Still mulling over high schools, eighth-grade baller locks in his college

By Jim Litke

This is exactly the kind of encouragement parents holding second mortgages to pay for trainers and summer camps do NOT need:

For the second year running, Southern California basketball coach Tim Floyd offered a scholarship to an eighth-grader.

“Hmmm,” Louisville coach Rick Pitino mulled over the news. “I’m not good enough to evaluate that far ahead. Someday, I might wish I was.”

The kid’s name is Ryan Boatright, he’s 14, 5-foot-10 and from Illinois, and still not sure which Aurora high school, East or West, he wants to attend. But he won’t have that problem with college. Ryan left Floyd’s basketball summer camp at USC last weekend with a promise to return in 2011. It may or may not be part of a trend.

Floyd is barred by NCAA rules from discussing specific recruits, but he said Thursday, “I don’t want this portrayed as if we’re hovering over some eighth-grader by himself. Families are involved and they view the opportunity for a $188,000 scholarship as something important to them.”

And indeed, Mike Boatright, Ryan’s father, said about the offer, “It shocked me.”

Not long after, however, he told the same interviewer, “I’m tremendously concerned. It could get ugly as far as kids getting jealous. I also don’t want it to get to his head. I want him to stay humble.”

About the only thing the recruiting process and real life have left in common is this: When something sounds too good to be true, it usually is. So before this goes any further, it’s worth noting that none of what happened – Floyd’s offer of a scholarship, Ryan’s pledge to USC – is binding.

Floyd promised he would make good on his offer – “I will not back out of any commitment that we make.” he said – even though NCAA rules bar coaches from making “official contact” with a recruit before his junior year of high school.

A spokesman for the organization said Thursday that contact between coaches and players at the summer camps was not considered “official.” If that sounds too convenient, at least it still reflects the reality on the ground. NCAA officials know that the kids are no more likely to keep their promises than the coaches and schools are. One of the pioneers of the ultra-early commitments was a McDonald’s All-American named Taylor King who pledged to UCLA and is now set to go to Duke.

“We have a responsibility to get the best players we can find and know what the competition is doing,” Floyd said. “And when they target an eighth-grader …

“In a perfect world,” he continued, “we’d all wait until spring signing date when these kids are high school seniors. But that’s just not the world that we live in in college basketball. Am I supposed to wait until Duke or Kentucky offer, and then it’s OK?”

Similarly, just because Floyd made the same offer last year to then-14-year-old Dwayne Polee Jr., doesn’t mean the 6-6 high school freshman from Westchester, Calif., still isn’t on other schools’ list. Or that Boatright, who was reportedly being chased by DePaul, Indiana and a handful of other schools, will be at USC until he actually signs a national letter of intent.

“Four years is a long time,” Pitino said, “and way too often, it just doesn’t work out for either side.

“Unless he’s Greg Oden, where you know he’s going to be that good down the road, I’m not sure what’s in it for the school. For the kid, on the other hand, it could be great – unless the school backs out.”

And no coach wants his feet held to the fire. Pitino recalled a ninth-grader who committed to Louisville, but wasn’t a good fit by the time his freshman year of college rolled around. He recalled a similar case where Florida coach Billy Donovan, his one-time pupil, had to convince another kid that he’d found three players at the same position in the interim.

“The only thing it’s guaranteed to do,” Pitino said about the signing, “is generate a lot of publicity.”

Try telling that to all those parents already in debt up to their eyeballs. With dollar signs in their eyes and college scholarships supposedly being handed out at summer camps like consolation prizes, it’s only going to get more expensive still. This is called free enterprise.

Developing athletic talent is not only cheaper, but a whole lot less chaotic when it’s run by the government, or by powerful clubs, such as the soccer teams in Europe. There, talents are identified even earlier than 14, catalogued, sent to academies, signed, trained and delivered to pros a few years later at fixed costs.

When high school prospects were skipping college and pouring straight into the NBA with all the attendant problems, somebody proposed that solution to then-deputy commissioner Russ Granik. He chuckled, thought it over, then pointed out that was never going to be an option.

“It sounds great,” he said, “but there’s no chance people in this country would ever go for that.”