One Question Mailbag - Covid Waiver
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I received two questions about this in the last 24 hours, so why not just turn the topic into a One Question Mailbag? I responded on Twitter, but sometimes I feel like an explanation needs to be longer than 280 characters. So here's an explanation I'll try to limit to 800 words. I'm putting 30 minutes on the clock. Starting... NOW.
Here's one of the questions someone sent me on Twitter:
Random question. Is this a free year for all players or just seniors?— chuck (@kle9181) March 1, 2021
The simple answer: it's all players. And that's the part that I don't think people are talking about enough. It doesn't just mean "Trent and Da'Monte could come back next year if they wanted". It means "Andre Curbelo will be a freshman again next season".
He'll still be listed as a sophomore, most likely. He'll just "technically" be a freshman. Because of the "Covid waiver" applied to spring athletes in 2020, fall athletes in 2020, and winter athletes in 2020/21, the current season never happened. If you were a redshirt sophomore going into this season, you're a redshirt sophomore again next season. The current season does not count towards either end of the clock. I shall explain what that means.
Let's use a soccer player as an example. When a player arrives on campus to play soccer for the Illini, she has "5 years to play 4". Meaning, your clock starts immediately. If you enter during the 2020/21 school year, your clock will expire in 2024/25. You have those five years to play four seasons. And if you never redshirt and participate in your first four season, you don't get that fifth year. Your "4" expired before you could even get to your "5".
So the "4" limits you to four seasons on the field and the "5" means you can't redshirt the first three seasons and then participate in the next four. You only get one redshirt. Yes, you can play your first three years, redshirt your fourth year, and then play a fifth season - it doesn't always have to be a freshman-year redshirt - but you only get one redshirt year.
I should note - there's a special waiver process for players who miss two seasons due to injury. Basically, they're asking the NCAA to extend the "5" to a "6" since they missed two years due to injury. Tracy Abrams got his 5 extended to 6 since he missed two full seasons. But that's not a guarantee. The NCAA doesn't have to grant it. Sometimes, a player who redshirted as a freshman and then missed their junior year because of an injury will apply for a sixth year, claiming that their freshman redshirt wasn't because they were just sitting the bench and not playing - they had an ankle injury (or whatever) - but the NCAA will often shoot that down saying "you only missed one year due to injury, not two, so no waiver".
Let's switch over to the golf team since this Covid waiver is currently playing out. Like all sports, NCAA Golf was canceled last March. Michael Feagles and Giovanni Tadiotto were seniors, and their senior year was cut short. So the NCAA approved "Covid waivers" - their partial 2020 season didn't count, their eligibility didn't run out, and they could, if they wanted, return for 2021. Feagles just finished 4th individually as the golf team won the LSU Invitational over the weekend, his fifth season of competition.
But this waiver doesn't just mean that Feagles and Tadiotto are seniors with a bonus year. Adrien Dumont de Chassart is a sophomore again this season. He would normally be a junior with two years remaining, but since last season didn't count, he has three. Jerry Ji is a freshman again even though this is his second year. And so on.
That doesn't mean those spots are guaranteed, though. That's the other side of this. The scholarships are not guaranteed to be there (the NCAA can't force the schools to take on the burden of additional full-ride scholarships). As you might remember, last spring, facing a financial crunch, Wisconsin announced that no scholarships would be offered to spring athletes wishing to return for a bonus year. They offer four years of scholarship and that's what they'll stick with.
That gets screwy with golf (because they have partial scholarships) so let's switch over to basketball. Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk redshirted last season. He played in a few games and then shut it down for an injury. He enters his second season as a redshirt freshman. If he chooses to return next year, he'll enter his third year as... a redshirt freshman. He'd have the ability to play four more seasons.
But those four seasons don't have to happen at Illinois. He gets four years of his scholarship, but the fifth and sixth seasons would be completely up to the coaching staff. You can't force a player to leave before his four year scholarship has been fulfilled. See the Chris Collins/Johnny Vassar thing. Yes, there are conversations all the time about how guys might not earn playing time and if they want to play, it's best they transfer. Those are open and honest conversations which lead to Tevian Jones scoring 17.2 points per game at Southern Utah.
