For the past two or three years, oversigning in football has been one of the biggest hot button issues in the NCAA. It has lead to legislative changes in both of the last two years, with the end result being a stricter set of limits on how many football prospects a school can sign, as well as a rule regarding summer aid which already sort of backfired. On top of NCAA changes, the SEC—long the poster child/target of criticism for oversigning—instituted a number of conference rules regarding medical
non-counter scholarships, early enrollees, and graduate transfers.
Over-signing is not the exclusive domain of football though. Baseball has had a series of proposed and enacted rules regarding oversigning. In fact, baseball’s oversigning problem was so severe that rules were enacted to prevent behavior that was not even technically oversigning. Hence the better term: roster management, which includes both signing too many prospects for too few scholarships as well as the maneuvers used to free up scholarships or dispose of those prospects.
One sport though that has escaped scrutiny is men’s basketball. Take for example this paragraph from Rob Dauster:
I don’t have a major problem with [Louisville head coach Rick] Pitino telling [Jared] Swopshire to transfer because they ran out of scholarships or asking [Stephen] Van Treese to leave because they brought in Harrell. They got cut because Louisville got better players. It sucks, but it happens.
That’s from an article critical of Rick Pitino and the NCAA’s regulation of roster management, specifically the transfer rules. But if Van Treese or Swopshire were football players, being recruited over would not be something that just happens. It would be a serious issue deserving of immediate attention by the NCAA.
This is about the most up-in-arms you’ll see someone get about oversigning in basketball:
Blame can be passed at Crean for signing two too many players, knowing all the while he’d have to wade through this quagmire. He’ll get past it. This isn’t an indictment on Crean and 30 other things about his time at Indiana will be remembered or discussed before this circumstance comes up.
In football though, oversigning is seen by many as an indictment of Nick Saban, Les Miles, and many other (largely SEC) football coaches.
What Makes Basketball Different
So why is roster management seen as different in basketball than football? Here’s a few theories, any or all of which may or may not be contributing.
- The raw numbers are not there. National attention to over-signing in football started when Houston Nutt, then at Ole Miss, signed 37 players and joked about the lack of a rule prohibiting him from signing 80. When teams over-signed in football, there were multiple cases of oversigning by five or six players per year. That meant bringing in over 100 recruits in four years, or five recruiting classes in four years. Those numbers catch people’s eyes. In basketball, oversigning is typically by one or two scholarships and is not a regular practice for almost any team.
- Transfer “epidemic” provides cover. So much more attention to roster management in basketball is paid to the roster management initiated by the players themselves. The high number of transfers helps mask issues with over-signing in two ways. First, it helps provide justification for oversigning in the first place. Coaches never know who will want to leave. Second, it clears up the scholarship crunch.
One question though: are the two feeding each other? Oversigning leads to transfers when players are recruited over, which leads to more oversigning, which leads to more transfers? Another possibility: midyear transfers in basketball might clear out space that would look full on a football roster because of where signing dates fall.
- There are fewer horror stories. In basketball, the result of an over-signed basketball team typically ends with a basketball player transferring and moving on to continue his career at another Division I school. Football has all sorts of worse outcomes, including allegations of athletes being pressured into signing permanent medical non-counter scholarships, freshmen dropped from the team on the eve of fall camp, athletes transferring to junior college and needing to restart the recruiting process all over again, etc.
- No initial counter limit in basketball. In 2004, the NCAA removed the initial counter limit from men’s basketball, known as the 5/8 rule. Schools could award five initial scholarships each year, and no more than eight in a two-year period. Football has continued with a limit of 25 initial counters per year. If a football coach is over the limit of 25 initial counters, he has promised to provide something he cannot provide. The impact of going over the initial counter limit always falls on incoming student-athletes, who are seen as not being given any chance to prove themselves.
- There is no boogeyman. In football, over-signing was seen as an SEC problem, especially when national attention to the issue coincided with a run of six straight national championships by the conference. Seeking answers as to why the SEC (particularly the SEC West) was so dominant, one explanation was the amount of over-signing and subsequent roster culling.
In basketball, there has been no team or conference which combined a run of national success with constant oversigning. Louisville’s scholarship crunches over the last couple years combined with a Final Four run this year to go with last year’s might do the trick. Indiana’s much publicized quest to get to 13 might be in the same boat too, especially with a preseason number one ranking attached.
- Some players are already gone. Speaking of boogeymen, it would be all too convenient if Kentucky started oversigning like mad. But aside from a push for more top prospects (who are often Kentucky targets) to commit in the spring signing period, it is often hard to quantify just how many returners Kentucky or other schools regularly producing NBA draftees will have. With the NBA’s draft rule, any player could be out the door after any season and the basketball community accepts that some will be gone long before the next class signs. Not so with football where players are generally expected to be in the same place for at least three years.
- The NABC has pushed the evaluation angle. The National Association of Basketball Coaches has been much more effective than the American Football Coaches Association in arguing for increased opportunities to evaluate prospects. The NABC has lobbied for and received a return to AAU events in April and tryouts on campus, along with increased contact with recruits that helps a coach get to know a prospect. This has succeeded in making time to evaluate an issue in basketball but not football, despite that given the size of the recruiting classes, basketball has far more opportunities per prospect to evaluate.
What Can Be Done
The basketball roster management issue is likely to remain an unaddressed issue (or non-issue depending on your point of view) so long as the relatively high rate of transfers continues in the sport. With so much attrition initiated by the players, it is hard to say who is leaving voluntarily, whose departure is suggested, and who is being forced out, except for cases where scholarships and roster spots are simply cut.
Some of the issues in basketball may be addressed through general legislation, like multi-year scholarships. If basketball moves to four- or five-year scholarships generally, it will be harder to open spots up for transfers, which might reduce player movement. Plus the process of cutting a scholarship will get uglier and more public, leading to a better understanding of how often one player is pushed aside for another.
National, basketball-specific legislation seems unlikely in the near future. The NCAA legislative process will be focused for the next year or so on Presidential Retreat initiatives. Plus the NCAA membership seems to have little appetite for major change, like bringing back an initial counter rule. Conference oversigning rules and review of attrition will be the most likely source of change.
The other option is that oversigning and roster management in men’s basketball remains off the national radar for the time being. Doing so would radically change the debate over roster management generally. Accepting it in basketball means most of the problem in football is due to sheer numbers, not the impact on individual student-athletes. Condoning some oversigning but not too much would be a peculiar message to send to college coaches.