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In a room off the lobby of league headquarters called “The Big Ten Experience,” Indiana coach Tom Crean did not appear anxious last week. This was no minor feat, and not because the video propaganda on countless flat-screens and touchscreens was a little overwhelming. Two of Crean’s key players, forward Troy Williams and guard James Blackmon Jr., would decide to head to the NBA or return to school shortly. With Williams and Blackmon back this winter, the Hoosiers likely could contend for a conference title. With the 6'7" Williams and the 6'4" Blackmon back this winter, the Hoosiers likely could contend for a conference title. Without one or both, that looks less probable.
This was the byproduct of the new rule that permits college players to test the NBA draft process but withdraw if they don’t like what they hear: An extended period of uncertainty with the direction of entire teams at stake. It seemed like the sort of thing that would stress a coach for every minute of every day that passes without a decision.
“I think it can, if you don’t know your players,” Crean said, leaning back in a chair. “If you’re dealing from a position of hope or wishing, that’s not realistic. And you can’t be selfish in it.”
We may need a couple more rounds of stay-or-go tug of war to assess the impact of the rule, and we may need a broader base of opinion than the few Big Ten coaches who passed through suburban Chicago last week for league meetings while dealing with this new dynamic. But the small sample size can still offer an early idea of how coaches are handling the waiting period in which they have little control. Players are going to explore options and create roster murkiness. And coaches are going to have to deal with it.
You might forgive these coaches some angst, given what’s at stake. Like Crean, Wisconsin’s Greg Gard and Purdue’s Matt Painter have potential top contenders on their hands if forwards Nigel Hayes and Caleb Swanigan, respectively, return to the Badgers and the Boilermakers. But no one is particularly interested in the plight of high-major basketball coaches, at least not in the context of player freedom. “Well, you can’t plan,” Painter said. “It’s not like there’s a lot of guys out there who are going to be [Swanigan’s] talent level or be able to beat out the other guys we have ... It’s nothing different than somebody graduating or somebody getting injured. The next guy has to be able to step up and play. As a coach, you always get consumed with what you have, and not what you don’t have.”
And coaches understand the mindsets of their players this spring: They all want to go. They’re just waiting for a reason to go.
“It was almost comical to me to pay attention to some of the people being interviewed at the combine and they’d say, ‘Well, I’m 50-50,’” Crean said. “My 11-year-old isn’t buying that. So all you can try do is work like crazy for them.”
If there is a role for college coaches in this, it is as excuse eliminators. They ensure the players remain in good academic standing if they do return. Then they collect information from NBA teams and let players decide from there.
To wit: On Tuesday, the day before the deadline to withdraw from the draft, Gard had a midmorning meeting with Hayes on the calendar. It would be the first face-to-face confab between them since a week before the NBA draft combine. Gard has texted and occasionally called his 6'7" junior forward. He has gathered feedback from every team Hayes has worked out for. He contacted the NBA league office. And Gard would put all of that before Hayes and let him draw his own conclusions.
“I’ve tried to be as helpful as I can be,” the Badgers coach said. “I’ve stayed in contact with him but I haven’t hovered. I’m not sitting here pressuring him saying, ‘Hey, I need to know.’”
At least for Wisconsin, there was minimal short-range impact to the team. Hayes was on campus for final exams but, with school out and players temporarily scattered, he isn’t missing any crucial workouts. Nor did Gard anticipate signing another recruit if Hayes bolted to the pros; the Badgers will play with who they have regardless.“We’ll be very competitive with or without Nigel,” Gard said. “We’ve got a lot of other pieces that got experience last year. Obviously with Nigel back it would add a big piece to the puzzle. But we’re not going to disappear if he decides to go. I gotta look at this from 30,000 feet and not worry about one individual. I have to worry about the program. That’s where I’ve really tried to focus my energies—what’s best for the whole program. Obviously I’m helping Nigel, but I’m not going to get consumed with whether he stays or goes and lose any sleep over it.”
There is really nothing to do about it from the coaching end, anyway—though Gard floated some murmurs from the NBA side that the floodgates were left a little too wide open this spring.
“From the NBA teams I’ve talked to, I’m not sure it resulted in what they wanted it to,” Gard said. “I think it got over-saturated. I think you had guys in that didn’t belong in. There have to be some tweaks done to it. I don’t think it had the result they were hoping it would. It’s helped some, because it’s given an avenue of discussion and evaluation. But there were also some people who took advantage of it that had no business taking advantage of it.”
But the tweak that allowed for players to have greater freedom through the process was implemented by the NCAA this spring, and it’s difficult to conceive of a way to limit the players in the draft pool so soon after. The purgatory period for coaches is not likely to shrink anytime soon.
Painter, for one, received some welcome news just before the deadline: Vince Edwards, the 6'8" forward who was the Boilermakers’ second-leading scorer as a sophomore last season (11.3 points per game), withdrew from the draft on Tuesday. When he spoke at Big Ten meetings a week earlier, Painter lauded the process as a positive for a possible all-conference performer in 2016–17. “It’s your dream,” the Purdue coach said. “You want to know what it’s going to take for you to be able to make it.”
This particular decision was worth the wait. Edwards did some fact-finding on his strengths and weaknesses, and he returned to West Lafayette.
If Painter was pleased, he surely also understood broader implications: One of his best players wasn’t going anywhere, but the uncertainty created by a new rule was here to stay, too.