportunity for quality matchups where our guys get a chance to be evaluated in very important ball games.”
Unfortunately, that opportunity wasn’t available to all players. Glaringly absent were Maryland and Virginia public school teams, whose state associations both decided to take a wait and see approach on hosting events during the first year, citing a list of reasons ranging from insurance and liability concerns to possible Title IX issues and cost.
The two states weren’t alone in that regard - overall, only 19 of the 51 eligible state federations decided to hold events - but the decision was a sore spot for public school coaches.
The National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) was given the task of sanctioning and approving events, with only NFHS-member schools allowed to participate. Non-member schools that wanted to host or participate were able to apply for an NCAA-certified event, as DeMatha did via the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference.
As NFHS Director Of Sports and Officials Education Theresia Wynns told the Washington Post’s Samantha Pell in May: “Our states had a choice. It is a voluntary situation . . . and some determined that they didn’t have ample planning time, and [they] will see how it goes this year and get involved next year.”
The Virginia High School League (VHSL) gave its teams the option to participate in sanctioned out of state events, while the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association (MPSSAA) declined to let its teams participate in any events at all.
The DCSAA event was multi-state, and drew two out of area teams: one Virginia public - Richmond’s John Marshall High - and University High from West Virginia. Several Virginia public schools will participate in Pennsylvania’s Philly Live Part 2 event this weekend.
DCSAA Director Clark Ray said the NFHS made the new rules known at its Winter Meeting in New York, and he got together with a group of local coaches when he returned to DC and began taking steps to host and event.
“Its a way to take two events or two weekends away from some of the sponsors of the AAU circuit, so there was a little bit of pessimism at first," Ray said. "But boy, when it started - you know, when you do this, it’s not about just getting the teams and it’s not just about finding the facility, but you’ve got to get trainers, you’ve got to get officials, you’ve got to get folks to work. So its an expense that we’re bearing. We’re not going to make any money - we’re going to do alright - but hey, it’s about exposing our kids and giving them an opportunity that some of these guys would never have. You’ve got like 22, 23 college coaches here tonight.”
DC elected to do one weekend instead of two, so some DC teams will be taking part in Philly Live 2 this week.
Confusion and misinformation were rampant in the months leading up to the events, with many area coaches unsure who was sponsoring them, who was eligible to participate, and where they could go.
“I don’t think everybody understood the rules,” DeMatha coach Mike Jones said, “so we had public school teams asking to get into it and things like that, which under the current format is not allowed. So not to complicate the question, but there are member schools and there’s non-member schools. The teams playing in this event are non-member schools - they follow the same rules as member schools, but as private schools they are not a part officially of their state association.”
Jones said teams from “up and down the East Coast” tried to get into the event, but added they wanted to keep the number of teams small initially.
“I think going forward, we’ll look to make it a little bit bigger - maybe even utilize other facilities so that we can get as many teams as possible, because this is supposed to be about the student-athletes and giving them exposure, and honestly our league and my staff, that’s all we’re about. We’re just trying to give kids in our area a chance to play in front of the college coaches.”
Jones said 162 total college coaches came through DeMatha’s doors over three days, and the impact was immediate, as the number of area players with scholarship offers swelled tremendously.
Not being able to take part in that haul enraged public school coaches across Maryland, many of whom took to social media or other outlets to vent.
“I love the initiative by the NCAA, but it wasn’t followed through with the states,” said Sam Brand of three-time defending state champion Baltimore Poly. “And then the state - in Maryland, the MPSSAA is connected to the state laws, which makes it even harder to change, which makes even more bureaucratic [nonsense] you have to deal with, and nobody does nothing. Nobody has taken accountability. The state is blaming the NCAA, the National Federation is blaming the state and the NCAA is basically blaming both, like, ‘Look, we told you the rules; we gave your high school coaches a chance. Fix your rules!” So it’s like a bunch of people blaming each other and the kids that get screwed out of it are all the public school kids in Maryland. It’s ridiculous.”
Brand was one of several Maryland coaches who found fault with an overall lack of communication.
“One of the concerns as a Maryland Public School coach is that we didn’t get any information - from anybody,” Gwynn Park coach Rob Garner said. “It was just all filtered down among the coaches. Coaches know coaches, and we just kind of got word of mouth that way, you know? There was nothing done professionally to be able to communicate what their concerns were, so that perhaps we could come together and create something or answer some questions or get some questions answered and we just kind of left [it] out there.”
Brand said he was at USA Basketball Minicamp last October when the new rules were being discussed, and said he knew there were discrepancies between what the NCAA wanted the NFHS to communicate to its members and what Maryland allowed.
“I addressed this with the MPSSAA and the NCAA at the time, and nobody had an answer,” he said. “... To the NCAA, it's a great idea: you have a live period where you say, ‘Alright, we’re going to take some of the control away from the sneaker companies and we’re going to put the sanctioning to the NFHS. So the three parties involved are the NCAA - who tells the coaches where they can go, the NFHS - who sanctions the events and put their list up of sanctioned events, and then the high school athletic association itself that hosts, runs, or allows its teams to participate.”
Brand continued: “The National Federation of High School Coaches - there’s like 35 states represented there - they came out with a press release - its on their website - in October saying, look, this is a great idea, we’re happy to work with the NFHS on setting this up, but they have to talk to the state athletic associations first, because there’s a bunch of states whose rules conflict with what the NCAA set up. So this information has been out there for a while that there’s some states like Maryland that have an issue.”
