Players skipping senior year for college

For two young men who know little about each other, Matt Carlino and Scottie Wilbekin have become oddly linked.

On separate paths through their junior years of high school, each 6-foot-3 guard -- Carlino in Indiana and Wilbekin in Florida -- decided to go to college a year ahead of schedule to play basketball. Carlino committed last week to UCLA, Wilbekin two weeks ago to Florida. Neither began his junior year planning on early graduation; for both, the idea emerged a few months ago.

Graduating high school early, or "reclassifying," might not yet qualify as a trend, but it's not an underground movement, either.

Once the idea came up -- Carlino's father said it was first suggested by UCLA coaches once his son reopened his recruitment by rescinding a commitment to Indiana in March -- research made the family decision easier.

"I don't know a lot of people with kids who would turn that down," Mark Carlino said. "You take a trip to UCLA and see what it is academically and athletically. It was an opportunity knocking, and Matt has chosen to go through that door.

"You forgo your senior year, and Bloomington South is a phenomenal school and program. They would have had a very good chance to compete for the state championship, but at the same time Matt's dream has always been to play college basketball at the highest level, and there it was sitting in front of him."

Leaving early has become in vogue at the next level, as 103 young men applied for early entry into the NBA's 2010 draft pool, 80 from the U.S., the NBA confirmed this week.

Carlino and Wilbekin will not become pioneers at their current level even if they master mountainous new academic assignments to become college eligible for 2010-11. This has happened before, if not frequently enough to be considered a trend.

Daniel Hackett entered USC in 2006 a year early, played three seasons for the Trojans, entered his name in the NBA draft pool in '09 and has played in Italy since going undrafted by an NBA team last June.

Andre Dawkins reclassified and this past fall entered Duke a year early. He averaged more than 12 minutes and 4.4 points per game as the Blue Devils won the NCAA title.

There might be a chain reaction at work here, although Wilbekin's father, Svend Wilbekin, did not want to answer many questions, including one about his son making a commitment to the Gators within 48 hours of Matt Carlino's recruiting visit there a couple of weeks ago. "Since it's difficult to speak delicately about something that's not 100 percent done, I'd rather wait," Svend Wilbekin said.

He did say his family would not be considering his son going to college early but for the fact that UF is in his hometown of Gainesville, Fla.

Tom Topping, who runs the Team Florida AAU program in which Scottie Wilbekin has made a name for himself, has coached dozens of eventual Division I players. He believes Wilbekin is ready to move up; he's been playing against older boys for years.

"I would say it's rare," said Topping, the one-time Stetson assistant who through AAU has mentored former UCLA standout and current Milwaukee Buck Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, former Gators Walter Hodge and Nick Calathes, and Florida State's Solomon Alabi, Chris Singleton, Luke Loucks and Pierre Jordan among many more Division I players. "Physically, I don't see a problem with Scottie going into Florida.

"I think mentally taking a kid that's still pretty young maturity-wise and … basketball has become such a business -- that's going to be an adjustment that every kid has to make. Scottie is very unique in that he has a very tight-knit family, and group of friends and church in Gainesville. It's not as though he's going away. That's a major consideration. He's going to be close to his support group."

Carlino and Wilbekin share with USC's Hackett and Duke's Dawkins other similarities in that they're entering programs whose rosters are churning.

There was room for Hackett to start as a freshman under former USC coach Tim Floyd after the murder of point guard Ryan Francis in the spring of 2006 and the academic ineligibility of Gabe Pruitt that fall.

At Duke this past fall, the Blue Devils were looking to backfill for the graduation of guard Greg Paulus, the early departure to the NBA of Gerald Henderson and the surprising decision of swingman Elliot Williams to return to his hometown of Memphis.

UCLA is coming off a 14-18 season in which the Bruins did not make the NCAA tournament for the first time since '03-04 after struggling to compensate for the early departures in consecutive seasons of guards Russell Westbrook and Jrue Holiday.

