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NIL and the College Basketball Recruiting Revolution

College basketball recruiting changed overnight when NIL went into effect. Now, coaches must figure out how it will impact their process.

With college basketball season well underway, there aren’t many visible changes to the on-court product. Behind the scenes, however, NIL has forced a full-on revolution in terms of how programs operate.

Recruiting is the lifeblood of any successful program. Now that players can profit off their name, image, and likeness rights, high schoolers’ college decisions have become financial decisions. The student-athlete amateur tag has eroded and big business has arrived on the steps of gyms across the country. 

“It’s definitely changed basketball recruiting.” Kansas State associate head coach Ulric Maligi told Boardroom. 

But with regulations differing from state to state — including the inability for some coaches to directly discuss NIL opportunities with recruits — what role does it actually play on the recruiting trail?

The answer: it depends.

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Marquette head coach Shaka Smart saw unprecedented success when he was at VCU by recruiting largely overlooked athletes and eventually developing a Final Four team in 2011 that played with a chip on its shoulder. The success at VCU afforded Smart the opportunity to hit the big time when he took the reins at the University of Texas. His old recruiting tactics and junkyard dog approach proved a difficult match for the manicured lawns of the 40 acres in Austin. 

Now that his new job is in a power conference but with slightly less pressure, Smart is faced with recruiting and retaining the right players for his Golden Eagle squad during this unparalleled period. 

“Now you’re talking about retention being more important than recruiting, particularly for a program like us that primarily recruits high school guys,” Smart told Boardroom’s Russell Steinberg in October. “You’re talking about name, image, and likeness and trying to navigate that, and at the same time supporting the players in taking advantage of name, image, and likeness, and also keeping it from disrupting team culture and the focus on the main thing.”

He added: “I think the particulars have changed but the core of the job has not changed. It’s still about relationships. Still about helping these guys grow at a very formative time of their lives.” 

To that point, the new regime at Kansas State decided it would keep its foremost priority at the forefront: hooping. 

With results pending, it is a tactic that the K-State staff is proud they stuck with. 

“There’s a lot of coaches who led with NIL. They talked about that first,” Maligi says of the recruiting competition. “We didn’t want to talk about NIL. We decided we’d talk about it last or when they brought it up.”

Aside from keeping basketball at the forefront, not bringing up NIL also serves as a governor for coaches to remain within the loosely bolted guardrails provided in the post-NIL recruiting environment.

Other coaches are not as reluctant to tackle the inevitable questions from recruits and their families. Coaches like Hall of Famer Bill Self at Kansas know what to expect when they go into a recruit’s home and embrace the NIL discussion. For Self, that comes in addition to his normal recruiting pitch for a blueblood program.

“History is great and I’m glad we have history, history isn’t going to sign anybody,” Self told 24/7 Sports back in June. “Winning still sells, it’s still the most important thing to sell. But these kids are certainly within their own rights and rules [to inquire about NIL], which is good. Or have the opportunity to do some things outside of the way that we’ve been doing it for a long time.”

Kansas’s conference rival, Baylor, won the 2021 national championship just months before NIL went into effect. Head coach Scott Drew has built that program from a Big 12 laughing stock to one of the most successful programs in the country. As he told Boardroom, NIL is going to play a role in bringing more talent to Waco, even if it is not the main selling point.

“With our program, a lot of the players that we recruit, their goal is to be in the NBA. A lot of them come from families that value academics and Baylor being a Christian school,” Drew said. “NIL is a part of it but it’s not something that we lead with and it’s not something people decide to come to Baylor on.”

Unlike football, basketball presents a unique urgency for programs to adapt because top players don’t have to use college basketball as a pathway to the pros. Though there’s still an NBA Draft age limit that prevents players from declaring for the draft right out of high school, Overtime Elite, G League Ignite, and even professional overseas careers are all collegiate alternatives.

Some who do choose college come to campus already as social media darlings, or have signed with agents or agencies with their eyes on income opportunities.

Combine that with the insanity that is the transfer portal, and you have a recipe for chaos.

Ultimately, the NIL world is still new. And whatever coaches think about it, their job is still to win basketball games. 

As of now, there are more questions than answers. What about the transfer portal? What happens when players like Miami’s Isaiah Wong put pressure on the program to increase his NIL deals? Are players obligated to make appearances? How does that play into the student portion of the “student-athlete” commitments? How do the smaller schools compete without collectives in place or connections to business? How is NIL value gauged?

The list goes on. But ultimately, college coaches need clarity on three things:

  • Where exactly do the boundaries of NIL lie in terms of recruiting
  • What NIL-related expectations are reasonable to place on student-athletes
  • What recruiting looks like when this is all inevitably reined in

It’s fair to say Maligi speaks for most coaches when he says, “I have no idea what it will look like, but I know at some point it will be regulated. And it should.”

Until then, more questions.

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