Insurance was one of the major reasons several Maryland coaches said they were given. Currently, the state will only cover liability up until the final spring state championship game. Afterwards, teams are for all intents and purposes on their own - which is why they aren’t allowed to go by their school names in summer league, for example. (Some coaches I spoke to were under the early impression that they could participate in sanctioned out of state events if they didn't use their school names, but that wasn't an option, either.)
Whatever the reason, the result was the same: public school players being forced to sit and watch while their private school counterparts reaped the benefits of top-notch exposure.
“At the end of the day, you’ve screwed over these kids,” Brand said. “I’m just thankful that I have a real strong program and that our kids aren’t going to be victim to leeches, but why wouldn’t they? If I’m a private school, I’m going to hit you up like, ‘Yo, you can’t even participate [in the live period].’ As if our kids in public school don’t have enough disadvantages, you're going to create a recruiting disadvantage.”
Garner agreed that sitting out this year was a blow to his players, adding that he couldn’t even bring himself to attend one of the events in person.
"I just couldn’t muster enough positive emotion to be able to come and be in the environment knowing that my kids just couldn’t be in there," Garner said. "I mean, I spent more time trying to just communicate with my kids how to work through this, and how come they couldn’t be in this environment, and how some people who could have made the decision chose not to. Or just work overtime - we’re always talking about, ‘It’s for our kids’ and things of that nature, and we have a moment for our kids and we don’t step up to the challenge - we don’t elevate.”
A STRONG FIRST STEP
For those who did take part, the experience was memorable - albeit it a bit different than they are accustomed to this time of year.
“It is kind of strange, because you’re used to summer just meaning AAU and you’re playing a different kind of basketball with different kinds of teammates,” Flint Hill 2020 center Noel Brown said. “But it is great to put everything on pause and come back with your teammates from the school year and run all your school stuff. But it is a little bit different.”
Here’s more thoughts on the new format:
ERIC SINGLETARY, SIDWELL FRIENDS (DC) COACH: “It’s a little bit different, but I enjoy it in the sense that I think a lot of times - and I love the circuit, it’s good for a lot of kids, too - but I think sometimes some kids play better for their high school because they have a little more significant role or sometimes they just feel more comfortable. So I just think its another platform that gives kids another look from colleges, and I think with us being able to coach them with that type of continuity a lot of times, I think some of these kids will be able to show themselves in a lot better fashion.”
EARL TIMBERLAKE, DEMATHA (MD) 2020 GUARD: “Yeah it’s different, it's kind of like AAU-based, but on my high school team with my everyday guys. It’s a blessing for people on our team that aren’t really looked at, and from the area that aren’t really playing with a high AAU team to get looked at by college coaches as well.”
HUNTER DICKINSON, DEMATHA (MD) 2020 CENTER: “It is pretty different because I don’t think we’ve ever had, like, more than one or two college coaches at our high school games. I kinda like it. It’s just different; like, they get to see you play with different people and see how you react playing against not the best of the best every time, and see what you can do against actual high school comp. And just playing with your high school teammates who you are with every day, you probably have a little bit better connection with them, so it’s a little bit easier.”
DERRICK WASHINGTON, COOLIDGE (DC) COACH: “I think it’s a good thing for us high school coaches, you know what I mean? Being able to play with their high school teammates and be seen at the same time - it’s rare that they can actually play with their team and be seen, so I’m excited to see what happens.”
CHUCK DRIESELL, MARET (DC) COACH: “I think it's awesome. I think it gives our guys a chance to show themselves in a team setting that’s different than the AAU situation, you know? In high school, you're playing with freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors. In the AAU you're with your same age group. … I think college coaches - I know as a former college coach - I would love to see them in both settings, and they haven’t had a chance to do that - I know I couldn’t. So I think it's just a great opportunity for the kids to develop, but also for their exposure so that they’re seen in a different format.”
MOE JOHNSON, CESAR CHAVEZ (DC) 2021 WING: “I think this is giving everybody a big chance to make a name for themselves, and it's more comfortable playing with a high school team than an AAU team.”
BEZ MBENG, GOOD COUNSEL (MD) 2021 GUARD: “It’s very different, because usually playing with your high school team you don’t see this many coaches, but you’ve just got to play hard. … You’ve just got to be ready to play all the time, because you never know who’s watching. So if it’s either high school or AAU, you’ve just got to know you’ve got to put on a show.”
GEORGE PERKINS, SIDWELL FRIENDS (DC) 2022 FORWARD: “I think individually it's different. There’s a lot of eyes on you, and you know you don't exactly have to show out, but you have to be present. I feel like you can’t really have that game where you’re just not there and you're not helping the team or being a factor in your team’s performance. In the same way, as a team I think that especially when you’re being evaluated you have to be together.”
NICK MYLES, ST. FRANCES (MD) COACH: “It’s the first time that we had multiple practices in a week in the summer, and actually started installing some offenses. And the kids get excited about playing in front of college coaches. So it's been a blessing to be a part of it; great competition, well run, and if we see 50 college coaches, we’re going to play a little harder, ain’t we?”
Overall, few can dispute that this inaugural run of events was a success, and once measures are taken to make sure everyone gets to participate, the June evaluation periods have the potential to be crucial fixtures on the summer calendar.
“It’s unbelievable,” DeMatha’s Jones said. “I’m proud of the fact that there’s so many young men that are able to play in this that normally would not have the opportunity to. Obviously grassroots has been what it’s been for so long and had so many coaches seeing them, but there’s always been some guys on high school teams that never really had that same opportunity, and with the new model the NCAA is giving those young men a chance now and we are happy to be a part of that.”