Imagine a presidential election without primaries. Candidates are unproven, untested and the voters have to pick their favorite politician for the next four years. Could you do it? In a way, that's exactly the predicament college coaches find themselves in during the current July period. They've got candidates but haven't been able to compare and contrast them for months.
It's a new era in college basketball recruiting. The last time college coaches were able to see recruits play in games (outside of the occasional elite camp) was during the high school season. In some cases, it's been four months since a coach has seen a top recruit in action. That, my friends, has never been the case before this year.
A ruling which eliminates the April evaluation period has altered the landscape of college basketball and put an even greater emphasis on the upcoming July period. Coaches vacationed in the spring instead of jet setting across the country to evaluate players. Once a pivotal month for recruits and coaches in terms of positioning players in a pecking order, April became an open book exam for recruiting analysts only.
In recent Julys' past, college coaches were able to secure scores of early commitments, sit on their rising senior pledges and scour the nation with an eye on the upcoming freshman, sophomore and junior classes. This time around, a handful of programs have completed their 2010 recruiting but the bulk of programs need to evaluate, decide and continue recruiting their next class.
What's important to understand about this month is that the primary participants in the process attack the next four weeks with a different mindset. Each looks at the month from a different angle with vastly different contexts. Coaches have their job to do and the players, well, for the most part they simply want to lace them up and see what happens.
Each participant is an integral part of the process thousands go through each summer. As an analyst, the main goal is to see as many players as possible, dig up some hidden ones and differentiate the cream of the crop from the bottom of the heap. To do that, you need to zigzag the country, drink plenty of coffee and have an understanding wife.
The question worth asking is what does July mean to the participants? To find out, we polled a high-major head coach, mid-major head coach and three players (one committed, uncommitted and an underclassman) and asked them what they expect out of the next few weeks.
"I think April is important," Self said. "I felt we needed April. It's harder for a coach in a rural area to get to see the guys that the staff has been recruiting for the past year. Some of the guys I went to see in September I haven't seen again. I used April as a way to identify our wants and needs for the summer. I trust my staff, but we're going off (others) to see who we need to be zeroing in on."
Self, who has crafted a reputation as one of the game's finest recruiters, echoes the sentiment of many when he talks about having a lot of work to do in terms of making judgments.
"We've narrowed our scope but I haven't been able to study them like I would have if I had gone out in April and then headed to the summer.
"This July becomes a combination of evaluation and following their every move as opposed to having already done the evaluation. This is a very important summer for a lot of programs and we're one of them. We think we know but I still haven't been able to see all of the guys."
Shaka Smart, head coach, Virginia Commonwealth
This spring didn't bring the dramatic changes on the coaching front that we've been accustomed to in recent years. Still, there was transition on all levels. Shaka Smart, a first-year head coach, took over an extremely successful mid-major program and added three senior players this spring.
The coach came from a high-major program (Florida) and is learning more daily about his mid-level targets. For VCU and mid-majors alike, the month is every bit a sprint. High-major schools feast off Top 100 lists. Mid-majors have a bigger, deeper pool but one that must be weeded through in greater detail.
"You've got to be systematic and organized in terms of how you evaluate," Smart said. "You haven't seen 50-75% of these guys play and you've been calling and recruiting and having them visit and now you have to see them more. You have four guys on the road at different times and if you aren't on the same page in terms of the evaluation piece, you can get in trouble.
"You have to make the best use of your time and determine where the head coach needs to be. I don't know that its history making or ground breaking but there is more of a sense of urgency because of (missing) April. Plus, we're a new staff and that's multiplied."
Noah Cottrill made his college choice a long time ago. On July 1, 2007, Cottrill committed to in-state West Virginia, his dream school. He hasn't thought about recruiting in two years. He can't wait to play for Bob Huggins and his thoughts on July are completely team oriented.
Cottrill will obviously make a mental note when he sees Huggins in the stands watching him but the hard-nosed point guard doesn't need to see his future head coach every game. Cottrill doesn't feel the need to have Huggins babysitting him. Instead, the guard said, he'd rather the coach go out and get more players.
