Sports

SEC coaches criticize recruiting of young players, Gillispie sees benefits

"Silly." "A little bizarre." Something to avoid.

That's how some Southeastern Conference coaches viewed the growing trend toward prospects making college commitments as early as the eighth grade.

However, new Kentucky Coach Billy Gillispie, who has gotten commitments from two prospects just out of the ninth-grade, did not join the naysaying on a SEC teleconference Monday.

"We have created a little bit of a buzz, and that's important," he said of UK's commitments from high school sophomore-, junior- and seniors-to-be this spring and summer.

When asked to elaborate on the beneficial public relations buzz the commitments created, Gillispie played down his earlier comment.

"We didn't go at it trying to create a buzz," he said. "We were trying to improve the program. A byproduct is maybe a little buzz. You can gain momentum in recruiting. You can gain momentum by getting specific players. Guys can recognize certain players, and a lot of times they want to play with them."

Rick Pitino tried to create a similar buzz when he came to UK in 1989. Inheriting a program saddled with NCAA sanctions and negative national publicity, Pitino tried to show UK was a team worth joining by getting commitments from Chris Harrison (then about to start his junior season at Tollesboro High) and Carlos Toomer (a player whose skills were openly questioned).

While recruiting analysts wonder aloud if junior-to-be G.J. Vilarino is good enough to play for UK, Gillispie acknowledged the risk of taking commitments from underclassmen. But he expressed confidence in the choices made so far.

His SEC colleagues questioned whether any coach can make a valid assessment of players who have several seasons of high school basketball yet to play.

"The more information I have, the better decisions I make," Tennessee Coach Bruce Pearl said. "I need to see the kid play a lot.

"But by the time I'm done deciding (on the merits of a prospect), the player may have committed."

Pearl acknowledged feeling pressured to make recruiting decisions earlier and earlier in a prospect's high school career.

"Yeah, absolutely," he said. "I've gotten calls from high school and AAU coaches saying we're falling behind.

"It's the nature of our business. You have to adapt and change. I'd prefer my focus as a college coach emphasize that a sophomore be committed to his 10th-grade year and doing well in geometry class."

Pearl suggested that early recruitment can stunt a player's development by giving him the impression that he's already arrived as a player.

South Carolina Coach Dave Odom likened the early commitments to early entry into the NBA draft. In both cases, a player can feel he's defective if he does not "advance" his career early.

Odom suggested another downside: Such commitments, which are non-binding, alert rival recruiters to what school they have to beat for the prospect."I don't pay much attention to eighth-, ninth- or 10th-grade commitments," Odom said. "There's so much more basketball to be played. . . .

"I prefer not to do that. I don't want my coaches involved in that type of recruiting."

More than one SEC coach scoffed at the two commitments colleges have received from eighth-graders this recruiting year.

"If college coaches are silly enough to offer scholarships, that eighth- or ninth-grader can be silly enough to accept," Vanderbilt Coach Kevin Stallings said.

Auburn Coach Jeff Lebo, a starter for North Carolina more than two decades ago, said such an early commitment was unthinkable when he played.

"I didn't even know how to go to the bathroom as an eighth-grader," he said, using exaggeration to make his point. "So I couldn't make a (college) decision."

However, Gillispie noted how much more worldly prospects are nowadays.

"One of the reasons people are able to make commitments is because they play so much," the UK coach said. "They probably didn't play as much five years ago. There's probably more information now than in the history of basketball."

Georgia Coach Dennis Felton and Lebo noted how much can change in two or three years. Evaluations of prospects rise and fall like stock prices. By accepting a commitment, a college can shut down the recruitment of other players at that position. When a so-called "de-commitment" occurs, the college may have only bargain-basement pickings from which to choose a replacement, Felton said.

Of course, Gillsipie has shown little inclination to flip the off switch in his first three months as UK coach.

No matter the age of the prospect involved, Gillispie figures to press forward in recruiting.

"We're still recruiting," he said. "Not only for the future, but for right now."

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