The issue with the fickleness problem isn't that coaches are wrong. There's no way to argue that the rising number of decommitments is helping the sport; it's that it tends to only get discussed anecdotally, i.e. when a recruit such as Michael Beasley switches high schools six times and college commitments once, or Terrence Jones reneges on Washington within less than an hour of putting on a Washington hat in a press conference broadcast live on the web, or LaMont "Momo" Jones sets what just might be a record by moving from Arizona to Iona this offseason: for being the only known top-100 prospect to jump between three high schools, commit to four colleges, and transfer once he was in college.
It's irresistible to focus on the high-profile and the extreme, because they make great column fodder, but that doesn't give us a real grasp on the issue. What is normal behavior for modern, top-100 recruits? How often are they switching high schools, how frequently are they decommitting from colleges, at what rate are they transferring, and why? If we're going to call something an epidemic, we need comprehensive evidence. The Commitment Project is SI.com's search for answers.
The project's data sample consisted of the past five classes of top-100 recruits, from 2007-11 as listed by the Recruiting Services Consensus Index (RSCI), which combines rankings from all major evaluation services. For each of the 502 players in our database, we tracked their entire path through high school, recruitment and college, including commitments/decommitments and transfers, and the reasoning behind those moves. The complete database checked in at more than 18,000 entries.*
* SI.com interns Tommy Alter, Jeff Gasser, Jonathan Jones and R.J. Rico, provided invaluable help on this project, each handling research for an entire class of recruits.
When I ran the concept of the Commitment Project by a few college recruiters, they encouraged me to study high school switching, because, as one coach said, "The whole culture is starting there; rather than working through problems with high school coaches, kids just leave, because someone else will always take them."
The data on high school transfers was stunning. Not only were there extreme examples such as Beasley and his six stops, or in the Class of 2011, Baylor-bound Quincy Miller and Duke-bound Michael Gbinije with four high schools each, but the overall numbers reveal that transferring is rampant.
In total, 39.2 percent of top-100 recruits went to more than one high school, including stops at prep schools; 27.9 percent attended two, and 10 percent went to three or more. The trend has increased significantly over the past five years. In the Class of 2007, 26 percent of recruits went to multiple high schools, and the average number of schools attended was 1.4. By 2011, 47.0 percent of recruits had multiple high school stops, and their average number of schools was 1.7.
Here's why it was worthwhile to track high school transfers: Our data revealed that a player who attended multiple high schools was almost twice as likely to decommit from a college than was a single-HS recruit. Forty-five of the 195 multiple-HS recruits (23.1 percent) had college decommitments on their record, compared to only 38 of the 307 single-HS recruits (12.4 percent). If a prospect's circle of influencers stays the same throughout high school, there's far less likelihood of him changing his mind on a college.
Eighty-three of the recruits in our database were decommitters, which puts the epidemic at 16.5 percent. The bulk of the players decommitted just once (14.5 percent), a handful did twice (1.6 percent), and Momo Jones was the lone recruit to back away from three different schools.
Decommitments only increased slightly over the five-year span from 2007-11 -- and at a far lower rate than the rise in high school transfers. The five-year progression of multiple-committers, by percentage, was 14-14-17-17-18.
If those numbers don't, at first glance, seem to constitute a problem, consider them this way: As you browse the top-100 lists for 2012 and 2013, it's likely that at least one in six players will decommit. If your school already received a verbal commitment from a blue-chipper, how much does that make you worry?
I thought it would be vital to speak with Jones, the decommitment king, to discover the secret to why players waffle. His explanations were as such:
• He said his first high school jump, from New York City's Rice to American Christian (Aston, Pa.), helped him get exposure by playing alongside Tyreke Evans (reason: profile boost).
• Jones left for Oak Hill Academy because American Christian closed after his junior year (reason: necessity).
• He decommitted from Louisville because he pledged there as a 10th-grader, on the sole basis that he was awestruck by the idea of playing for Rick Pitino, and had a friend, Edgar Sosa, on the team (reason: immaturity).
• Jones decommitted from Virginia Tech because he became uncomfortable with the idea of playing there (reason: cold feet).
• He was released from USC because Tim Floyd resigned within two months of Jones' decision to play there (reason: outside factors).
