Sophi Cunningham is not worried as much about what she will study in college — she has no idea — as she is about her first season playing for Rock Bridge this winter. It will be two years before college coaches can call, three years before she can officially visit schools and longer before senior prom.
But in the world of major women’s college basketball, the freshman is already a recruiting target. Missouri and Kansas offered Cunningham a scholarship in June, and more schools promised to follow.
Her AAU coach, Joe Erskine, considers her a can’t-miss prospect. The president of the MoKan Eclipse has seen many talented players pass through his Kansas City-based club, including former five-star recruit and Tennessee starter Taber Spani and players currently on the rosters at Oklahoma, Kansas State, Kansas and DePaul.
He places Cunningham, a versatile 6-foot guard, whom he first watched as a 12-year-old leading a club scrimmage between high school juniors and seniors, in a different class.
“After one workout, we sort of all agreed that she probably will be the best prospect that ever came through our program,” Erskine said.
Cunningham wondered if traditional powers Tennessee and Connecticut would eventually be interested. She planned to go through the age-old recruiting dance — reading piles of flattering letters, visiting distant campuses and returning a logjam of coaches’ phone messages — until her father, Jim, a facilities manager for Mizzou Sports Park, asked her where she ultimately wanted to be.
Both knew the answer.
Cunningham’s parents, aunts and uncles and grandfather are all Missouri alums, and she has worn black and gold to MU football and women’s basketball games for as long as she could remember.
“This is our college,” Jim said.
Cunningham also embraced the thought of playing alongside her sister in college. She tagged along when Lindsey, a Rock Bridge senior, visited MU earlier this summer. Meeting Coach Robin Pingeton and her staff solidified what she felt all along.
“No matter who offered me in the whole country, I was going to go to Mizzou,” Cunningham said. “That’s where I’m supposed to be.”
“So why do you want to go through all of this recruiting?” Jim asked her. “Why wait?”
She and Lindsey committed late last month.
By not waiting, Cunningham joined a growing list of women’s basketball recruits who have mapped out their college futures before entering high school and became part of a debate over how soon is too soon for a player to commit.
In the men’s game, out-of-the-womb recruiting stories are nothing new. John Feinstein’s 1986 book, “A Season on the Brink,” describes former Indiana Coach Bob Knight watching future Hoosiers star Damon Bailey as an eighth-grader.
But as the money poured into women’s basketball rises — five Big 12 coaches made at least $800,000 last year — the pressure to win has spilled over into the recruiting arena.
In the past month, Missouri has received three commitments from prospects who have played a combined 13 high school games. Cunningham was joined by Pingeton’s nieces, Bri and Cierra Porter, who gave MU verbal pledges before their sophomore and freshman years. Months earlier, Te’a Cooper committed to North Carolina in the eighth grade.
“The school has to offer to stay in the game,” said Mark Lewis, a longtime women’s college basketball assistant who writes about recruiting for ESPN.com. “It’s like poker. You may not know whether the kid’s a good student — in ninth grade, who can tell? — and there’s a lot of things you don’t know. But you’ve got to offer right out of the gate or you’re not going to be considered.”
The nationwide youth movement is unsettling to many basketball insiders.
NCAA recruiting rules are set up for recruits to make their college decisions late in high school. Athletes cannot take calls from coaches until the spring of their junior years or make their five official campus visits until their senior years. Their commitment is not binding until they sign a National Letter of Intent months before enrolling in college.
The National Association of Basketball Coaches said recently that scholarships should not be offered to any high school underclassmen. But enforcing that stance would be difficult. In January, the NCAA rejected a proposal that would ban scholarship offers before the summer between a prospect’s junior and senior year of high school.
Missouri Coach Robin Pingeton, who is not permitted by NCAA rule to comment on unsigned recruits, was unavailable to discuss the general issue.
The early commitments are risky for players and schools.
“You’ve got kids, they’re not who they’re going to be,” Lewis said. “Schools are recruiting players, but they’re also recruiting people. You look back on who I was in ninth grade and who I was when I graduated, they weren’t even apples and oranges. They were vegetables and fruit, they were so different.”
That means a recruit’s eyes often wander. A change of heart after an early commitment hurts not only the school that may have stopped recruiting a certain position but also the recruit, who potentially faces limited college options after once-interested schools moved on under the assumption that the player was unavailable.
Schools also run the risk that players will not develop as projected. A sure bet at 14 might be a midmajor prospect at 18.
“They may be good as an eighth grader, yeah,” said Patosha Jeffery, a former player at Memphis and now an AAU basketball coach who runs the website girlsbasketballexposure.com. “But they may not develop any more.”
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