#HLWBB Starting Five: Good Grades Edition

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Welcome to the Starting Five, your rundown of the five key stories in #HLWBB since the last Starting Five.

1. YSU and RMU stand out in the classroom

I think it’s okay to be brutally honest about something: Most people don’t actually care about grades. Everyone says they care, but show me one case where an athletic director met with a high-profile coach and was like “Well, you’ve won 12 games in three years, but your kids are killing it in the classroom, here’s a contract extension.” For fans and donors, there’s a certain allowance made. If the program is absolutely out of control in some way (I’m lumping discipline issues in here as well) that’s obviously unacceptable, but beyond that, nobody’s going to act any differently when a team’s GPA is 3.1 versus when it’s 3.8.

Well, I’m here to tell you that I honestly do care. So when I see news that two HLWBB programs threw up GPAs among the top three in the entire country this past year according to the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association, well, that’s pretty special. Youngstown State was second to Maine with a 3.874, including nine players with 4.0s in both the fall and spring semesters. Robert Morris was right behind the Guins with a 3.824, the fifth consecutive top-four ranking for the Colonials.

Any day the Horizon League dominates the top of a national list is a good day as far as I’m concerned, and I probably don’t need to tell anyone reading this about the added pressures life as a Division I student-athlete places on school, so congratulations and thank yous are in order to both YSU and RMU.

2. Compliance departments log overtime

We’re just over two weeks into the NIL era, and if there’s one thing we know so far, it’s that we don’t know anything. Exhibit A: Barstool Athletics, the arm of Barstool Sports that suddenly popped up a few weeks ago to… represent? …give exposure to? …throw t-shirts and pizza at? NCAA student-athletes high on newfound NIL freedom. Nearly 1,500 athletes across all schools and teams have aligned with Barstool so far, with Cleveland State hooper Isabella Geraci standing as one of the earliest adopters; she was the 33rd introduced on the Barstool Athletics Instagram account. A smattering of other Horizon Leaguers are also involved, as well as a few players from the lacrosse teams at CSU and Robert Morris who technically aren’t Horizon Leaguers.

However there’s a catch, related to the fact that Barstool is part-owned by Penn National Gaming and runs a sportsbook. Involvement with gambling enterprises is, of course, one of the big remaining no-nos.

Not much to add to that. Be careful and check with your compliance departments before signing up for anything, kids.

3. Horizon League lags in gender equality report

The Horizon League got crushed in a recent report from the University of Minnesota’s Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport, ranking dead last among Division I conferences with just 27.6 percent (29 of 105) of women’s programs league-wide led by a female head coach in 2020-21. The national average was 42.7 percent, and the Ivy League’s 55.1 percent led the way.

When honing in specifically on women’s basketball, the Horizon League improved dramatically, with – remember, we’re talking about 2020-21 here – Kyle Rechlicz, Tasha Pointer, AnnMarie Gilbert, Katrina Merriweather, Camryn Whitaker, and Niecee Nelson making up exactly half of the league’s head coach club (though that still trails the 64.3 percent national average for basketball). Some more good news? Sure: All three of HLWBB’s coaching changes this offseason involved women being replaced with other women, as LaTanya Collins, Kari Hoffman, and Maria Marchesano jumped in for Gilbert, Merriweather, and Nelson. But all in all, the HL has a quite a bit of ground to make up when it comes to gender equality.

4. NKU announces two non-conference games

This week’s winner of Schedulewatch™ is Northern Kentucky, which laughed at our weird obsession with schedule releases of non-HL teams, then just went ahead and started dropping games themselves.

The Norse will host Eastern Kentucky on November 14th, four days after a previously-announced home contest against Kent State. Owing mostly to the fact that NKU was in Division II until less than a decade ago, the series history with the Colonels is more fractured than you would expect at first glance. In the most recent meeting – and the only one since 1982-83 – EKU took a 69-62 decision on November 6, 2019. Carissa Garcia and Ivy Turner combined for 34 of the 62 NKU points on the losing side of the ledger in that one.

Now we just need to get Western Kentucky in this mix so we can have some real fun with some sort of Royal Rumble situation.

5. Emmert hints at seismic changes

Kind of out of nowhere on Thursday, NCAA President Mark Emmert dropped some comments that were thought-provoking, if nothing else, concerning how college sports might be structured in the future.

“I think this is a really, really propitious moment to sit back and look at a lot of the core assumptions and say, ‘You know, if we were going to build college sports again, and in 2020 instead of 1920, what would that look like?’ What would we change? What would we expect or want to be different in the way we manage it. And this is good. This is the right time.”

NCAA President Mark Emmert

Two specifics Emmert mentioned: The current three-division structure and the idea that “field hockey is different than football,” hinting at the possibility of the NCAA taking a step back and letting sport-specific administrators, possibly at the conference level, run the show. Both could obviously have huge implications for the Horizon League. On the surface it doesn’t seem like any huge divisional shift would be friendly to the conference, but I have to think enough people out there understand that mid-majors are a huge part of what makes March Madness special. At the same time, if everything is on the table, why not have different classifications for each sport? It’s sort of a fun, if a bit overwhelming, exercise.

It is also at least a little bit funny that NCAA leadership is having an existential crisis over the NIL situation that most agree is a huge change but also a perfectly reasonable one that doesn’t chip at the fundamental structure of college sports, but that’s another thing.

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