EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the first in a four-part series on the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on college sports recruiting.
University of Tennessee at Chattanooga men's basketball coach Lamont Paris has a competitive itch he can't scratch right now, and it has nothing to do with the cancellations of the NCAA tournament, the NIT, the CBI and the CIT.
It has everything to do with building a future.
"Recruiting is really the one time coaches get to compete," Paris said. "On game days, the players are doing their thing, and we're sitting there looking good in suits on the sideline. The real competition for coaches is in recruiting."
The COVID-19 pandemic has suspended college basketball both on and off the court, preventing Paris from performing one of his favorite aspects of the job.
On March 13, the NCAA adopted emergency legislation that established a recruiting dead period in all Division I and II sports that will run through April 15. No letters of intent can be issued to any prospective student-athletes during that time, and the NCAA will revisit that target date with the possibility of extending it.
"Usually, when a season ends and you get bumped out of a tournament, you're in this depression," Paris said. "Then you get a call from somebody about a player, and all of a sudden the whole world is right again. Now, we've had that stripped from us, so how do you get normalcy back in your life?"
UTC suffered a heartbreaking 72-70 loss to Wofford in the Southern Conference semifinals on March 8, which left the Mocs with a 20-13 record. The College Basketball Invitational (CBI) was the most appealing option to extend the season, but Paris said the disappointment from the Wofford setback may have prevented the Mocs from obtaining the necessary excitement to make a competitive run.
Paris is having to conduct exit meetings through other avenues besides the preferred face-to-face gatherings, which is another unique and undesired consequence to this landscape.
That the Mocs won 20 games this season was a very unlikely scenario this time last year, after they finished 12-20 and had their top two scorers, freshmen Kevin Easley and Donovann Toatley, leave the program. Easley averaged 14.2 points and 6.7 rebounds and was named SoCon freshman of the year, but he entered the NCAA transfer portal and wound up at TCU.
Yet Paris used that same portal to assemble a roster this past season that was overrun with players who had previously played at other universities: Matt Ryan (Notre Dame and Vanderbilt), Ramon Vila (Arizona State), Trey Doomes (West Virginia), Stefan Kenic (Cleveland State) and A.J. Caldwell (South Alabama). Paris also added Rod Johnson and Jonathan Scott from the junior college ranks.
UTC roster rebuilding already has begun this offseason, with Justin Brown and Maurice Commander having left the Mocs to enter the transfer portal, and Paris is expecting a chaotic few weeks.
"I feel like there will probably be even greater numbers than there were last year, which is crazy to think about, because there were more than 1,000 men's basketball players who transferred last year and went into the portal," Paris said. "That number is going to be higher, and the timetable is going to be different. The guys in the portal right now are probably getting a lot of attention because of the stoppage of play with these tournaments, and there are lots of things that are not happening.
"There are not a lot of coaching changes happening, and that can be a reason for guys to decide to move. Everything is going to be pushed back a little bit to where it's two to three weeks or even a month behind where it usually is. We haven't come anywhere near the full effect of what's going to happen."
National college basketball analyst Jeff Goodman reported this past weekend that more than 400 players already have entered the NCAA transfer portal, which includes 21 from the Southeastern Conference and 17 from the Atlantic Coast Conference. Tennessee already has two departures: redshirt sophomore forward Zach Kent, who has announced he's transferring to Delaware State, and redshirt junior guard Jalen Johnson, with that news breaking Monday morning.
Players can announce their transfer destinations during this dead period, but no campus visits are allowed, which Paris said is a big part of the recruiting process.
The more days that pass, the more Paris realizes his disappointment isn't confined to just recruiting and tournament basketball.
"I miss sports," he said. "I miss seeing a cricket highlight and saying, 'Wow! That's unbelievable!' It's amazing how much I rely on sports to have an enjoyable life."
Okoro leaving Auburn
Auburn freshman guard Isaac Okoro is making himself eligible for the NBA draft on June 20 but is not hiring an agent, Tigers coach Bruce Pearl said.
"Isaac has an opportunity to be a first-round pick and has an opportunity to be in the lottery," Pearl said this past weekend on a conference call. "With this draft not being as deep as next year's draft is going to be, I think it absolutely makes sense for him to become draft eligible."
Okoro averaged 12.9 points and 4.4 rebounds for the Tigers, who went 25-6 overall and 24-4 during games in which he played. One ESPN mock draft projects Okoro, who would be the first one-and-done player in Auburn history, going third overall.