One Small Change Goes a Long Way After College Hoops Corruption Scandal

Tyler Boston has several strikes against him. For one, he’s a 5-foot-10 high school senior without the size to be easily noticed by college recruiters. For another, college basketball coaches can afford to be picky with high school players because the transfer portal is brimming with older players who have an extra pandemic year of eligibility.

Moreover, when Boston travels to high-profile recruiting showcases in Atlanta and Las Vegas next month, it’s unclear whether he will be able to highlight the breadth of his skills to college coaches as he’ll be competing for playing time on a talented travel team.

Fortunately for Boston, he had another stage the last two weekends — playing with his high school team, Bullis of Potomac, Md., against some of the best private schools in the basketball hotbed known as the DMV (shorthand for the Washington area: the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia).

The DMV Live event was among the roughly 50 N.C.A.A.-certified events around the country in which college coaches were permitted to make in-person evaluations of players with their high school teams. The events ranged from the June Jam in Appleton, Wis., to Arizona’s mammoth Section 7 tournament, in which a dozen courts were laid out in a domed N.F.L. stadium, to the New York City Public Schools Athletic League Showcase in Brooklyn.

Over the last two weekends, Boston displayed his proficiency running a team, knocking down 3-pointers (he made half of his 26 attempts) and defending with purpose. He had no scholarship offers a little more than a week ago, but now his phone is buzzing.

Holy Cross offered a scholarship. Then East Tennessee State, Fordham and Fairfield.

A week later, the University of Pennsylvania said it had a spot for him. As did Robert Morris, Merrimack, Delaware State and Mount St. Mary’s.

“When they call you, it’s great news,” said Boston, who since ninth grade has commuted 50 minutes to school from his home in the Baltimore suburbs with the hope of playing in college. “I had interest before, but no offers. It means hard work is paying off. I spent a lot of time in the gym, and I’m thankful that things have come to promise.”

Events like DMV Live, open to high school teams during in-person recruiting windows, are among the few enduring byproducts of the N.C.A.A. reforms that were promised in the wake of the F.B.I.’s corruption investigation that rocked the college basketball world nearly six years ago.

A commission, headed by the former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, called for some eye-catching changes, like creating a new process for N.C.A.A. investigations, sharper penalties for rule-breaking coaches and postseason bans for up to five years, as well as making college freshmen ineligible if the N.B.A. continued to bar players from jumping straight from high school to the pro league. Only a handful of the ideas have been implemented, and even fewer have stuck.

A reminder of how it’s going arrived last week: The N.C.A.A. slapped Will Wade, the McNeese State coach who was fired by Louisiana State last year, with a 10-game suspension and barred him from recruiting off campus for two years, putting a bow on an investigation that had lingered for four years.

Wade’s punishment did not include anything for the “strong-ass offer” he made to one recruit and his intention to pay players at Louisiana State more than the N.B.A.’s rookie minimum salary, claims that were captured on a wiretapped call that was first reported by Yahoo and then broadcast by HBO. The committee reviewing the case said it needed more evidence.

Justice in the corruption scandal, as it turned out, landed almost exclusively at the feet of Black assistant coaches, who were swiftly fired, sometimes jailed and remain out of college basketball — unlike the white head coaches who were implicated.

What the F.B.I. wiretaps and hidden cameras did was lay bare college basketball’s underground economy, fueled by money from shoe companies and agents and choreographed with the help of handlers who direct players to schools. Those middlemen are often affiliated with shoe-company-sponsored travel teams, and in the past 25 years, they have largely replaced high school coaches as the gatekeepers for recruits.

In its reform attempt, the N.C.A.A. in 2019 sought to wrestle influence back from Nike, Adidas and Under Armour by reconfiguring the recruiting calendar. A 12-day recruiting window in July, when the shoe companies have held their nationwide tournaments, was cut to six days. The other six days were given over to high school teams in June, and N.C.A.A.-run camps were added to a recruiting window in late July. (A reconfigured N.C.A.A. camp will resume this summer — along with one for girls — after a three-year, pandemic-related hiatus.)

Grumbling about the changes from college coaches, who groused about watered-down talent and disorganization at some tournaments, has given way to acceptance — at least with events like DMV Live, which charges college coaches $250 for a packet that includes players’ email addresses and phone numbers.

The benefits include seeing players in a more structured setting than a typical grass-roots game, which are more likely to highlight a player’s individual skills.

The tournament was held at two gyms at DeMatha Catholic High School, which has produced a long line of N.B.A. players, including Adrian Dantley, Victor Oladipo and Jordan Hawkins, who was the 14th pick in the draft last week by the New Orleans Pelicans.

On Saturday, Hawkins’s coach at the University of Connecticut, Dan Hurley, was at DeMatha looking for the next generation of talent that might enable his team, the reigning national champion, to compete for another title.

“The more evaluation tools, seeing them with different teams, different styles of play, different types of coaches helps give you a different evaluation of the player,” Hurley said.

Hurley had plenty of company. Joining him in the main gym were Kansas State’s Jerome Tang, Virginia Tech’s Mike Young, Providence’s Kim English and Notre Dame’s Micah Shrewsberry, who sandwiched his visit between trips on Friday to Wisconsin and on Sunday to North Carolina. Also present were assistants from Villanova, Virginia, Iowa, Indiana and North Carolina State, along with dozens of other coaches from mid-majors and virtually every Ivy League university.

The N.C.A.A.’s hand is visible in the lengths the events are required to take to keep coaches from coming into contact with players. Reams of yellow police tape keep college coaches away from players or their families. Coaches have separate bathrooms and gym entrances.

That separation led to some coaches, phone to their ear, waving to a player or parents from across the gym to let them know they were watching.

It’s questionable how much the influence of grass-roots coaches has waned, but the high school showcases have nudged more engagement between high school and college coaches, several high school coaches said.

“College coaches are getting to know the kids better because they’re speaking to the high school coaches more,” said Damin Altizer, the coach at St. Anne’s-Belfield School in Charlottesville, Va., whose team’s whirlwind movement, selfless passing and deadeye shooting evoked prime Golden State Warriors basketball.

“How are they after a long day in class and then coming to practice?” he continued. “Obviously, A.A.U. is so valuable because they’re getting this great exposure. But the high school coaches see them more as a person, which can’t be overstated how valuable that is because that’s how they’re going to succeed when they get to college.”

The biggest lure for college coaches at DeMatha over the weekend was the slate of four games involving Paul VI Catholic High School of Chantilly, Va., which has the top four players in the state, according to the recruiting site 247 Sports, led by a 6-foot-11 center, Patrick Ngongba II.

Paul VI won its four games last weekend, three by blowout, but got a test on Saturday from Bullis before prevailing, 58-53. In that game, Boston, the Bullis point guard, more than held his own. He scored 16 points and had six assists — both game highs — and turned the ball over just once. His determined play, as one of the smallest players on the court, seemed to drive his team — like the pros he admires most, Jalen Brunson, Damian Lillard and Stephen Curry.

If Boston opened the eyes of some college coaches, perhaps they will inquire further. They might learn that his father is a middle-school math teacher, his mother works for the federal government, he carries a 3.7 grade-point average and he plans to study finance or accounting.

It’s the kind of background that, in the right setting, might enable him to stand out in a crowd.

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