In 2018, shortly after the NCAA announced its plans to hold four regional basketball academies in the recruiting evaluation period, Billy Dunlap went to work.
Dunlap, a Division I basketball referee for 25 years, wanted to bring this spectacle to Winthrop University. He leaned on industry connections in his role as President of Visit York County in Rock Hill — a town renowned for its sports tourism and youth sports culture.
The Rock Hill Sports & Event Center, a multi-court facility walking distance from the Winthrop campus, was under construction and could provide an ideal home. After all, the university is less than 30 miles from Charlotte Douglas International Airport and centrally located in the southeast U.S.
After further consideration, Dunlap and his team, working closely with Winthrop administration, opted not to bid to host in 2019. Those academies were ultimately held in Houston, Texas; Phoenix, Ariz.; Champaign, Ill. and Storrs, Conn., shutting out the talent-rich southeast and taxing the recruiting budget of Big South Conference schools who chose to attend one of the four sites.
They aimed instead for 2020, knowing the sparkling $25 million arena with nine courts would be completed, meaning all games could be held under one roof, including a championship court which can seat 1,500 fans.
Last month, Dunlap’s vision came to fruition as Winthrop joined Wichita State, Utah and Connecticut as hosts for the 2020 NCAA College Basketball Academies. Landing the academy bolsters the Big South’s growing basketball profile. Dunlap projects the week-long event will pump approximately $1 million into York County’s economy.
“It was the perfect timing for us,” said Dunlap, who doubled York County’s tourism industry to $37 million in his first year at the helm. “We’ve always kept an eye on basketball. The entire basketball world from a high school recruiting and college basketball is going to center on those four locations. It’s the crown jewel of basketball facilities in the Southeast and will continue to build on the brand that Winthrop and Rock Hill have established.”
The upcoming College Basketball Academies, a product of the Commission on College Basketball, intend to give prospective student-athletes a glimpse into the college basketball experience. College coaches will evaluate players from the high school classes of 2021, 2022 and 2023.
Winthrop men’s basketball head coach Pat Kelsey looks forward to the two three-day sessions during one week in July when 600 prospects arrive on campus, sleep in dormitories on the Winthrop campus, eat meals in the university’s dining halls and participate in scrimmages and basketball drills a short walk from his office.
“The fact that the facility is built speaks to the vision of our community leadership,” he said, describing the building’s design and amenities as “off the charts.”
Dunlap worked with Matt Martin, Winthrop’s associate athletic director for external operations, to ensure the facility and campus met the NCAA’s requirements: dorm rooms for players and staff, meeting space in the basketball facility, dining options for campers and staff. He negotiated rates with area hotels for the parent or guardian for each participant. Also, top young officials will simultaneously attend a regional clinic and officiate the scrimmages.
Between players, parents, officials, staff and college coaches, more than 1,500 people are expected to attend the academy. They’ll experience the sparkling Events Center and the surrounding Knowledge Park — a walkable, multifaceted business district that connects old town Rock Hill to the Winthrop campus.
Martin and the Winthrop athletics team responsible for putting a on-site team together have relied on their network of contacts to ensure the event runs smoothly.
“Planning it is easy, execution is the hard part,” Martin said. “We’re reaching out to (last year’s) sites to discuss logistics and make sure we don’t repeat the mistakes made by other schools and expect the unexpected. We’re hopeful we can put on a good event and host it here for years to come.”
Winthrop receives payment from the NCAA for serving as a host site and is also reimbursed for any expenses incurred.
How it affects the Big South Conference
James Holland spent two decades as a Division I basketball assistant. He’s in his second year as the Big South Senior Associate Commissioner overseeing basketball, among other sports.
“I think this is huge,” he said. “Anytime you can get out in front on something and get your brand out, It’s going to be great for Winthrop and especially kids in this area it will give us name recognition immediately.”
For the 2020 academies, the NCAA has put an emphasis on attracting underclassmen, giving coaches the opportunity to evaluate players earlier and also build the academies’ reputation.
“The kids will come in and recognize what it’s all about, and they’ll look forward to coming back to it the next year,” Holland said. “When they are there earlier in their career there’s a better opportunity to get into the classes they need and get the grades they need to get and the test scores. They will have a better understanding of making the transition from high school to Division I.”
Big South men’s basketball coaches look forward to the convenience of having potential recruits in their geographic footprint participating in a recruiting event at a member school.
“It’s obviously good for the league,” UNC Asheville coach Mike Morrell said. “For us here at Asheville, we’re always trying to find ways to work within our (recruiting) budget. This past year there wasn’t an academy we could drive to. Our coaches will be excited about having an academy that’s within driving distance but also within our league.”
Because the academies are the only sanctioned recruiting events taking place during that week in July, the coaches are also hopeful the events will attract a stronger group of prospects than they did in 2019.
“What the coaches want to see is more of the better players and the best players there,” Kelsey said. “When we go to an AAU event we can be very selective, laser focused on who we’re going to see and who they’re going to play against, see really good players against really good players, I think in a lot of ways there were mixed levels of kids playing against each other (D3 kids, and things like that). You want to be able to know the best players are all going to be there.”
Besides participating in scrimmages and drills conducted by high school and past and present college coaches, prospects and their parents or guardians receive instruction on life skills designed to prepare them for the recruiting process, academic eligibility and campus life.
“The 2019 academies were successful but it’s only the beginning,” said Dan Gavitt, the NCAA’s senior vice president of basketball. “ While last year’s participants benefited greatly from the camps, we’re hopeful we can get even higher caliber prospects and we can also accommodate more than the 1,200 we had this summer. We have great support from the NABC and because of that we’re confident the academies will continue to grow.”
With the deal done, Dunlap and York County Tourism will serve as a conduit between the city of Rock Hill and Winthrop University.
“We put the pieces together,” Dunlap said. “This is a great program. When you’re talking about basketball recruiting and the way the NCAA has structured that last live period in July, everything about basketball is going to center around those four locations.
“I feel like we’re very prepared to put on a good show come July.”