ST. LOUIS — It's almost July, and for college basketball coaches and their assistants, that means a series of trips that makes the conference road schedule look like a drive to the gym.
There are more than 230 NCAA-approved events coming up around the country featuring high school stars — and potential recruits — from the Nike Peach Jam in South Carolina to LeBron James' skills academy in his hometown of Akron, Ohio, to any of the five youth tournaments slated for Las Vegas over a single summer weekend.
Even as it acts as a gatekeeper for the summer circuit, the NCAA is working to rewrite its men's basketball recruiting rules to try and slim down the season, avoiding potentially unsavory influences of AAU coaches, event operators and other hangers-on who may be looking to ride the coattails of the next superstar.
The latest effort comes after conference commissioners asked the NCAA to entirely scrap the July recruiting period. An NCAA panel is instead expected to recommend a reduction in July recruiting, but not its outright elimination.
DePaul assistant coach Billy Garrett knows the nuances of summer travel ball better than most: along with his job as a recruiter, his son Billy Jr. is a top prep prospect.
The younger Garrett, a 6-foot-3 inch point guard entering his junior year, has verbally committed to stay in Chicago and play for his father's school. Yet he'll continue to crisscross the country over the next few months, attending events such as the recent Nike Elite 100 camp for top high school freshmen and sophomores.
"Anybody that's good wants to play the best," said the elder Garrett, a former college football player whose previous coaching stops include Iowa, Seton Hall and Siena.
Current NCAA rules provide two 10-day windows for coaches to evaluate prospects: July 6-15 and July 22-31. That means a midsummer schedule packed with events ranging from the Battle of The Ballerz in Tulsa to the L.A. LAST CHANCE College Coach View in Anaheim, Calif.
The Division I Leadership Council plans to offer a series of suggested changes for consideration by NCAA members later this year or in early 2012, said Purdue athletic director Morgan Burke, who heads the effort. While Burke said the proposals aren't "revolutionary," they're not insignificant. Among the group's expected recommendations, in addition to a reduction in the July recruiting period:
— lifting the ban on off-campus contacts between coaches and recruits during their junior year;
— requiring recruits to meet minimum academic standards before they can visit a college campus as a recruit;
— further restrictions on unofficial visits, with closer scrutiny of how such visits are paid for.
College basketball has had an uneasy relationship with non-scholastic travel teams — many of which play under the AAU moniker — for years. The concern is for potential recruiting violations and improper benefits that result in scandals and hurt the sport. The investment of major equipment and apparrel sponsors in youth teams, Nike, adidas and other shoe companies, has only made things more complicated.
Coaches, meanwhile, know their relationships with an AAU contact can help land a recruit for their team, sometimes even going so far as to hire inexperienced assistants with strong grass roots ties.
That was the case at Indiana in 2007, where former coach Kelvin Sampson hired AAU coach Travis Steele as the team's video coordinator to help land Eric Gordon. More recently, UCLA coach Ben Howland hired as an assistant 32-year-old Korey McCray, coach of an Atlanta AAU team whose alumni include NBA stars Dwight Howard, Josh Smith and Amare Stoudamire.
Yet they're also aware that rule-breakers in that crowd can bring down a program. In 2004, the NCAA sanctioned Auburn after concluding that summer team coach Mark Komara was essentially a school booster who provided two of his players recruited by Auburn with extra benefits.
And a decade ago, Kansas City AAU coach Myron Piggie was convicted of federal fraud and tax evasion charges after he admitted paying five high school stars, often hiding the money in shoe boxes.
Both instances led to incremental changes in summer basketball recruiting rules — along with calls for more forceful action.
"I don't know that you're necessarily going to be able to walk away from the summer," Burke said. "The third-party influences aren't going to go away."
And even before the two July recruiting periods, top players do like to play together. At the Nike camp, college basketball's next generation were paired with Nike instructors and well-regarded high school coaches at a Saint Louis University rec center.
Campers worked on fundamentals but also spent much of the four-day session in 3-on-3 games as well as daily 5-on-5 contests, culminating with a championship.
Mindful of the summer circuit critics, Nike has formed an "Elite Youth Basketball League" for 40 spring and summer 17-and-under travel teams that includes a regular season and concludes with a 24-team championship at the mid-July Peach Jam in North Augusta, S.C.
"We've definitely put more of an emphasis on skills development," said Vince Baldwin, Nike's elite youth director of scouting. "Kids were playing way too many meaningless games."
Like Garrett, who attended the St. Louis event as a parent, Baldwin said the summer circuit has a valuable, if misunderstood, role, especially for college programs with smaller recruiting budgets.
"It hurts the universities and it hurts the kids," he said, referring to the likely reduction in the July evaluation period. "Colleges will make more mistakes about who they recruit. And kids will get overlooked."
Similar to members of select soccer programs or summer baseball all-star teams, the basketball players at summer all-star camps are there to match their skills against other top talent, Baldwin said. Most high school games can't provide that sort of environment.Comment on this story
"It's about the competition," he said. "You can watch them compete against other Division I athletes. If you watch a kid at his high school, he might be the only Division I athlete on the court."
Burke acknowledged that "there are some good things to come out of the camps." But he also stands firmly behind the NCAA's effort to keep those influences in check.
"There are way too many people out there ... selling a vision that only a few will realize," he said.
Alan Scher Zagier can be reached at http://twitter.com/azagier.