Coaches, players in 'nonscholastic' limbo

Conventional wisdom suggests that when two teams as talented as Dallas Prime Prep and Huntington (W.Va.) Prep get together, the gym is bound to be full of college coaches. And yet, when that matchup takes place Saturday at 8 p.m. at the Spalding Hoophall Classic, there might not be a single college coach inside Springfield College’s Blake Arena.

Huntington Prep was one of two schools (along with Findlay Prep of Henderson, Nev.) that the NCAA identified as nonscholastic in a September directive released by the National Association of Basketball Coaches to its membership. That ruling was based on a previous interpretation from September 2012, which stated “a team made up of prospective student-athletes (e.g., home school or academy team) that is not organized or administered under the auspices of a scholastic governing body is considered a nonscholastic team.”

While the news of college coaches being prohibited from two of the most prominent high school gymnasiums in America made quick headlines in September, many of the larger ramifications were largely left unexplored.

It wasn’t just fall workouts that college coaches were now barred from seeing, but also regular-season practices and games against other nonscholastic programs. In other words, coaches could only see Huntington and Findlay play against scholastic programs. The problem, though, is that there were potentially hundreds of other nonscholastic programs yet to be identified.

While it might seem that any legitimate school with proper certifications and accreditation would be considered scholastic, that isn’t necessarily the case. Based on the wording of the September 2012 interpretation, even legitimate academic institutions could potentially be viewed as nonscholastic if their athletic teams compete independent of a state association or other governing body.

That distinction is particularly relevant for Saturday night’s Huntington Prep-Prime Prep contest, given that Prime Prep has classified itself as athletically independent based on a news release dated on Nov. 28, 2012 and >posted on the school’s website, in which they withdrew from the University Interscholastic League.

At the heart of the issue is whether athletic independence automatically equates to the nonscholastic label, a question that could have dramatic implications on high school and prep school basketball.

“To the best of my knowledge, Prime Prep’s status with the NCAA has yet to be clarified,” said Greg Procino, Director of Events and Awards at the Basketball Hall of Fame, “therefore we were instructed that coaches would have to make their own decision as to whether they should attend the game or not.”

The NCAA did not respond to requests for clarification.

While several college coaches said neither the NCAA nor the NABC has released anything proactively to bar college coaches from this particular game, the NCAA typically has at least one member of its enforcement department at this event each year, so it’s possible that college coaches could be advised in Springfield to consult their respective compliance officers before attending Saturday’s game.

If such a scenario unfolded, it would be an undeniable disappointment for both programs and the college coaches who planned to evaluate the game, but more importantly it could indicate a direct correlation between athletic independence and the nonscholastic label.

While college coaches and compliance officers are currently charged with operating under the definition set forth in September 2012, there is no comprehensive list of nonscholastic programs, nor is there a list of approved programs. There’s also no way of telling whether or not the NCAA will recognize new leagues created to avoid the ramifications of the recent interpretation.

What is abundantly clear, however, is that this matter requires further consideration and clarification.

If college coaches and compliance officers are going to be held accountable for their decisions, they need more clearly defined parameters.

If high schools are potentially risking a label of nonscholastic and will receive far less access to college coaches by being independent athletically, they need to be given an opportunity to join a league or to form a new organization with other independent teams.

If prospective student-athletes are going to be granted fewer opportunities to be evaluated by college coaches, they should have that information ahead of time so they aren’t the ones caught between an evolving compliance issue and opportunities for exposure.

The wheels of this process could begin turning Saturday, when one of the biggest stages in high school basketball will showcase some of the nation's top prospects. But it could also bring to light an NCAA compliance issue that could have far-reaching recruiting implications.