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Posted: Tuesday May 6, 2008 2:35PM; Updated: Tuesday May 6, 2008 4:24PM
Andy Staples Andy Staples >
INSIDE RECRUITING

The trend of players choosing a college before a high school

Story Highlights
  • Kentucky offered 15-year-old Michael Avery a full scholarship
  • Avery accepted the scholarship without ever visiting Lexington
  • USC coach Tim Floyd gained two commitments from eighth graders
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Eighth-grade hoops prospect Michael Avery accepted a scholarship offer last week from Kentucky coach Billy Gillispie.
Eighth-grade hoops prospect Michael Avery accepted a scholarship offer last week from Kentucky coach Billy Gillispie.
L. Morris Gordon II

You're joking.

Howard Avery uttered those two words into his phone last Monday after Kentucky basketball coach Billy Gillispie offered Avery's son, Michael, a scholarship. Avery had called to follow up on an encounter with Gillispie at a LeBron James-sponsored tournament in Akron, Ohio, the previous weekend. NCAA rules forbade Gillispie from discussing Michael's play with Avery at the tournament site.

Gillispie could, however, field Avery's call two days later, after the family had returned home to Lake Sherwood, Calif., Gillispie told the proud papa that after watching Michael, a 6-foot-4 combo guard with a sweet shooting stroke, play in a pair of games with the Indiana Elite travel team, he had seen all he needed to see. Gillispie wanted Avery's son to come to Lexington. The brevity of the evaluation didn't cause the elder Avery to question Gillispie's tone, though. Neither did the fact that such a momentous occasion was taking place during a phone call instead of during a campus visit.

Avery simply couldn't believe the University of Kentucky head coach had just offered a scholarship to an eighth grader who had never set foot on campus and who still had yet to decide where he would attend high school. By now you know Michael Avery accepted that scholarship offer. When the news hit the Web shortly after Avery committed last Thursday, criticism rained on Gillispie and Avery.

The questions were pointed but predictable:

1. How could Kentucky -- college basketball royalty -- stoop to offering a scholarship to an eighth grader?

2. How could that child's parents allow him to accept a scholarship offer 40 months before he can sign a Letter of Intent?

3. Will this turn into college basketball's version of the subprime mortgage crisis with coaches (banks) trying in four or five years to excavate themselves from the wreckage of a series of bad offers (loans)?

Here are the answers:

1. Gillispie offered because he was worried someone else would beat him to the punch. In this case, "someone else" translates loosely to USC coach Tim Floyd, who accepted commitments in consecutive years from players who had yet to suit up for a high school team.

2. After three days of deliberation and discussion, Avery's parents were quite comfortable with their son's choice. Howard Avery -- who said he wasn't comfortable allowing his son to be interviewed for this story -- will explain further in a few paragraphs.

3. Possibly, depending on how well coaches can project 13- and 14-year-olds. For the time being, get used to the early offers. "These aren't aberrations," Rivals.com national recruiting analyst Jerry Meyer said Monday night, minutes before he called Greenfield, Ohio, ninth-grader Vinny Zollo for a story about Zollo's commitment to Kentucky. "It's like an arms race," Meyer said. "You've got to offer first."

Sometimes early commitments pan out. Sometimes they don't. Huntington Beach, Calif., forward Taylor King committed to UCLA prior to his freshman year at Mater Dei (Santa Ana, Calif.). Two years later, he told the Los Angeles Times, "I made my decision way too early. It was too early to know what I wanted." King eventually signed with Duke. After spending much of 2007-08 on the bench, King announced last month he would transfer to Villanova.

Meanwhile, near Chicago, guard Cully Payne still plans to sign with DePaul. Payne, a rising senior, committed to the Blue Demons prior to his freshman year in 2005, and since then he has filed occasional diaries for the Rivals site that covers DePaul.

For some, the early commitment eliminates the often stressful and chaotic recruiting process. Howard Avery hopes his son will enjoy four years of peace of mind, but from now on, his son will be known as Kentucky's Michael Avery. Opponents will try to show him up at every turn. Outside criticism will intensify.

Howard Avery got a taste of that last week, so he consulted Malume Moye, who coached Michael the past two years at Ascension Lutheran in Thousand Oaks, Calif. Moye, whose son, A.J., played at Indiana before playing professionally in Europe, reassured Howard that Michael's natural ability combined with his work ethic would make him a prime candidate to succeed.

"He was sincere in his concern," Moye said. "People had been hitting him in the head with so much negativity."

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