All’s fair in love and recruiting.
While many fans may think that games are won on the basketball court, in college basketball, they are often won during the dog days of summer when coaches scour the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) circuit and try to schmooze impressionable young high school players. Whether a small school or a top program in the nation, recruiting can often define the success of a program.
Of course, recruiting in the Ivy League is very different than it is at powerhouse schools like North Carolina, Kansas and UCLA. While the fact that Ancient Eight schools do not give out athletic scholarships is a fairly well-known fact, what many students may not realize is that Yale and the other Ivy League schools in fact have strict standards about the academic qualifications of student-athletes they are willing to admit.
“We look at schools around the country that traditionally have good student-athletes,” head coach James Jones said. “We found out what those kids grades are academically, and we take the next step to go out and look at them play and see if they are qualified.”
Using a formula that combines GPA, class rank and standardized test scores, schools calculate a statistic called the Academic Index for each potential recruit. High school athletes must register a minimum of 171 out of 210 on this scale in order to be eligible to play in the Ivy League. “There are not a lot kids who meet these qualifications,” Jones said. “It is very challenging for our coaching staff [to find players who do].”
This requirement means that even if former top-ranked high school, and now NBA players, such as Greg Oden or Derrick Rose had decided to spurn Ohio State and Memphis, respectively, and give a verbal commitment to the Bulldogs, they likely would not have qualified academically to play for the Elis, even though they met the NCAA standards to play for the Buckeyes and Tigers.
“I think they should keep the academic standard,” guard Porter Braswell ’11 said. “I don’t care if you are LeBron James.”
Focusing on the recruiting experience from the players’ perspective, several players explained that the process can seem flattering at first but can also border on harassment.
“At first it is exciting, but then you get six or seven calls every day during the summer,” center Garrett Fiddler ’11 said. “You try not to burn bridges with schools that you don’t want to go to, and it is awkward to tell schools that you are not interested.”
Players also explained how coaches try to establish a relationship with you beyond simply selling the school and basketball.
“It’s almost like the coaches become your best friend through phone calls,” Braswell said. “They show interest in everything you’re interested in. They’ll promise you the world.”
Like any relationship, though, recruiting can have its stories of excess, as Braswell recounted.
“I remember junior year in high school I had a coach constantly texting me throughout Christmas day every hour, and it really turned me off from the school,” Braswell said. “I would receive 10 pieces of mail a day over the course of a year and a half.”
Within that context, a recent challenge to the old standards and culture of Ivy League recruiting has come with Harvard’s recent hiring of basketball coach Tommy Amaker. Amaker is a former Duke basketball player and assistant coach under Mike Krzyzewski; he first showed his recruiting prowess in snagging the second-best recruiting class in the nation according to ESPN in 2000 as the coach of Seton Hall, a Big East program.
After a six-year stint at Michigan, Amaker was hired by the Cantabs in 2007 in the hope that he could transform a middling Harvard program with his major conference experience. The hope for an Ivy League championship begins with recruiting battles for higher caliber talent necessary to take Harvard to the next level.
Amaker began to deliver last spring with a class rated at the time in the Top 25 in the nation by Dave Telep of Fox Sports. But that class may have come at a cost: The New York Times reported in March of 2008 that Amaker may have lowered Havard’s Academic Index athlete cutoffs to better compete with other Ivy League schools. Also under scrutiny was illegal contact between Harvard assistant coach Kenny Blakeney and two recruits, Max Kenyi and Keith Wright, who now play for the Crimson. Blakeney had in-person visits with Kenyi and Wright during an NCAA restricted period, though Harvard has noted that he had not yet been hired by the university as an assistant coach when those visits occurred.
Such tricks are not unheard of among college basketball’s major programs, but in the Ivy League, they are downright scandalous. Ultimately, though, Amaker knew how to push the system without breaking the rules, and the Ivy League cleared him of any violations.
Now over halfway into season, the hype from The Times’ article and the ensuing pseudo-scandal remain to be evaluated. The jewel of Harvard’s class at the time, 6-foot-10-inch center Frank Ben-Eze, uncommitted from Harvard a few days after The Times article was published and ended up signing with Davidson, where he has seen limited minutes this year.
Meanwhile, Amaker has forced his freshman class into major minutes this season. Freshman forward Peter Boehm ranks second in minutes and points for Harvard, while Wright and Kenyi average 7.6 and 6.5 points per game, impressive results for freshman, but hardly game-changing performances. Furthermore, Wright and Kenyi began the season starting but have now moved to playing spot minutes off the bench as Amaker has turned back to veteran players on the team.
The results in the standings have been mixed. After drawing headlines with their upset of then-No. 24 Boston College, Harvard has struggled out of the gate in Ivy League competition with three straight home losses and now stands at 1-3 in conference play. While Amaker’s recruiting prowess may indeed turn around the Crimson program, the effects still need another two to three years to come to fruition.