Long arms of big-college recruiters getting longer

Oklahoma University basketball coach Jeff Capel was in the crowd during a Wichita City League high school basketball game I was officiating between Heights and Kapaun Mt. Carmel in February. I?ll go out on a limb and say I?m quite sure he wasn?t there to watch me.

Capel came to watch Perry Ellis, the freshman phenom from Heights, a talented young athlete who is attracting a lot of attention from Division I basketball coaches.

Coaches at the Division I level are recruiting student-athletes earlier than ever before. To my knowledge, this phenomenon isn?t quite as prevalent at the small college level.

According to the Associated Press, college basketball has recently seen an increase in the number of young players making early commitments.

I read where last year, then-eighth grader Ryan Boatright accepted Tim Floyd?s offer to play for USC. Floyd also offered a scholarship to eighth-grader Dwane Polee Jr. Both boys were 14 when the offers were made, and Boatright committed to USC before deciding where he would attend high school.

In May 2008, Kentucky University basketball coach Billy Gillispie offered a scholarship to a promising 6-foot-4 guard out of California named Michael Avery. Avery was in eighth-grade when he made the commitment.

One reason for the increased interest in young athletes has to be the proliferation of summer basketball camps and summer tournaments. Middle-school-age athletes are being seen by college coaches making the recruiting rounds.

I suppose you can project the skills of an extremely talented youth like Ellis, but isn?t it a tad risky? Ellis may be a bright kid without any academic issues, but there are no guarantees when it comes to how much a freshman in high school will develop academically.

Predictably, not everyone thinks recruiting junior high students is in the best interests of the student-athlete.

Michael Husted, who played college football at Virginia and now runs Active Recruiting, said, ?Allowing 14-year-olds to make a college commitment is very premature. Many things can and will happen over the next few years to that athlete (that could change his mind).?

But Tanesha Boatright, the mother of USC-bound Ryan, has a different view. In an interview with ESPN.com, she pointed out the benefits of her son committing to receive a free college education.

?Whether they offered him something at 14, 16, 18, what is wrong with it?? Boatright said. ?What if it was a scholarship for good grades? Wouldn?t that be exciting? My son makes good grades and he is good at sports. Hey, he?s a good kid. He?s been trained to work hard and study hard.?

I appreciate her argument, although I haven?t seen colleges offering scholarships to kids in junior high because of academic potential.

The young-commitment issue is interesting because technically, oral commitments are non-binding, and worth only the word each teenager stands behind. From what I understand, both recruits are free to listen to other colleges or even commit to play basketball elsewhere if they choose to.

The National Association of Basketball Coaches said recently that it strongly opposes accepting commitments from students who have not yet completed their sophomore season in high school. The decision came a little more than a month after the 15-year-old Avery said he would go to Kentucky, and cites NCAA rules that prohibit coaches from contacting athletes before mid-June following their sophomore season.

Shucks, if the trend continues with coaches recruiting younger and younger kids, don?t be surprised if a coach visits a maternity room to get commitments from the parents who happen to be former star basketball players.

I can see it now. A coach drops by to give the proud parents a card that says ?Congratulations on the birth of Michael. Will you commit to send him to wherever it is I?m coaching 18 years from now in return for a full-ride scholarship? Sign below.?