|Nerlens Noel, the nation's No. 1 recruit and Kentucky signee, is the latest to be investigated. (Getty Images)|
Earlier this week, the New York Times reported that the NCAA was looking into Nerlens Noel, the No. 1 recruit in the class of 2012 and a Kentucky signee. The paper said the NCAA was "inquiring" about Noel's relationship with various people in his circle.
There was a lot of smoke, certainly. Fingers started pointing at John Calipari and Kentucky once again, with people over-exaggerating and saying that only Calipari seems to recruit "these kinds" of kids.
Well, here's the thing: Nearly every high-profile recruit could fit into that category.
"Just change the name and you've got a new story," one high-major assistant coach said.
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Over the past several years, the recruitment of top 25 players has become more and more complicated, leading the NCAA to look into several of them. Does anything come out of these investigations? Not usually. Prospects nowadays have larger inner circles, with multiple "advisers" trying to sway the player's college decision. When it comes to shadowy relationships, it's often difficult to prove wrongdoing.
There are parents, AAU coaches, high school coaches, friends from the neighborhood, teachers, counselors, runners, family friends, etc. Most top-25 recruits have some combination involved in their recruitment in one way or another.
"On average, a top-25 recruit probably has six people in his circle," a high-major coach said.
Earlier and earlier, top-notch high school basketball players are being pulled in different directions. They are pegged as a major-conference talent well before college, and NBA dreams begin to form in their minds -- as well as those of people looking to get their hands in the pot.
"It's definitely more prevalent now. It's a big business," one coach said. "There's a lot of money to be made off these kids."
"It's all about money," another added. "People see dollar signs. It's the human version of a lottery ticket."
The rein lies the problem: Whom can a kid trust? Does anyone have the prospect's best interest in mind -- or is everyone simply looking out for his or her own end game?
One adviser might want a kid to go to a certain school because it has promised a job on the coaching staff. Another might steer a prospect to build a relationship with an agent. Still another could be trying to steer the recruit to a Nike or Adidas school. In any case, someone is attempting to make money off the player.
Look at the story of Brian and Dwon Clifton. Brian started the D-One Sports AAU program, which had players like John Wall and Quincy Miller over the past few years. Brian's brother, Dwon, was a coach in the program. Once Wall went to Kentucky, Brian started a management company, eventually signing Wall as his only client. Meanwhile, Dwon Clifton got a job with Wall's agent, Dan Fagan, after spending two seasons in basketball operations at Baylor. When Miller left Baylor and entered the NBA Draft last month, he signed with an agent. It was -- guess who? -- Dwon Clifton. The Cliftons might have had Wall's and Miller's best interests in mind, but they also made money off them. The bottom line is, we don't know if these kinds of relationships are sinister or shady.
Some might say the only people a player can trust are his parents -- but that's not even 100 percent true. Take current Carolina Panthers star Cam Newton. Cam's father, Cecil, shopped him to different schools for reportedly up to $180,000 -- without his son knowing. The NCAA was irked enough to enact a "Cecil Newton Rule" in January, making it possible to include parents as potential outside third-party agents.
That's one incident, but we'd be naive to think Cecil Newton is the first parent to try to make money or get a job because of his son's athletic talents. Parents aren't exempt from this "inner circle" syndrome.
As one coach pointed out, there are a number of prospects who grow up in a single-parent home where the mother is the only one supporting the family. Where does the kid turn? Perhaps a teacher or coach at the high school becomes a male figure in his life; perhaps someone else from the neighborhood takes the player under his wing, earning the trust of the child and then the parent.
The coach continued to paint the picture: In most cases, a single mother can't be at every basketball game. She might not understand how good her son really is -- but an AAU coach who has been involved in the game for several years might know he has a big-time recruit and potential NBA player on his hands. The mother hands the reins to the AAU coach.
"And he's going to ride that so he gets a piece of a multi-million-dollar contract," the coach said.
It sounds confusing, and often is, but the bottom line is that the majority of five-star prospects are involved with individuals who have their own motives. And often, there are far too many selfish hands in the pot.
Coaches recruiting these players have trouble sorting everything out as well. Which adviser is in the player's ear the most? Who has the most power?
"I don't even know who to talk to sometimes," one Big East coach told me.
And people wonder why college recruiting can be a dirty game. When multiple schools are trying to appease a long list of people to secure the signature of a prospect, you get into a bidding war. And of course, that's not going to end cleanly.
"There are prospects where it's like, if you're not willing to get dirty and start doing this and that, you need to get out because you have no shot," one coach said.
Will anything come out of the New York Times report? It's not likely. But there will be more reports like this, and some players will get undoubtedly get caught up in them.
But it's not going to be because Kentucky is a rogue entity circumventing the NCAA rules.
"People want to say Calipari is the problem with the system," said an assistant coach -- in the SEC, no less. "They want to point their finger at him. But he's no different than any of these other guys."
This one is on the recruits -- and it's happening everywhere. There are Nerlens Noels all across the country, and there will be Nerlens Noels in the classes of 2013, 2014, 2015 and beyond.
There are just too many damn people involved in recruiting these days -- and the kids don't know who to trust.
In the end, that's the biggest problem.