What could have been for the Coastal Carolina men’s basketball team this season.
In November 2016, Coastal coach Cliff Ellis signed a pair of high school seniors to letters of intent whom he believed would help elevate the Chanticleers in the Sun Belt Conference.
Jaylen Sebree and Tony Jackson were considered two of the best high school seniors in Kentucky last season.
Last May, Ellis announced the signing of point guard Devante Jones of St. Augustine High in New Orleans and 6-foot-8 graduate transfer Chas Brown from Coppin State.
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Also in May, Massachusetts shooting guard Donte Clark withdrew his name from consideration for the NBA draft and announced he was transferring to Coastal Carolina for his one year of eligibility as a grad student.
Of those five, only Jones is now part of the CCU men’s basketball program, and that is only for the second semester as a player who is being redshirted.
Though all five players were qualified to play Division I basketball according to NCAA eligibility standards, they were not accepted into Coastal Carolina by the school’s admissions office.
Three scrambled last summer to find other places to play and are all playing for Division I programs this season. Sebree opted for a transition year at IMG Academy in Florida, and Jones enrolled at Coastal after spending a semester at a community college.
Though it’s an extreme example, the plight of the five players in a single basketball recruiting class reflects the designed separation between Coastal’s athletics and admissions departments that, coupled with higher academic standards at a growing university, can leave CCU coaches without key recruits.
“Our school means well, our school wants to win, they want to be great academically, [though] things could work better,” Coastal baseball coach Gary Gilmore said. “There could be a better relationship, so to speak, on those behalves.
“I think we’re working in that direction. I feel very confident that will happen. But it has gotten me with a guy I would have loved to have. It was a qualifier that didn’t get in. So I understand, I feel Cliff’s pain.”
Ellis, who declined to comment on his recruits, has 13 players on the 2017-18 roster, including two seniors. Without some of his heralded recruits, the Chants enter the Sun Belt Conference Tournament on Wednesday 14-17 overall and 8-10 in the conference.
“I know how important it is as a recruiter and assistant. You are counting on those kids, especially if they are NCAA eligible and they could have gone somewhere else and been playing right away,” said Frankie Smith, Sebree’s high school coach who is a former eight-year NCAA Division I assistant at Miami (Ohio) and former Division II head coach.
“To lose five kids in one class, it’s the first time I’ve heard of that in 30 years of coaching. That’s a third of your team.”
According to the NCAA, minimum NCAA standards for high school graduates to be eligible to play college athletics as freshmen include completing 16 core courses in high school, including at least 10 before the student’s senior season, and earning at least a 2.3 grade-point average in the core courses.
An NCAA sliding scale allows students to score lower on either the SAT or ACT college entrance exams based on higher core GPAs.
The 2.3 GPA requires at least a 980 on the SAT or 75 on the ACT (a sum score of the test's English, math, reading and science categories). A core GPA of 3.0, for instance, decreases the minimum test scores to 720 on the SAT or 52 on the ACT.
Students who earn at least a 2.0 GPA but not a 2.3 GPA and meet the sliding scale standard are eligible for practice in the first semester and athlete-based financial aid the entire year, but not competition. Freshmen who fall into that standard who are academically successful in the first semester will earn the right to continue to practice for the remainder of the year but must be redshirted.
On the low end of the required redshirt sliding scale, a GPA of 2.0 requires an 1,100 SAT or 86 ACT sum score for the athlete to be eligible to practice and receive athletic financial aid.
At Coastal, the school bases admission on a middle 50 percent GPA range between 3.0 and 3.7, a middle 50 percent SAT range between 1010 and 1140, and a middle 50 percent ACT range between 20 and 23 (a composite average of the test's four categories), according to Amanda Craddock, CCU assistant provost for admissions and merit awards.
Craddock said applicants who fall below those middle ranges undergo a holistic review that looks more closely at things such as the high school transcript, rigor of courses, trend in grades, letters of recommendation, essay, number of times the student has taken the SAT/ACT tests, etc.
The school’s admission committee can then offer admission, suggest one of two alternative admission programs or deny admission.
Craddock said 65 percent of applicants in the fall of 2017 were offered admission.
