Young hoopsters take part in NCAA ‘evaluation day’

REGION — Tommy McCarthy, a soon-to-be-senior point guard for the La Costa Canyon basketball team, was not wearing a Mavericks jersey on Sunday afternoon at Cabrillo High School.

With the words “Earl Watson Elite,” the name of his Los Angeles-based travel team, emblazoned across his chest, McCarthy sized up recent Ontario Colony graduate Derrick Bruce, and let a three-point shot fly. It swished through the net.

Along a wall behind the hoop, men with T-Shirts bearing the logo of the schools they represent as coaches nod in approval, and jot down notes in their paper pads.

Days later, several of those same coaches would be on the phone with McCarthy, offering him a scholarship to play basketball at their institutions.

This is July, and Sunday was the conclusion of one of three “evaluation periods” during the month, the most important periods of the year for high school basketball players with aspirations of playing college basketball.

The National Collegiate Athletics Association, college basketball’s governing body, limits the amount of time college coaches can attend a recruit’s games during the off-season months to several such “evaluation periods” during the spring and summer.

During those periods, coaches can’t speak to recruits, only observe their games.

“I think the evaluation period is the most important time for a high school basketball player because it’ the only time where you get the opportunity to play in front of a lot of coaches in one place,” said McCarthy, who has received scholarship offers from such schools as Rice, UC Davis, Montana and Portland State.

McCarthy is one of several high-school players in North San Diego County who are considered top basketball recruits.

Three of his teammates, Travis Fuller, Brady Twombly and Patrick Fisher, are also being courted by a number of college programs.

Each plays for a different travel basketball program: Fisher and Twombly play for Vista-based Gamepoint, Fuller plays for Los Angeles-based California Supreme. Each of these teams, as well as others, converge in gymnasiums across the country at huge tournaments sanctioned by the NCAA.

Coaches during these periods flock to the tournaments hopes of discovering players that they hope to convince to attend their school, or to evaluate players to whom they have already extended such offers.

“Coaches can come watch you at your high school, but you’ll never have as much exposure as you would at an AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) event,” he said.

College basketball recruiting has seen a paradigm shift over the past 20 years. Before, college coaches would seek out recruits in local high-school gyms.

Now, due to shrinking travel budgets and the convenience of having a number of potential recruits under the same roof, most college recruitment is done during the spring and summer at tournaments like the one McCarthy played in this week, the Pangos Sweet 16.

“The gradual shift is due to the pure economics of recruiting,” said Dinos Trigonis, the director of the Sweet 16 and several other major West Coast travel basketball tournaments. “Seeing more quality prospects in consolidated venues allow for more evaluations.”

For recruits entering their senior years, like McCarthy, the three July viewing periods are among the final few chances they will have to impress coaches.

“It can make you or break you,” McCarthy said.

Dalton Soffer, a soon-to-be senior at Poway High School, can also relate to the importance of the evaluation period.

He entered July with a number of colleges expressing interest, but none offering him a scholarship.

Then, on Sunday, 3,000 miles away from McCarthy in a gym in Springfield, Mass., the 6-foot-5 shooting guard hit eight three pointers against one of the top travel teams in the country, including one at the buzzer to give his Gamepoint team the upset victory.

Manhattan College, Siena College and Yale University all extended scholarship offers to Soffer the next day.

“Playing well during the evaluation period is the most important part of being recruited,” Soffer said.

“The first evaluation period took my recruitment level up a notch and I finally started receiving scholarship offers and interest from many schools.”

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