"He's got big shoes to fill. He's trying to make the team better. I want a team. I want to be part of a national championship team. I want him to get the top players. If he's at my games I'll play as if he's another bystander. I respect him and he knows that.
"If he needs to go recruiting and getting better that's cool. I don't expect him to be there all the time. I want him to go make our team better because he's one of the best recruiters in the country."
Listening to Cottrill one gets the sense he's an extra set of eyes on the road for Mountaineers this month. He's already vested in the success of the Mountaineers. From Huggins' perspective, it must be nice knowing that instead of worrying about Cottrill's commitment, he can go out and find himself more players. When your top recruit gives you the green light to spend time with other players, it's a huge bonus. Not all kids would act as selflessly as Cottrill.
By the way, Cottrill's no pushover. He's a tough hombre and he's capable of switching roles from friend to foe in a heartbeat on the court. "(July's) an opportunity to show everybody why you're committed and where you're going to go. You have to use the fact that kids want scholarships. Guys are coming at you and I'm going to West Virginia. I gotta come out with a chip on my shoulder and try to expose everyone I play against."
See what we mean about being perfect for Huggins?
Joe Jackson, senior guard, uncommitted
When Josh Pastner, Bruce Pearl, Jim Calhoun, Bill Self, John Calipari, Thad Matta and Mike Krzyzewski are sitting in the stands watching a lightning fast guard or the Memphis Magic, they're in the gym for the same reason: Joe Jackson.
After captivating the media with an extra special effort at the closed doors NBA Players Camp, Jackson is tracking as one of the summer's big prizes. Long ago Jackson learned that his college would be free and he'd fly charter instead of busing to big games. Basically, the throng of head coaches set to descend on him this summer won't faze him. He'll appreciate the attention but won't go gaga over the scenery.
"I'm going to treat (July) like I've been treating it," Jackson said. "I know they'll be coming and they'll try and get you. You have to be more determined. This month, I think it's to prove who is best in the class. You let the college coaches know that you're getting better and better year."
The word is out on Jackson and his speed is a need for just about everyone searching for a backcourt boost. He's a commodity who holds a lot of cards. He's already got a winning hand. He'll play July with house money.
"I'm playing to be the best I can be. I'm playing to win every time I step on the court. They should know that. I want to play against the best players. I love the game and I want to win and do everything I can. I'm not playing for coaches. There were no coaches around when I first started playing so I don't play for them now."
Brad Beal, junior guard, uncommitted
Brad Beal already has enough material to write a pretty strong "How I Spent My Summer" essay. The captain of the U.S. 16-and-under gold medal winning team, Beal's been to Argentina and faced unruly crowds. Amicable college coaches won't intimidate this guy.
"It was an honor to be on the team," Beal said of his USA experience. "It was real crazy in (Argentina). Fans were not like the fans at home. They were cheering for their home country. It got out of hand a little bit."
Beal's recruitment, or at least the attention he's going to receive this month, is the only out of hand situation he'll have to deal with. Kansas, Florida, Illinois, Purdue, Missouri, Minnesota, Indiana, Syracuse and Wake Forest have a shot.
"I'm always trying to impress somebody," Beal said. "There are some people who don't know what I can do. There's going to be a lot of attention. I'm starting to come up as a prospect. More people are watching me more and more people know about me."
Beal will be cognizant of the eyeballs directed at him but not because he's star gazing. "I see them but I try to not see them. I try to block them out so I don't start trying to do things that I'm not capable of doing. I try not to look at them."
For the next three weeks, college basketball will do its part to stimulate the economy in places like Vegas, Orlando, Morgantown, Los Angeles, Kansas City and everywhere in between. Coaches will pay too much for dinner, extend themselves for a better room and opt for the GPS in their rental cars. They'll speed to remote gyms and eat bad food.
They'll fall in love, fall out of love and talk themselves into marrying the wrong prospect. Meanwhile, guys like Beal, Cottrill and Jackson will strive to do their best, eat bad food and check in with their families too few times on the road.
Parents will wonder how their sons are doing, if they're eating right and how many points they scored.
Recruiting analysts will worry if they've seen enough players, missed on any sleepers and eat bad food. It's July, and no matter what happened in April, it's what we do.