(I'm not saying Tevian Jones was a "son, you probably won't play much" conversation. We don't know. Maybe he wanted to leave on his own. Maybe he was behind Grandison in practice last spring and realized he might not play much. Maybe he asked the coaches and they shot him straight. The point is that players leaving before their four years are up is a common thing, but you just can't force a player to leave who wants to stay like Collins allegedly did with Vassar.)
Seven minutes left I need to wrap this up.
Let's look at Trent and Da'Monte and then let's look at Giorgi. It's possible that neither Trent nor Da'Monte take advantage of that 5th season here. It's possible neither are asked to return. It's possible that both return. It's even possible that both play a fifth season elsewhere because the coaches are ready to move on (maybe they promised minutes to a recruit or something) while the players still want to stay in college ball. Brad Underwood has pushed off the question several times now, saying "we're focused on this year - we'll worry about that after the season". He has that option - the NCAA has said that seniors coming back won't count towards the scholarship limit of 13 for the 2021/22 season only - so they could come back AND we could bring in a full recruiting class. Or he might say "you've had your four years, so thanks for everything".
It's also possible that Giorgi plays five full seasons in Champaign. He's a junior this year and would return as a junior next year. If Kofi leaves and Giorgi gets 29 minutes per game next year, perhaps he wants those 29 minutes per game again in 2023. The coaches might want him here. Or they might need his scholarship for someone else. All we know right now is that the option is available.
This leads to all kinds of interesting decisions. For kids transferring this spring (like Nimari Burnett) - minutes are being promised based on who is leaving, but how do those kids really know who is leaving? What if two senior guards playing 25 minutes per game return? And what do you do about the junior guard you thought would be leaving a year after you transfer in but now he could technically be there two more seasons?
(I didn't make my deadline. Just took an hour to cover press conferences. Now back to the post.)
That's the tricky thing for coaches (and recruits) to negotiate. And it mostly all centers around that "after four years of his scholarship, it's up to the coach to bring the kid back" line. I've always spoken about it like some Cabinet position. After your scholarship is up, you "serve at the pleasure of the President". That fifth year is completely up to the head coach.
For basketball, because there are so few redshirts, that rarely came up in the past. You played your four years and you graduated. Now, every player on the roster, unless they leave early, will have that discussion with the coaching staff after their fourth season. And for someone like BBV, they'll have that discussion with two years of eligibility remaining.
First up, Trent and Da'Monte. From they way they talked in interviews around Senior Day, it sounds like neither plan to return. We don't know that for sure, but I'm guessing that's fairly common for basketball when compared to football. In very general terms, football is a "you can play a lot as a fifth-year senior" sport and basketball is "we know what we have after four seasons". And with 85 scholarships on the football side yet only 13 precious scholarships on the basketball side, I can see a lot of basketball teams just continuing with the revolving door after four seasons.
I'll give a quick example and then I'll stop because this was supposed to be 800 words.
Say Trent and Da'Monte were to return. We fill every available scholarship, add the two of them, and go to 15 scholarship players next year because the NCAA is allowing it for one season. They then complete that season, graduate, and you go back down to 13 players. That's combined with the graduating class of... wait, there's no other graduating class. Grandison and Giorgi (and Hutcherson too) would be seniors, but they'll actually be juniors again next year. So if you're going to recruit a 2022 class you'll need the scholarships to come from players transferring out because you only went from 15 to 13 when Trent and Da'Monte graduated. And 13 is the max again from 2022/23 forward. Sure, maybe you inform Giorgi, Grandison, and Hutcherson that their time on scholarship is complete, but... do you see what I'm getting at? I just feel like it will be less common for basketball because scholarships will be scarce and you have to keep feeding the program with undergraduate talent.
OK now I'm done. I should do a TL;DR to close:
This is a free year for all players. Andre Curbelo could play five full seasons in Champaign if he wanted to. Trent and Da'Monte could return next season if they wanted to. But with scholarship limits going back into effect after a one-year grace period, I think you'll see college basketball coaches use that rule very sparingly.