“The relationship between the university’s Department of Athletics and the Department of Admissions is an appropriate one,” CCU president David DeCenzo said. “By design, based on the university’s NCAA compliance manual, we have a longtime policy prohibiting coaches and athletic administration from contacting admissions directly regarding the status of an applicant. Understand, there is a pathway to request a closer look or to review updated credentials of an applicant who is NCAA eligible.
“That opportunity comes through our NCAA compliance officer or our athletic academic advisement office. These offices function as liaisons between athletics and admissions and serve a critically important role to help ensure that the university maintains academic integrity and remains in good standing with the NCAA.”
Coastal’s coaches have fought for recruits by requesting help from athletic director Matt Hogue — who said he does not talk directly to admissions regarding an applicant, per school policy — a compliance officer, or associate AD for student-athlete academic services Jillian Weston, though sometimes to no avail.
Losing a class
Coastal has a summer class program that grants conditional admission to some students who fall below the school’s admission standards yet show promise, and that is where Ellis lost the three incoming freshmen recruits.
It’s called the Coastal Excellence and Leadership program, and freshmen who are invited into it by the university must complete it to gain fall admission with the rest of their incoming class.
Though it’s not relegated to athletes, it’s one avenue for athletes on the academic bubble to get into the school.
Jones said he, Sebree and Jackson were all eligible according to the NCAA but were required to enter the CEaL program to gain admission to CCU. Jones said none of the three players made it out of the program.
“When I signed I felt like I was good and ready to play, but they also told me I had to take the CEaL program and there were some qualifications I had to pass,” Jones said. “I just didn’t meet the standards. It was all on me. I don’t blame anyone else but myself. . . . I could have done way better than what I did. I got distracted by some of the stuff around here on the campus."
Jones said all three recruits took three classes in philosophy, English and psychology, and a minimum grade of C was required in each. He said all three players received a D in the same class, which kept them from being able to enroll in the fall. “That D hurt all of us. We didn’t meet the standard so we didn’t have the chance to come back in the fall,” Jones said.
Sebree and Jackson found other places to play, but Jones wanted to stand by his commitment to CCU and the coaching staff, including Ellis and associate head coach Benny Moss.
He returned home to New Orleans and took three classes combined at Delgado Community College and Northwestern State University to meet CCU’s standards. He said he needed to record a 2.75 GPA and he recorded a 3.3 and returned to the program for the second semester.
“My reason for staying here was my relationship with the coaches, … I just believe in them, they believe in me to come back, and I’m just ready to play next year,” Jones said. “I think [the redshirt] was the best decision for me, my family and my coaches. I already missed most of the season.
“I was very disappointed because I was expecting to have a big year this year. I know my parents were disappointed, but they didn’t bring me down, they motivated me just to get better and get back here. It happens. It’s just adversity and you have to keep pushing through it and get ready for the next step.”
Clark said he and Brown were lost through Coastal’s graduate admissions policies, which differ from the undergraduate policies.
There are 17 different graduate programs, each with their own admission profile. Admission to graduate programs is determined by faculty committees associated with the programs and is based on undergraduate GPA, test scores, letters of recommendation and essays, according to CCU associate provost and director of graduate studies Jim Luken.
Clark said he had no advanced warning that he wouldn’t be accepted. He has a degree in sociology, and said he earned it with about a 2.3 GPA.
“I didn’t think that was going to happen, that I wasn’t going to get admitted. I was definitely shocked,” Clark said. “They said I had to have a certain GPA to get into their grad school. It was really on them not getting me into school, basically.”
Clark, a Charlotte native, said he turned down offers from Boston College, Connecticut, North Carolina State and Florida State, among others, to sign with Coastal.
“I really just wanted to go closer to home,” Clark said. “I wasn’t focused on playing somewhere big because I knew whatever school I went to we’d play the big schools out of conference and maybe in the tournament.”
Coastal’s athletic teams do well academically.
A school-record 264 student-athletes posted at least a 3.0 GPA for the fall 2017 semester, including a record 129 who earned Dean’s List honors and another 48 who had a perfect 4.0 GPA to receive President’s List recognition.
