LINCOLNTON, N.C. – Combine Academy sits smack-dab in the middle of Lincolnton, a rural-town in North Carolina roughly 38 miles north of the glitz and glamour that is Uptown Charlotte, but it might as well be on another planet.
It’s a serene and calming and oozes classic old country vibes.
Cows graze at seemingly every turn on the scenic winding roads, horses trot around stables and locals wave from wooden porch swings as cars peruse by.
Perhaps it’s fitting that Lincolnton was the sight of the state’s first textile mill, built more than a century ago, because on this ethereal, sun-kissed September 9 afternoon, the Combine Academy Goats are fully embracing their blue-collar roots inside of John Jordan Gymnasium.
The steady squeak of the sneakers on the shiny hardwood floor nearly drowns out the music blasting through the speakers as a handful of college coaches look on from the black tables lining the court’s west side.
Today is the first day of the NCAA’s recruiting period, where coaches are permitted to visit prospects in person at their schools and homes. Combine Academy is a hot spot for coaches with its stable full of Division I prospects, including the top combo guard in the 2023 class Robert Dillingham.
It's an intimate closed-door setting, but a handful of Combine baseball players have snuck in to see which big time college coaches will show up.
Most of the wide-eyed glances and not-so-subtle “that’s him” points are directed at new North Carolina coach Hubert Davis, who has made Dillingham a priority for 2023.
It’s the first time coaches have been out since late July after missing more than a year of in-person recruiting due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The NCAA extended the dead period eight times over the past year and only recently returned to normal recruiting calendars on June 1.
The general consensus among coaches is that where the focus for July was to zero-in on talent the idea for September is to be seen by their targeted players and reinforce why they’re wanted and needed. Coaches strategically plot out who to see on day one to strengthen their “priority” sell, and, yes, that matters to the players.
“I definitely notice who’s here on day one,” Dillingham says. “It’s not something I hold against a school if they don’t come because I know they’ll get here, but, yeah, I notice who came out to see me on day one.”
Combine coach Jeff McInnis masterfully works the room greeting the coaches with fist-pounds, and, naturally, he lingers substantially longer with Davis and his assistant Brad Frederick.
McInnis was a star point guard at North Carolina from 1993-96 before playing in the NBA for 12 years. He’s downright mellow in this setting, a stark contrast from the fiery, no-nonsense perfectionist who patrols the sideline during games and practices.
“This isn’t normal,” Dillingham says with a laugh. “He stays on us, but we honestly love it.”
McInnis’ mellow mood is likely due to the fact that it’s the second session of the day after hosting more than 20 coaches for the 8:30 a.m. workout this morning.
“As long as the effort is there I’m cool for this setting,” McInnis says.
His second wind tends to kick in when the execution begins to lack.
Just as McInnis gives a stern warning about his low tolerance for the waning performance, Kennard Davis draws a charge and McInnis screams in excitement, clapping emphatically then signaling the charge like a seasoned ref.
“Oh yessir!” he yells. “Smart play KD!”
Combine associate head coach Sim Sanders drifts over to press row to chop it up with the coaches, who pick his brain about everything from where certain players are leaning to how they liked recent visits to their colleges.
Bryce Alfino is a hot topic of conversation on the sidelines after a productive summer with Team Charlotte on the Under Armour circuit resulted in multiple offers.
Radford head coach Darris Nichols brought his entire staff out for Alfino; Winthrop also had a heavy presence for the 6-foot-5 scoring guard.
“This is basically my first experience with the coaches at the open gyms,” Alfino says. “I was definitely excited about it, but it’s really just basketball at the end of the day. Of course I want to see who’s coming out for me because I’ve got a big decision to make, and I want to be where I’m wanted for sure. That’s the best part about this time for me.”
Just then, as if on cue, Alfino drains a three-pointer from the right corner. A few plays later, Jayden Epps races down and launches a fadeaway you’d have to see to believe from the same spot.
He flashes a smile over to the sideline and does the shoulder shrug a la Michael Jordan 1992 NBA Finals.
Epps committed to Illinois in July and met with Brad Underwood and his staff during the morning session.
“Man, it feels good not to have any stress of making a decision on me,” Epps says. “It’s one of those things where you don’t know how much of a load off it is until it’s over. I told the guys just come out and do what they do. Don’t try and do stuff you don’t normally do; just play your game and go hard!”
Clearly, Dillingham understood the assignment.
He whips a wicked crossover then throws the ball behind his back so fast you’d swear the ball was connected to a string before marveling at the pop of the nets on his made three-pointer.
Two plays later he does it again, this time from the opposite side.
McInnis peers over to the sideline and shakes his head, “That boy is just different.”
As the final dunk ends the sixth game to seven, the players surround McInnis at midcourt for a quick recap as coaches begin to standup and stretch.
When the team breaks, coaches meet with select players in the office or chat with them off to the side.
The mood is jovial and light; like small groups of friends catching up on old times.
After roughly 20 minutes, the coaches wrap up the chats with relatable jokes and begin to file out of the gym.
Davis and Frederick linger with Dillingham, no doubt making the most of the fact that they’re the only school in attendance for him on day one.
Dillingham is coming off, arguably, the most dominant summer of any guard in the country, regardless of class.
After a strong showing at the prestigious Nike Peach Jam, including a 27-point outing in a losing effort in the title game, Dillingham broke the USA Basketball U16 single-game scoring record with 31 points in the gold medal win over Argentina last month.
So, Davis taking his time with Dillingham and his father Donald Dillingham isn’t just understandable, it’s smart.
Eventually, the foursome emerges from the office. Davis is all smiles as he trades last minute pleasantries with Donald as they walk down black metal staircase on the gym’s north end.
Davis poses for pictures with a few lingerers before heading out.
McInnis sits back in the black leather chair and watches as New Orleans Pelicans wing Naji Marshall drains jumps shots. McInnis trains Marshall, who just finished up a solid rookie season, posting 7.7 points, 4.6 rebounds and 2.8 assists a game.
“It’s a culture here,” McInnis says. “I love to get the pros in here so the guys can see the work they put in. It’s necessary.”
McInnis lets out a deep sigh before interlocking his hands behind his head.
“This is just the beginning,” he says. “It’s my hectic time of the year, but I love it. Some coaches don’t have any traffic, but we’ve got everyone coming through here. It’s great for the kids, so I love it.”
Just then he points to the east end where Dillingham is piecing together intense, game speed crossover combos on an invisible defender and draining NBA three-pointers at a frantic pace.
“Last player in the gym,” McInnis says. “And still working. That boy is different. He’s just different.”