A new NCAA rule now designates 7th graders as "prospects." In other words, NCAA rules applicable to the recruitment of high school players now apply to 7th and 8th graders. This change is a reaction to recruiting abuses associated with younger players.
College coaches are always looking for loopholes in the NCAA rules. And it doesn't take long to find them. The former rule labeled high school students as "prospects" and set limits on when, where and how often a coach could evaluate those players. And it set rules regarding unofficial visits to campus for games or practices.
Clever coaches decided they could do whatever they wanted with players not yet in high school, and they took advantage of it. Illinois coach Bruce Weber explains.
"Obviously, more and more people are going out to see younger kids. We've had an 8th grader already commit to a school, we've had coaches go out and work when it was designated a period when we couldn't go out. They went out and worked a league camp for 7th and 8th graders. I think that caused a lot of stir amongst our coaching association and the NCAA. I think all those things added up."
Colleges have restrictions on how many days they can spend recruiting in any given year. They also are limited to certain open periods and prevented from going out at other times. They must keep accurate records and are punished if they disobey. But until the recent change, none of this applied to kids not yet in high school.
"If you went and watched a 7th or 8th grader, it wouldn't always count against your evaluations, your days and things like that," Weber explains. "Now, if we go and watch a 7th or 8th grader, we count it with the same rules as for the high school kids."
Some aggressive recruiters were spending more time with young kids than with the older ones, and in venues not approved by the NCAA for the older kids. Weber believes the changes will prevent this.
"A lot of this is new, so I'm not 100% on all this. If we go to watch them, we have to go watch them as part of their school team. You can't just go to an open gym, some church league, or something like that. It would have to be their school, just like the high school rules. And it's gonna count against your days."
The junior high school kids also have new restrictions regarding unofficial visits to campuses.
"It's the same thing if they want to come to campus to watch a game. They're now counted as a prospect with the same rules, such as 3 tickets for a home game on an unofficial visit. Basically, they've just moved back the starting date for being determined a prospect."
The pressure to win is great for college coaches. Everyone is looking for an angle to attract top players and get them committed before other schools jump into the fray. Weber admits to watching some youngsters. He can't let others get ahead of him.
"Yes, I've gone to 7th and 8th grade tournaments. I was up in Chicago for something else, and there were some highly touted kids. So I have gone and watched them."
A potential drawback to recruiting younger kids is the likelihood some early developers will get scholarship offers long before their full potential is realized. Some never continue to grow and develop as expected. Others see their bodies thicken and age at a fast rate, turning their once supple frames into something more rigid and limited.
There are many examples where athletes are rated higher as high school freshmen than as seniors. They stop growing as later-developing players pass them by. Or, they have holes in their games that people ignore until it is obvious they will never overcome them. Or, people become enamored by a player's leaping ability or shot-making skills without paying attention to intangibles like attitude, work ethic, academics or family support.
College coaches will continue to recruit younger players. They will risk their futures on the basis of evaluation skills that may or may not stand the test of time. The NCAA does what it usually does. It puts its finger in the new hole in the dike and hopes there will be no flood.
Since the NCAA is reactive rather than proactive, this new rule will not change anything. Don't be surprised that within a few years they begin to call 1st graders "prospects." After all, some enterprising college recruiter will be stalking the grade schools until something is done. Guaranteed.