Coastal’s programs also are in very good standing with the NCAA regarding the Academic Progress Rate that tracks student-athlete academic achievement and retention by sport, with rewards and penalties that include postseason bans.
Teams must earn a 930 four-year APR grade to participate in NCAA championships, and in 2015-16 — the most recent year available — all CCU teams were at 955 or above. Baseball was at 955, men’s basketball at 980 and football at 979. Women’s soccer had the highest APR at 997 on a scale of 1,000.
The recent academic achievement is evidence that Coastal’s current athletics-admissions relationship is producing good academic results among its athletes.
It can also be argued that because the athletic programs are doing a good job of maintaining quality academic results, the programs and coaches could be given more leeway in the players that are accepted into their programs to give them a better chance at success.
“I am well aware, as every coach on this campus should be, that the standards we have for a student-athlete are different and more significant than the NCAA qualifications,” CCU football coach Joe Moglia said. “Every coach, including me, would prefer to have a little bit more of a lenient policy so we can get the kids in we want to get in, but we know what the rules and guidelines are, so ahead of time I try not to put myself in that situation.”
Like Ellis, Moglia and Gilmore have lost signees to CCU’s academic standards in recent years.
Moglia said none of his players have ever failed the CEaL program, however, and he understands the university’s policy if they do.
“Every school has different standards. If a guy is really outstanding, we’re supposed to push and do everything we can to help him,” Moglia said. “But if he doesn’t get in, the school has determined they don’t think they will make it academically here.
“We do have many kids who have come through the CEaL program, and I think they have done all the things they needed to do. If you’re admitted to the CEaL program and you don’t make it, it just reinforces the fact you might not make it here.”
One player who might still be helping the CCU baseball program had he been admitted is Kea’von Edwards, a 2016 commitment who turned down a pro contract after being drafted in the 40th round of the Major League Baseball draft but was never enrolled at CCU. The infielder instead went to Cowley College in Kansas and helped lead that team to the JUCO World Series last season.
Where are they now?
Coastal’s four lost basketball recruits are all making contributions elsewhere this season.
• Clark was able to join a former UMass coach at Texas Southern on Aug. 20.
The 6-4 guard is second at Texas Southern with 18.3 points per game and is also averaging 5.5 rebounds and 2.5 assists. He has scored 20 or more points in 13 games with a high of 41 for the Tigers, who tied for second in the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) regular season standings with a 12-6 league mark.
“It worked out for me because this program has a history of winning its conference in recent years,” Clark said.
• Brown, who is 6-8 and 235 pounds, was Coppin State’s team MVP last season after averaging team highs with 12.6 points and 7.1 rebounds per game as a senior. He’s now the starting center at Duquesne, where he’s averaging 4 points and 4.3 rebounds per game.
He earned a sociology degree at Coppin State and is pursuing a Master’s Degree of Science in leadership.
• Sebree is a sinewy 6-7 small forward who reclassified to the class of 2018 to play at IMG Academy. According to prephoops.com, he has received offers this season from Xavier, Maryland, UMass, Louisville, Virginia Tech, Central Florida, Memphis and Western Kentucky.
Sebree was a score for Ellis when he signed late in 2016. A finalist for Kentucky’s Mr. Basketball last season, Sebree averaged 16.9 points and 8.5 rebounds a game as a senior at Christian County High in Hopkinsville, Ky.
“Jaylen has the potential athletically and talent-wise to play in the NBA if his game continues to develop,” said Smith, who is now the head coach at Bell County High in Pineville, Ky. “He’s got an NBA body. He’s 6-foot-7, plays the two and three positions, shoots the ball well, handles the ball well, and he’s a very unselfish player.”
• Jackson is a 6-5, 205-pound guard/forward who is the all-time leading scorer at North Hardin High in Fort Knox, Ky., with 2,278 points.
He is now at the University of Missouri-Kansas City in the Western Athletic Conference, where he has played in 19 games and started three, and is averaging 3.7 points and 1.6 rebounds in 13.3 minutes per game.
Ellis thought they would all be making contributions in teal and bronze this season.