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Too Young to Go Steady?

College coaches now recruit grade-schoolers. How hard is it to say no?

MICHAEL AVERY, a sweet-shooting, 6'4" guard from Thousand Oaks, Calif., picked a high school late last week: He announced on Friday that he'll attend Crespi Carmelite High in Encino. He already knew, however, where he will go to college. On May 1, the 15-year-old Avery—he's finishing up the eighth grade—and his father, Howard, called Kentucky coach Billy Gillispie and accepted the scholarship offer Gillispie had extended three days before. A few years ago, news of Avery's verbal commitment (the earliest he can sign a national letter of intent is November 2011) probably would have appeared in SI as this week's Sign of the Apocalypse. Now, it borders on business as usual.

Gillispie has been busy of late. He also received a commitment last week from Greenfield, Ohio, ninth-grader Vinny Zollo—and he's not the first coach to raid the nursery more than once. In '06 USC's Tim Floyd landed a commitment from L.A. forward Dwayne Polee Jr. before Polee played a high school game. Last year Floyd accepted a commitment from another middle-schooler: Ryan Boatright, an eighth-grade guard in Aurora, Ill. In '06 and '07, Arizona coach Lute Olson offered scholarships to two players (first Scottsdale, Ariz., guard Matt Carlino; then Bryan, Texas, guard J-Mychal Reese) who were about to enter the eighth grade. Neither player accepted the offer and both remain uncommitted, but their reaction is not likely to slow the cradle-robbing. "It's like an arms race," national recruiting analyst Jerry Meyer says. "You've got to offer first."

As the pressure to win increases, and competition for the top prospects grows fiercer, coaches are trying to lock down prized recruits as early as possible—even if it means making commitments when the recruits are barely old enough to be prized. Recruiting the very young can be a complicated process, in which coaches work around NCAA rules that forbid contacting prospects until June 15 of the student's sophomore year of high school. Often they communicate with players and their families through middlemen. And it is perfectly legal for prospects and their parents to call coaches or make unofficial visits to campuses. (Howard Avery introduced himself to Gillispie at a tournament in Akron last month and later called the coach to discuss his son's future.) "Should I wait until another school offers and then come in?" Floyd told Time after Boatright's commitment. "I can't do that. Because they're going to say, 'Well, you're late.'"

Even though the scholarship commitments are nonbinding—a player can't put his college intentions in writing until November of his senior year of high school—a grade school recruitment is a leap of faith for both sides. If the prospect doesn't develop as expected, the coach, assuming he still has a job when the kid is a senior, can slither out of the agreement before a letter of intent is signed. He might save himself a scholarship, but the damage to his reputation as a recruiter could be irreparable. Coaches are reluctant to explicitly break verbal commitments: In a radio interview last week Gillispie, who is banned by NCAA rules from discussing specific recruits, said he would honor any scholarship he offers.

Recruits run the risk of tying themselves to a program that looks great when they're 14 but—thanks to a coaching change, roster overhaul or a kid's evolving personality and preferences—might not be so enticing when they're 17. A player who pulls out of his commitment runs the risk of not finding a spot at another school. Still, the allure of an early commitment is strong. Howard Avery, a partner in a Santa Monica, Calif., accounting firm, says he tried to "apply the brakes" after Gillispie made the offer to his son. But the more he thought about it, the less reason he could find to wait. Michael knows Kentucky is a powerhouse and that he wants to play for an elite program. "How many parents of eighth-graders, if they were to be offered a scholarship for their child to get a free education at the college of their choice, would say, 'No, I'll wait until he's a senior to make that decision?'" the elder Avery says. "When that kind of offer comes along, I don't care if the kid's in the third grade, the eighth grade or the 12th grade, you take it."

Steve King, a vice president for a Huntington Beach, Calif., data-management firm, disagrees. In 2003 King's son Taylor became one of the first junior high players to accept a college offer: He committed to UCLA between eighth and ninth grade. Two years later Taylor reopened his recruitment; the 6'6" forward eventually signed with Duke, and last month he transferred to Villanova after a year in Durham. King now says he is sorry he allowed his son to commit so young. He believes that by effectively shielding Taylor from the first two years of the conventional recruiting process, he prevented the boy from getting "a valuable learning experience," even if it might have involved hundreds of phone calls from coaches and reporters. "There is a lot to be said about the process," King says. "It helps these kids take information and make sound decisions. Let's face it. These kids in eighth grade, they aren't making those decisions. The parents are."

More and more parents will test King's theory. While and post detailed rankings of the country's best high school players, Hoop Scoop Online has been ranking sixth-grade prospects for several years. Publisher Clark Francis says he doesn't exactly enjoy passing judgment on the jump shots of kids whose voices have yet to crack, but he understands the middle school rankings have helped him carve out a niche in a crowded marketplace. "That's where the trend is," says Francis, who charges $499 for a one-year subscription to his service. "You have no idea how much interest there is."

So, sports fans, your universe of names and numbers is about to expand still more.The No. 1 prospect in the high school graduating class of 2012? Francis says it's Zach Peters, a 6'8", 220-pound forward who is an eighth-grader in Plano, Texas. The word, via Zach's father, Tim, a tech-firm CEO, is that the boy is simply preparing for high school and is not interested in committing to a college right now. He may mean it too. The only thing certain is that the kid is in the driver's seat, even if he's not old enough to drive.

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Once a Sign of the Apocalypse, an eighth-grader's commitment is now BUSINESS AS USUAL.