• He transferred to Iona to be closer to his grandmother, who was undergoing chemotherapy, and his mother and sister, who've barely seen him play in college ("It was all about my family," he said). Now he's seeking an NCAA waiver to play immediately for the Gaels (reason: family).
The conclusion is ... that you can't make one, wide-ranging conclusion on why players change their minds. Some of Jones' moves were justifiable and others were questionable. He backed out on coaches and had coaches (or schools) disappear on him. As we studied each of the 91 college decommitments/releases in our database, we found the reasons to be just as varied. The best way of assessing them was to divide them into two overarching categories: "school factors," in which the college was the instigator, and "player factors," in which the player initiated the move.
School factors included: head coaching changes, assistant coaching changes, NCAA penalties (or the threat of them), uncertainty over a coach's job status, or a coaching scandal (ex. Pitino's Porcini incident). Player factors included: "Reopening recruitment," change-of-heart, personal reasons, inexplicable reasons, package deals or pressure from family members or advisors.
As much as coaches like to put blame on the moral decay of the modern player, coaching staffs need to acknowledge their role: 37.4 percent of decommitments or releases were attributable to "school factors." Floyd's resignation alone accounted for a host of them, including Jones, Solomon Hill and Derrick Williams from the Class of 2009, Dwayne Polee Jr. from the Class of 2010, and Ryan Boatright from the Class of 2011.
Boatright, a point guard from Aurora, Ill., who's part of UConn's 2011 recruiting class, has the distinction of being the earliest player in our database to make a verbal commitment. While attending an elite camp at USC in June 2007, the summer after completing the eighth grade, he received an offer from Floyd -- and accepted it on the same day. It was a big story at the time, as it fueled the "Should schools be offering scholarships to eighth graders?" debate, and it brought Boatright some unwanted attention. "What it did," he said, "was put a bull's-eye on my back at every tournament." Against the Kid With A USC Offer, opponents always acted like they had something to prove.
Still, neither Boatright nor his mother, Tanesha, regret the decision. Ryan was enamored with USC at the time (he said he was a fan of Reggie Bush and the movie Love and Basketball) and Tanesha saw it as a golden opportunity. "As a single mom with four kids, what more could you ask for?" she said. "That your son is going into his first year of high school already holding a scholarship to a good college? My goal was to put them all through college, and I wasn't going to be able to do so, financially."
What they lament is what happened after: Floyd resigned in the summer of 2009, Ryan reopened his recruitment, and in the fall of his senior year, settled on West Virginia, which told him he was the only point guard the school planned to add as a backup to Truck Bryant. The same week, the Mountaineers took a commitment from another top-100 point guard, Jabari Hinds, without telling Boatright about it in advance. He learned about it on Twitter. "I was like, 'Is this really happening again?'" Boatright said. "I thought I had waited it out and weighed all my options, and I thought West Virginia was going to keep its word. ... It turned out not to be like that."
After being burned by his first and second choices, Boatright backed away and eventually signed with UConn, which jumped into his recruitment after it became certain that Kemba Walker would leave early for the NBA, opening up a backcourt scholarship. Boatright's bumpy path is relevant because it's almost the norm for early commitments: 23 players in our database committed three or more years before they were scheduled to arrive at college, and 11 of them (47.8 percent) decommitted at least once. That's 2.9 times the overall average (16.3 percent).
In the chart below, which lists all 23 of the early-committers, dissatisfaction runs deep. Four players (Noah Cottrill, Taylor King, Jamal Coombs-McDaniel and Dwayne Polee Jr.) transferred once they were in college, and three more (Tommy Mason-Griffin, B.J. Mullens and Jereme Richmond) made ill-advised decisions to turn pro early. Their urgency to commit to a college was only matched by their urgency to escape.
A top-100 recruit is almost twice as likely to transfer as he is to decommit. From the classes of 2007-09, the transfer rate was 24.8 percent, with 20.9 percent transferring once and 4.0 percent twice (Transfer data for the Class of 2010, which has only been in college for a year, and the Class of 2011, which is just arriving, was considered incomplete. They haven't had sufficient time to get disgruntled).
