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College basketball recruiting continues in a non-traditional way

Hofstra coach Joe Mihalich points during the second

Hofstra coach Joe Mihalich points during the second half of the CAA Championship on March 10 in Washington. Credit: AP/Nick Wass

The in-person evaluation of players. The campus visit, tour of facilities and introduction to members of the program. The in-home sit-down. These always have been the tools for both coaches and players in the college basketball recruiting game.

No more. The COVID-19 pandemic has done away with all of them.

The game goes on, however, as another season looms in the distant future and so there are new tools. They include the drone video of the campus, the virtual tour of the arena and accompanying facilities, the film of how the team plays as well as behind-the-scenes recording of how a college team communes. And, of course, there’s the Zoom meeting.

“We can still do what we do, but it’s more complicated and you need to adapt quickly,” Hofstra coach Joe Mihalich said in a telephone interview. “You need to see video of a recruit — a lot of it — and you’ve got to become an expert on Zoom . . . and hope both you and the recruit can communicate who you are on FaceTime.”

“It’s pretty bizarre, to be honest,” Stony Brook coach Geno Ford said in a telephone interview. “Men’s basketball is a high-profile sport with 353 programs investing to win. Now they are trying to fill their rosters with no visits and nothing face-to-face.”

The NCAA has suspended the use of the traditional tools because of the coronavirus outbreak. Unlimited electronic communication is what’s left.

At St. John’s, junior forward LJ Figueroa announced his intention to enter the NBA Draft, but not contract with an agent. If he returns, the Friday announcement that 6-8 George Washington grad transfer Arnaldo Toro had committed to the Red Storm means it's the school's last remaining scholarship. Pensacola State JC guard Shawndarius “Elmo” Cowart on Tuesday reportedly committed to Hofstra, leaving the CAA champion Pride with one remaining scholarship. On Thursday, 6-6 Omar Habwe from Mount St. Mary’s (Md.) announced he would be a grad transfer to Stony Brook, leaving the Seawolves with one scholarship.

“You’ve got to be creative,” St. John’s coach Mike Anderson said in a WFAN radio interview Thursday. “I think that's where your relationships and your contacts have really got to come in big, and hopefully you've seen, you know some of those kids early on that you know enough about them. But I think the relationships that you and your coaching staff established, in terms of recruiting, they have to pay off big.

“[Outside of that], you're going to be going on a lot of different types of opinions, so you just got to continue to do your homework and be creative . . . with technology.”

For Stony Brook, which was 20-13 and finished second in the America East regular season, the move from actual to virtual is a hurdle.

“One thing we fight uphill on is familiarity,” Ford said. “We haven’t been in Division I for a very long time. Not everyone from out of state knows how nice Long Island is. And our campus and facilities are a real selling point.”

It’s the reason the Seawolves' staff is using the drone video and largely relying on the players they have been involved with all along.

The wrinkle in sticking to only what you’ve already seen, of course, is the growing number of transfers in men’s basketball. As of Thursday close to 700 players had placed their name in the transfer portal and, as Ford explained, “the landscape changes almost hour to hour.”

There is a huge trove of video of both college and high school players available via subscription platforms, but due diligence is required.

“The biggest mistake you can make is to recruit just off the highlight tape,” Mihalich said. “You’d better watch some whole games, make sure you've seen the player in a good game and a bad game. Those can [instruct) you as to whether he’s a good teammate, how he handles adversity and, hopefully, tell you a little about his character.”

And, as Anderson said, you need sound intel that comes from knowing your recruiting area and earning the respect of area grassroots coaches. Anderson has done that after going an impressive 17-15 in his first season with an unproven roster after 19 seasons coaching in the South and Southwest.

The St. John’s recruiting class includes Posh Alexander and Dylan Wusu from Our Savior Lutheran in the Bronx, and Toro, who went to St. Benedict’s Prep in New Jersey.

“Recruiting is about relationships," Anderson said, "and with the staff we've assembled — with TJ Cleveland, Steve DeMeo and Van Macon — we have guys who are from the area. Paul Pressey is a guy that played in the NBA . . . I’ve got guys here who can get our message out and build the relationships that are so critical.

“And I think hopefully people got a preview of what's to come. I mean, this is Year One. And so a lot of people have been taking that wait-and-see approach — and I get that part  [because] you’ve got this guy coming from the South. [But] I like to win, I like to play an exciting brand of basketball and I know how to win.”

The current system is clearly working as all three schools are either done or close to done recruiting the teams that will compete in the 2020-21 season. They’ve all recruited in the high school, junior college and transfer realms with what at this point looks like positive results. Still, none would take the new set of recruiting tools over the traditional ones.

“There is no substitute for in-person evaluation and face-to-face interaction,” Mihalich said. “You can see it all with more certainty, from a player’s abilities to his character.”

Added Ford: “I like to see a player’s body language, what he’s like interacting with his teammates [when the ball isn’t in play]. I vastly prefer the traditional style, but these are uncommon and unsettling times.”

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