White: Recruiting, evaluating have become ‘incredibly challenging’ during COVID-19 pandemic
Originally Published on: Jul 23, 2020 at 13:03
Although Gators coach Mike White remains optimistic the country will return to the status quo sooner rather than later, he knows the standard won’t be possible for the 2021 recruiting class.
Speaking to local media via teleconference for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic abruptly ended the team’s college basketball postseason chances before they could begin, White said “it remains to be seen” just which group of athletes -- incoming or current -- would be most affected by the pandemic and its ensuing repercussions. With the Gators holding a commitment from just one prospect –– four-star combo guard Kowacie Reeves Jr. –– in the upcoming class, there’s likely more work to do on the recruiting trail.
How the work will be done is another thing that remains to be seen, however.
“I would just start with this class first in ‘21, just because you’re –– I’m optimistic, we’re all hopeful and we’re trying to stay positive that we’ll get back to normalcy at some point to where the class of 2022 will go through a normal recruiting process, at least on the back end of their processes,” White said. “But, you know, with 2021, on the front end of these guys and their individual processes, I think there was some normalcy, now you’re on the backend.”
The latter half of the recruiting work, where prospects narrow down their options before typically signing in mid-November, will more than likely be virtual, meaning any prior visits or previous relationships now seem to carry far more weight. It’s a situation that comes with its share of advantages and disadvantages. The NCAA extended a dead period through next month for all Division I sports. Coaches are barred from in-person activities such as traveling to meet a recruit or bringing one in for an official visit. They're leaning on phone calls, text messages and Zoom meetings to communicate with recruits.
“We’re recruiting some guys that we’ve had on campus a few times as juniors, and sometimes that’s a positive for us because they haven’t been on other people’s campuses that we’re recruiting. And then we’re trying to get involved with some guys in 2021 that have been on other people’s campuses, but we never had an opportunity when they were a junior,” White said. “So, I think it affects these guys more specifically on the backend, the later innings, of their high school recruitment. And then in 2022, hopefully they can realize some normalcy on the back end of theirs.”
The evaluation process has also taken a sizable hit as coaches have been unable to attend the countless high school tournaments and travel ball events that typically dominate the college basketball summer.
Those that have done their due diligence are far better off than those just dipping their toes into the pool of 2021 talent –– a situation which isn’t always the case. Previously, coaches like White have made the effort, spending countless hours luring a recruit to campus, only for a bigger fish to swoop in for the prize; Florida fans certainly remember Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Kentucky’s 11th-hour poaching.
If there’s a bright side to the situation, it’s that each program faces equal disadvantages when it comes to wooing players.
“Well, at least it’s a level playing-field. We’re all dealing with the same things. It’s always a concern. It probably slows us down a little bit, makes you a little bit more cautious, probably leads to a little bit more patience on our end, especially considering the fact that the transfer market, we think, is going to change,” White said. “There’s no need to rush into things at certain positions. Also with us, I think there’s a lot of uncertainty after this coming season in regard to guys being able to make potential professional decisions. That’s where we are. You’re never 100-percent certain with all big decisions in life, but we want to be as certain as we possibly can be, and we’re willing to be patient.”
Ultimately, what’s more concerning than the temporary hurdles with recruiting is White’s revelation that it’s been nearly impossible to monitor his current players’ improvement, meaning Sunday’s voluntary return to physical activity marks the fifth-year UF head coach’s first glimpse in more than four months of this season’s team.
“Incredibly challenging. There’s been no observation of no physical development,” White admitted. “I’ve been on Zooms with these guys a hundred times, as we have been with recruits. I think we’re all a little Zoom-ed out. In fact, this past week we took a week off of Zooms because I think our guys were just a little bit tired of it. I think we can all get tired of it at times, so we tried to break up the monotony a little bit. From a team development, relationship-building standpoint, I think these guys are growing a little bit. We’ve had a lot of really good conversation, positive communication, high level of openness and a pretty consistent approach to communications and the Zooms and phone calls and the texts.
“If you listen to the guys, they’ll tell you that they’re working their butts off. But they’ve all been on their own routines at home, and we, of course, challenge them to do the right things and be safe and stay healthy for themselves and their families.”