"[Enrolling early] was suggested by the UCLA coaches after Matt reopened his recruitment," said Mark Carlino, who moved with Matt from the family's Scottsdale, Ariz., home to Bloomington before his son's junior season. "It got us thinking, and given the success of the young man who went to Duke this past year … we investigated.

"Now is a great time for him to enter. There is a window of opportunity. The team did not have a record that they would have liked, but it's certainly a time in UCLA's program that it would be a good time to enter because of the youth of the team."

Matt Carlino is taking three accelerated senior-level classes in addition to his junior class load with the goal of enrolling in summer school at UCLA. "At the pace he's been working, it appears it will happen," his father said. "He's not doing basketball, not doing any AAU. He's literally 100 percent on his studies."

I would question anybody who would do this whether they've thought it through all the way through. I told them I thought it was the wrong decision, and it didn't make any difference. I just don't see why you want to rush growing up.

-- Bloomington South coach J.R. Holmes

Mark Carlino did not want his son interviewed for this story because he's busy with academics and preparing to take the SAT for the first time. "I want him to keep his mind clear," Mark Carlino said.

Svend Wilbekin similarly said "a lot has to happen on our part" for his son to become eligible to enroll at Florida for the 2010-11 year, although he said he felt there was a "99 percent chance" of that happening.

This type of fast-tracking is sure to trigger debate. Topping admits as much, and Matt Carlino's high school coach -- at least for his past and last year of high school -- is among those with a dissenting opinion.

J.R. Holmes has been a prep coach for 28 years, and his son, Jonathan Holmes, played at North Carolina from 1999 through 2003.

"After [Carlino] decommitted to Indiana in March, there were two schools that mentioned [early enrollment] to me, Florida and UCLA," Holmes said, adding that Butler also recruited Carlino. "One school told me it was the father's idea, and the other didn't say either way. I didn't think Matt could or would [graduate early].

"I would question anybody who would do this whether they've thought it through all the way through. I told them I thought it was the wrong decision, and it didn't make any difference. I just don't see why you want to rush growing up."

Holmes, whose teams have gone 68-3 with a state title over the past three seasons, has multiple Division I prospects on his roster and has produced more than a dozen over the years. He feels Carlino will miss some once-in-a-lifetime high school opportunities and a chance to better his game.

"They want him to be a point guard, and right now he's more of a 2 guard," the coach said. "I think another year in high school -- and we have a very good team and another player who's going to Xavier [Darwin Davis] who could share that guard work would help. He's better than a year ago, and I personally think he would be a lot better if he stayed."

Wilbekin's AAU coach said the time is right.

"Scottie is not in the dark," Topping said. "Absolutely he's making sacrifices, and he may miss a few things. There's always going to be sacrifices kids make, and most of our kids who have the opportunity to go to prom or play travel basketball give up the prom because they love basketball and that's where their passion lies."

Carlino's father has been through the early decision-making process before. He and Matt -- who first committed to Indiana in August 2008 -- moved from Arizona to Bloomington last year while his wife and two other children remained in Scottsdale.

"Matt wanted to get an idea what the IU program was about, be around it," Mark Carlino said. "As a parent I probably shouldn't have let him make such a quick decision [to commit], but being [in Bloomington] allowed us to see what it is and what it isn't, and he just decided to explore more. Matt and I understand that coach Holmes disagrees, and we have a tremendous respect for him and he's always shown us tremendous respect. We've agreed to disagree.

"I watched [Andre Dawkins] all year, not thinking Matt was going to be in this situation, but because he was intriguing to watch. I don't think he would trade being a part of a national championship team for being back in high school. If anything, just watching him was more encouraging for Matt. The truth of the matter is it's not about whether [UCLA] wins a national championship. With Matt it was about going to a phenomenal institution with a phenomenal basketball tradition and having a more than ample opportunity to contribute immediately. I just don't know a lot of people who would turn that down."

Matt Winkeljohn left the Atlanta Journal-Constitution after spending 21 years there. He can be reached at mattwinkeljohn@yahoo.com.