The transfer rate for a top-100 recruit is also nearly two-and-a-half times higher than the average for all Division I players. Data kept by the NCAA lists the overall percentage of four-year players at 10.7 percent in '07-08, 10.6 percent in '08-09, and 10.1 percent in '09-10.
We tracked the reasoning behind each of the transfers in our database, breaking them into "school factors" and "player factors" in the same way we did for decommitments. Whereas 37.4 percent of decommitments could be attributed to school factors, only 12 percent of transfers could be pinned on the schools.
While transferring seems to be more of a player-driven issue, it's still worth considering that they play in a climate where coaching changes occur with alarming frequency. In the 2010 offseason, 15.7 percent of D-I head coaching jobs changed hands, and in the 2011 offseason, 16.2 percent of head jobs changed. D-I coaches are switching places at a higher rate than overall four-year transfers.
While there was a strong correlation between attending multiple high schools and decommitting in the recruiting process, there wasn't a correlation between high school transferring and college transferring. Top-100 prospects who attended multiple high schools transferred in college 23.7 percent of the time, whereas prospects who stayed at one high school transferred in college 21.3 percent of the time.
The significant correlation was between college decommitments and college transfers. Top-100 prospects who decommitted from schools ended up transferring 30.8 percent of the time, while prospects with no decommits transferred at just a 20.5 percent rate. That gap suggests that fickleness in recruiting is an indicator of fickleness in college.
The goal of The Commitment Project was to collect, hard, discussion-worthy data about player movement, so here, in summation, are the key figures from our five-year study:
• 39.2 percent of top-100 recruits attended multiple high schools
• The multiple-high school trend rose to 47 percent in the Class of 2011, suggesting it could break 50 percent later this decade
• Top-100 players who attended multiple high schools went on to decommit from colleges at nearly twice the rate of their peers
• 16.3 percent of top-100 recruits decommitted from colleges
• 47.8 percent of early-committing (3-4 years out) top-100 prospects later decommitted
• 37.4 percent of decommitments can be attributed to school factors, such as coaching changes or NCAA penalties
• 24.8 percent of top-100 recruits transfer, a rate that's nearly 2.5 times the D-I average
• Top-100 players who decommit are nearly 50 percent more likely than their peers to transfer once they're in college
There is no threshold for what, exactly, constitutes an epidemic, but at the very least, we have a fickleness problem in college basketball.
This project was about numbers rather than anecdotes, but throughout we kept a list of the most curious cases: The odysseys of Beasley and Jones; 2010 recruit Luke Cothron's bumbling through three colleges (Auburn, UMass, New Orleans) without getting eligible for a single game; 2008 recruit Alex Legion's decommitment from Michigan, and subsequent transfers from Kentucky, to Illinois, to Florida International. There was enough player movement to make us dizzy, which is why a prospect with an entirely different mindset was the most extreme case of all.
Matt Gatens of Iowa City, Iowa, the No. 89th-ranked recruit in the Class of 2008, committed to the Hawkeyes in June 2005, after his freshman year of high school. The coach he committed to, Steve Alford, left for New Mexico in March 2007, but Gatens stuck with Iowa through its hiring of Butler's Todd Lickliter, and enrolled at the school. After three straight sub-.500 and multiple waves of player departures, Lickliter was fired from Iowa in 2010. That was after Gatens' sophomore year, and he declined to transfer, remaining with the Hawkeyes after they hired Siena's Fran McCaffery.
Now a senior who's Iowa's top returning scorer, Gatens spent his entire childhood in Iowa City, with two parents who were athletes at Iowa. He spent four years at the same high school in Iowa City, and never felt upset enough to leave in college. "I'd be lying if I said it was always easy, but the main thing I realized was I wasn't committed to a coach or a system, I was committed to a program," he said. "There's been something rewarding about this. From guys I've kept in touch with, the grass isn't always greener; for me it was best to be loyal, and be part of building things back."
Gatens was the lone recruit in the entire database to commit to a school under one coach, hold that commitment despite a coaching change, and not transfer upon the occasion of another coaching change. In an age where nomads run the floor and mercenaries stalk the sidelines, it should not come as a surprise that the ultimate outlier is someone who simply refused to leave home.