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The Young and the Talented

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It was not that long ago when obtaining verbal commitments from high school players before their junior year was very rare.  It wasn't unknown, by any means, but most programs focused in on kids at the start of their junior year in high school.  They may have been in touch quite a bit longer, but very few coaches thought about obtaining verbal commitments from players in the 10th grade.  Tubby Smith's earliest known recruit verbal was Adam Williams, who committed in July of 2002, graduated in 2004, prepped for one year and came to Kentucky in 2005, only to leave in 2006.  Since Gillispie has come on board, he has obtained verbal commitments from no less than two high school sophomores and two freshmen.

Of course, this has become a trend, especially among high-profile schools -- obtaining verbal commitments from younger and younger players -- and nobody really expects that trend to end anytime soon.  But for contrast, take a look at North Carolina.  Roy Williams has verbals from only two underclassmen, one in the 2008 class (Larry drew, who was just a few days from becoming a junior).   UNC's entire 2009 class committed in their junior year, and  Williams' 2010 recruit, Kendall Marshall, represents the youngest player (a freshman) I can ever remember Roy Williams getting a verbal from.  He is catching the wave.

My perception (and this may or may not represent reality) is that the hotter programs recruit much better in the present than teams like Kentucky, who have not seen a final four since 1998 and have simply fallen out of the consciousness of most of the national media as a perennial contender for the national championship.  It seems (and this is no surprise) that when you fall out of the national conversation for a number of years (Kentucky since 2004), recruits simply don't have as much respect for the brand as they otherwise might, especially when you are talking about the elite, top 25 recruits.  The problem is self-perpetuating, like a vicious circle -- no elite recruits, no great results -- which leads to no great recruits.  But recruiting presumably elite players from the freshman and sophomore classes become a way to improve talent when your team brand is a bit dingy:

"There's a bigger chance of misevaluation, the earlier it is," said Kentucky's Gillispie, who inherited a powerhouse program that was running unusually low on buzz. "There's some question about how guys are going to continue to work and continue to grow. There's some danger involved.

"But I think the positives outweigh the negatives. So many guys are playing so much basketball so much earlier, against great competition. There are guys playing 365 days a year against great competition."

Gillispie and other coaches have cut through this Gordian knot, and spearheaded the current trend toward obtaining commitments from high school underclassmen.  He has done this for the only classes in which he has really had the opportunity, starting with 2009.  2010 now has two players who committed to Kentucky in their freshman year in high school, and one in his sophomore year, albeit nearly a junior.  This "youth movement" is a way for coaches that can't just expect recruits to beat down their door every year to draw even with the hot teams, like North Carolina and UCLA.  It has worked to some extent, although it is fraught with danger; the danger of a decommitment, or a sudden plateauing that turns a future blue-chip into the next Adam Williams.  We haven't seen either of those yet with Billy Gillispie's recruits, and I hope we don't, but we must always be mindful that these possibilities are much more likely with younger players. 

College basketball coaches once honored an unwritten agreement not to recruit verbally committed players, at least for the most part.  However we are seeing that trend change, and it will likely continue to devolve as the commitments become earlier and earlier, pressure to recruit better players increases, and schools who are late to the game find themselves behind the 8-ball when the talent pool gets thin.  We can now expect that the earlier the recruit verbals, the more contacts he will receive from competitive schools trying to woo him away, constantly reminding them that verbal commitments are not considered binding on either the school or the player. 

For example, we can wonder how much of Scotty Hopson's recruitment by Tennessee happened between the time he committed to Rick Stansbury and the time he officially reopened his recruitment.  I don't know, but I suspect that Stansbury has a right to be unhappy about how that all went down.  Billy Gillispie, at least publicly, denied contacting Hopson even when he was saying that he was "looking around," but Bruce Pearl never has.  I have come to the conclusion that neither Gillispie nor Tubby Smith really wanted Hopson, but they they had to at least give lip service to his recruitment or face a maddening drumbeat of criticism from Kentucky fans who consistently fret about losing in-state talent.  But in any case, it is clear that Smith was not "on" Hopson early enough, and Rick Stansbury was.  In the end, though, that fact plus a verbal commitment was still not enough to make Hopson a Bulldog.

The bottom line is that "hot" programs seem to be able to recruit well in the present, and programs that have been out of the national limelight for a while, like Kentucky, are finding more success by recruiting in the future.  But in an effort to stay competitive (or in the case of some, retain their advantage), even old-school coaches like Roy Williams are beginning to line them up earlier and earlier.  Some have criticized the strategy of securing verbal commitments from high school freshmen and sophomores, and, in the case of Tim Floyd of Southern California, 8th graders (Update [2008-5-1 13:55:28 by Truzenzuzex]:  Not to be outdone by a West-coaster, Coach Gillispie has joined the Kindergarden Klub).  Floyd has received commitments from 8th grade players in 2006 and 2007, and in part, he blames Kentucky for that fact:
Floyd concedes that he doesn't like the recruiting process, but that he must participate in order to compete with the Dukes, Kentuckys and Kansas' of the world who initiated this process.

"They were getting commitments on juniors," Floyd said. "The majority of the country was out hustling, trying to get kids signed in their senior year but (those schools) were always a year ahead of everybody. And the kids would invariably say, `They were the first school to offer me, they were the first school to contact me and that's why I'm going there.'"

I personally think that verbals from any player before their sophomore year is too much, but others disagree.  Whatever the case, players are being identified at younger and younger ages these days, and Floyd is right about one thing -- being first to get in front of a player is a tremendous advantage -- we saw that very clearly in the case of Ater Majok.  The verbal commitments are just a natural outgrowth of schools and coaches making impressions as early as possible on the hearts and minds of these young people.  Even though coaches are forbidden from directly contacting recruits before their junior year in high school, they circumvent this inconvenience with camps, on-campus speeches, back channel communications with high school and AAU coaches, parents, and whatever opportunities they can create for high school players to contact them, which is not forbidden.

In the final analysis, no matter what you think about early commitments, they are here to stay, at least for the nonce.  There is too much at stake in big-time college sports not to take advantage of every possible avenue to keep the talent pool as deep and wide as possible.  Coaches are paid millions of dollars per year to deliver high-quality basketball, and as we have seen, it takes talented players to wind up playing late in March.  Billy Gillispie and others are proving what momma always told us -- the early bird gets the worm.

[editor's note, by Truzenzuzex]  If you have not read this story by Matt Jones over at Kentucky Sports Radio, stop what you are doing and go do so.