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Brandon Knight and the Letter of Intent -- Trend or Dénouement?

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There are a number of articles today that cite Brandon Knight's decision not to sign a letter of intent as the latest trend for college basketball recruits.  Is it, or is this just coda to the story of his recruitment?  Let's see what the sportswriters think.  From The Sporting Blog:

The letter of intent is great for coaches. It locks the player into your school and prevents anyone else from offering him financial aid. It does almost nothing for players. In exchange for locking themselves in, players are guaranteed one—one!—year of scholarship money and room and board.

Let's be fair to the NLOI, though.  Generally speaking, it guarantees the recruit a spot on the basketball team that cannot be taken away -- not because of a coaching change, or cold feet on the part of the University, etc.  Some have wondered why Jon Hood was not "released" by John Calipari last year like some of the other players were.  The answer is simple -- he signed an NLI.  He was unreleasable (although he probably would have gone if asked), no matter what the coach wanted.  The NLI works both ways -- it (theoretically, not practically) binds the player to the school no matter who the coach is, and the reverse as well.

So the NLI does have practical benefit for some players, but as the article above goes on to point out, the benefits usually don't make sense for top-tier athletes like Brandon Knight or DeMarcus Cousins.

More after the jump.

Eammon Brennan of ESPN has a more balanced take:

Yesterday, I asked (and answered, sort of) whether early eligibility would be the newest hot trend in basketball recruiting. That answer: probably not. Some players eager to begin their college careers will try it in greater numbers in the coming years, to be sure, but it's unlikely the practice will morph into anything beyond a rarity.

This seems right to me.  I think you will still see most players signing an NLI outside the top 10 or 15, and a lot of that depends upon their circumstances.  The guys that hold on until the late signing period, but are very valuable for one reason or another (such as C.J. Leslie, highly coveted by UConn, Kentucky and North Carolina State) will probably wind up not signing an NLI.  Leslie's most recent comment to sources at ESPN RISE was that he intends to be the last high-profile player in 2010 to commit (a la Patrick Patterson):

Don't expect Word of God Academy (Raleigh, N.C.) forward C.J. Leslie, a first-team ESPN RISE All-American, to commit to a college until after every other big time prospect makes their pledge.

A reliable source tell us that Leslie, ranked No. 11 in the ESPNU 100, wants to be the last to commit and will hold out until he is.

Whatever Leslie's reasons are for this, it will unarguably make his commitment a sort of media event because of the schools involved in his recruitment.

But it doesn't seem likely to me that th NLI program is in any real danger of disappearing from any but the most highly coveted players, and arguably, it should have been that way all along.  That was, after all, the net effect of Calipari (among others) attaching riders to NLIs allowing recruits to opt out of them in case of a coaching change.  Those riders were outlawed by the NCAA last year, and the outcome of that rule change will be that the very tip-top recruits will sign NLIs less and less willingly.

Here's what Brandon Knight's mother said about signing an NLI, and why Brandon demurred:

Mrs. Knight acknowledged that as a highly-rated prospect, her son might be in a greater position to take advantage of preferring a financial aid offer. A school might take a take it-or-leave it approach with a lesser player.

"We always want to put him in a position to have options," she said.

I think we can see why Brandon has a 4.0+ GPA in high school -- he has smart parents who took the time to understand the process and make decisions that provided him the maximum flexibility in the event of something unfortunate coming up, as it sometimes does in college sports.

What could the NCAA do to make the NLI a more attractive option for top players?  Josh Reed of Basketball Prospectus tells us:

How to fix this? Well, at least one part seems obvious to me: Listen to DeMarcus Cousins. Allow NLI's to be voided if the coach is no longer at the school. The NCAA’s intent--that NLI's focus on the recruit's education, rather than the coach or team--is idealistic but not very pragmatic. Given that head coaches rely on assistant coaches rather than heads of English departments to recruit players, I think it’s safe to say that the players are by and large choosing schools based on how the basketball team is managed. Furthermore conference rules forbidding other teams from snagging newly-released players aren't doing much good. The most likely outcome is simply that these players are driven against their own preference to play in another conference.

Exactly.  Had this been the case back in 2009, DeMarcus Cousins would have been putting in his time down at Alabama-Birmingham instead of UK.  I suppose that UK fans ought to be thankful that the NCAA is so ponderous in making such an obviously needed change in its NLI program, because without it, things would certainly have been a lot different around the Bluegrass last year.  Not necessarily worse, but definitely different.

So in the final analysis, pronouncements of the demise of the NLI are most likely premature.  For top players, as is, it is a less attractive option than signing financial aid papers like Brandon Knight did.  For more under-the-radar players (i.e. outside the top ten or fifteen) it is still a very good option that protects both the school and the player, so don't look for Rivals four-stars to begin balking on their NLI on signing day very often.

Hopefully, the NCAA will take another look at the program and make some needed changes, but even if it doesn't, the NLI is probably here to stay for the vast majority of incoming freshmen.