Jamel Melvin’s an East Coast guy. Played high school ball at The Potomac School in McLean, Va. Way over here in Colorado? Might as well be the moon.
Jamel's never been.
And on April 15, smack in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, the 6-foot-9 teenager signed a national letter of intent to attend Northern Colorado, to play for coaches and teammates he’s never met, on a campus he's never walked, two time zones away from home.
Now that’s recruiting.
“I got a good look at the campus,” Melvin said.
It was a virtual look, conducted through an online tour at www.unco.edu.
“It looks as nice as they told me.”
The story of college basketball recruiting during a pandemic is perfectly told at Northern Colorado. The most successful Division I program on the Front Range over the last three seasons — 23 wins per, with 22 in the bag during a 2019-20 season that ended without a postseason — signed three players from three different levels at a time when Zoom calls and online photo albums are the new official visits. And not one of the recruits has seen the Greeley campus. Only one has met UNC’s new coach, Steve Smiley.
- The Division I transfer, from CU-Boulder, is 6-4 guard Daylen Kountz, the former Colorado state player of the year out of Denver East.
- The junior college transfer, from Butler (Kan.) Community College, is 6-6 wing Marque English, a former Kansas state player of the year.
- The high school recruit is Melvin, a 19-year-old who was discovered by the staff through their connections back east. He committed to the Bears without a visit. They all did. Didn't have a choice. The UNC campus is closed.
Smiley’s a Colorado guy who graduated from Pomona High. After four years as an assistant he earned the promotion to head coach March 20 — two days after Gov. Jared Polis closed Colorado schools — when Jeff Linder left for Wyoming. Smiley's first recruiting class was pulled together entirely by FaceTime, Zoom and text messaging.
“Jamel was the first one to commit in the corona era,” Smiley said on a Zoom call with the three recruits and The Gazette.
“We said, ‘Here’s an offer. And from there you’ve got to talk him into committing without visiting,” Smiley said. “That’s where Jamel and his family had to have some faith in us that we’re shooting them straight and telling them the truth.”
Smiley described recruiting during a pandemic as "a leap of faith" — for both parties. As the coach reminded the recruits and their families, “You’ve got to understand, too: This is my first Division I (head coaching) job. And I’m putting a lot of faith in you, too.”
Now more than ever, successful recruiters lean on two qualities: reputation and old-school talent evaluation. The first won the day with the two transfers, English and Kountz. With English, the coaching staff sold him on their previous success with a juco transfer — Trent Harris, who came from Western Nebraska Community College and promptly set the UNC record with 11 3-pointers in his first game. With Kountz, the Bears sold him on the spectacular success of another Pac-12 transfer — Andre Spight, who came from Arizona State and soon set the single-season scoring record at Northern Colorado. UNC’s reputation preceded it.
“Coach Smiley and them came at me full-blast and told me they wanted me,” English said, adding, “They trusted me, and I trusted them.”
UNC put the full-court press on Kountz, who got the scoop on the Bears from current players Bodie Hume and Sam Masten — his former teammates on the club circuit with Colorado Hawks.
"I've watched Daylen play a million times," Smiley said.
“I just felt like I kind of already had a relationship with coach Smiley. I knew the type of guy he was and how he was,” said Kountz, who learns May 20 if the NCAA will institute a waiver to grant him immediate eligibility for the 2020-21 season.
From the ACC to the Big 12 to UNC's Big Sky, there will be swings and misses from this bizarre stretch of college recruiting. It’s as inevitable as the return of college sports in 2020. But coaches believe the whiffs from the pandemic era will center around personality misses more often than talent misevaluations. Film evaluation is still a fair, if fallible, substitute for open gyms and AAU tournaments. Handy as it is, the Zoom call can’t replicate the personal interaction and body language of an old-fashioned campus visit.
“Recruits don’t know this, but when a recruit comes up here and gets on campus, you can see how a recruit interacts with mom or dad. It can go really good, or it can be really bad,” Smiley said.
Chalk up the pandemic as a really good stretch for UNC recruiting, strange as it has been. And the first time they set foot on campus ... will truly be the first time they set foot on campus.