A college basketball fan’s guide to the current grassroots basketball scene

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In the modern 24-hour sports news cycle, nearly every aspect of the four major sports of are covered. Extensively.

Free agency is broken down like crazy and draft coverage is at an all-time high, complete with a movie starring Kevin Costner and talk of potential one-and-done players dominating college basketball until February.

But one of the great unknowns left to the casual sports fan is grassroots basketball, which is often mistakenly referred to by people as AAU.

The Amateur Athletic Union is an organization within the current structure of spring and summer high school travel basketball for American players, but is hardly the only — or preferred — way that athletes play basketball.

Most elite players opt to play in shoe company leagues and never actually play in an AAU game. The term — AAU — has just overtaken the name of the scene — grassroots basketball — like Kleenex has for tissues.

Having covered grassroots basketball for the last seven years, I get asked a lot of questions about the overall scene and what it is. College basketball fans will commonly see people tweeting at events on most spring weekends, but they don’t understand some of what is actually going on.

Here’s a breakdown of some of the common questions and misconceptions I hear about the grassroots basketball scene from college basketball fans.

What is grassroots basketball?

Like almost every sport in America now, basketball is a year-round endeavor complete with spring and summer travel basketball and fall leagues and camps between high school seasons.

In the spring and summer, teams of high school players form with other players in their area — or sometimes from a state or two away for bigger and more prominent programs — and travel a schedule of weekend tournaments or play in a league.

Teams are broken down into three levels for high school:

17U – Seniors to be
16U – Juniors to be
15U – Sophomores to be

Many tournaments will also devote time for 14U and younger age divisions in off-site locations as well, but we’re focusing on high school for now.

Why is grassroots basketball so popular among basketball’s elite prospects?

Kids want to play basketball and grassroots basketball gives them the opportunity to play with and against the best players nearly every weekend. While high school basketball can have limitations in scheduling or playing time or style of play for certain players, players can often pick-and-choose what they’re looking for in a grassroots program. Want to play in a shoe company league? Want to play for a coach that will play you extended minutes? Players can find any situation ideal if they look for the right fit.

How are grassroots teams formed?

Teams are often recruited together by programs that try to maintain strong play throughout multiple age groups. Many of these programs are usually apart of the three shoe company leagues that will be on display this spring. The adidas Gauntlet, the Under Armour Association and the current standard of the leagues, the Nike EYBL. These teams offer a lot of exclusive apparel and travel to places around the country to play in league games.

For teams that don’t fall under these leagues, many will play an independent schedule or opt to play in AAU events.

AAU events are held at the state level and teams that win a local qualifier will advance to nationals in July. Many teams form for the sake of playing for some kind of overall title in a league or the AAU events.

Where are grassroots events held?

Events are held locally, regionally and nationally and tend to be held in bigger cities and places with multi-court facilities.

What is the basketball actually like?

The basketball is usually very up-and-down. There’s a lot of fast tempo play and with some tournaments making kids play up to three games in a few hours time, they can get exhausted quickly and play can get very sloppy.

With the changes in structure to shoe company leagues, however, less stress is being put on kids on weekends by scheduling out full league schedules with adequate time off and a cap on games per weekend. The coaching is also much, much better than people think. I’ve seen players like Julius Randle and Jabari Parker have to adjust to multiple zone looks and double-teams on the offensive end while more teams are running complete sets thanks to the integration of a shot clock in the EYBL.

Are grassroots basketball events fan friendly?

Yes and no. Fans can sit very close to the action at a grassroots event and see a lot of basketball during a Saturday session, but there commonly aren’t programs or scorecards and names aren’t listed on jerseys so it can be hard to identify players for common fans. Some camps are also exclusive to media and family and don’t allow fans to attend at all. But if the coaches are out in July and you can hit a big-time grassroots game attended by a lot of coaches, it can be fun to watch. Two highly-ranked kids battling on a national stage can be a great experience as a basketball fan.

Why is grassroots basketball so influential in modern basketball?

Since the talent comes together in the form of leagues and elite teams, it is much easier for scouts and media members to see a big collection of top players in just a single weekend. When you also include games being played for multiple sessions on Friday, Saturday and Sunday and there is a lot of time to get games in.

Grassroots basketball is the major influencer of national rankings because the top players have more of a chance to matchup throughout the course of the spring and summer. Camps in June and August also allow top players to come together nationally in exclusive events that put them all together for practices and games. This makes it even easier for people to make rankings because the best are playing each other. Kids want to be ranked and travel to big events, so they continue to play with or without coaches being allowed out.

When are college coaches allowed at grassroots events?

The open period for grassroots events is only one weekend in April from the 25th through the 27th and then 15 days in July:

July 9-13
July 16-20
July 23-27

The limited face time for college coaches — given how much the players play — is not good in helping them identify players outside of the high school season in which they’re coaching themselves.

College coaches cannot have off campus in-person contact with players or their legal guardians during the evaluation period. Coaches can still make telephone calls to players or legal guardians, and players can still make campus visits.

Is grassroots basketball a necessity to be a big-time college basketball player?

It helps, but definitely not. And plenty of players play on great local teams that play local events and continue to work and get better as basketball players. Does it do you better to sit on the bench of a high exposure team in a shoe company league or does it pay to play for the smaller local team and gain more experience? That’s the question some kids have to ask themselves.

Team of the Week: North Carolina Tar Heels

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No. 7 North Carolina went into Knoxville on Sunday afternoon and picked off a good, scrappy No. 20 Tennessee team in front of a raucous crowd in a game where they did not even play all that well.

The win pushed the Tar Heels to 10-1 on the season, and it easily their most impressive victory to date.

There are a lot of things about this North Carolina team that I don’t like. They really only have one proven offensive weapon, depending on how you view Luke Maye. They are a program built on having a frontline that is better than their opponent’s frontline, but this year have to rely on a stretchy-four in Maye and a trio of freshmen that may or may not actually be ready to play at this level. I’m not convinced they have the three-point shooting they need, either.

But here we are, nearly six weeks into the season, and the Tar Heels have just a single loss to their name – which came against Michigan State – and just picked up a win at Tennessee. Sterling Manley and Garrison Brooks appear to be growing into the roles that they are being asked to play. Maye has looked like an all-american for the most part. They’re shooting 40 percent from three on the season. They’re defending.

And, as a result, they’re winning.

THEY WERE GOOD, TOO

  • Rutgers: Saturday could not have gone much better for the Rutgers program. They erased a 13-point deficit and came back from nine points down with six minutes left as they won for the first time in four games against in-state rival and No. 15 Seton Hall. They closed the game on a 17-2 run to land the biggest win of the Steve Pikiell era, and they did it in front of a packed house at the RAC. They picked a good day to prove too their fan base that their is something to be excited about with this team.
  • Oklahoma: The Sooners made a statement on Saturday, going into Wichita and knocking off the Shockers in impressive fashion. They were up by 15 points at halftime and never were truly threatened in the second half.
  • Kentucky: For the first time since the fifth day of the season, Kentucky played a game against a team that was actually relevant, beating Virginia Tech, 93-86, in what turned out to be a shootout in Rupp Arena on Saturday afternoon. The most important part of that win wasn’t the win itself; it was the fact that Kentucky went 11-for-22 from three in the process. Their ability to make perimeter shots has, clearly, been the major question mark with this group, and while they still need to prove they can be consistent, making it clear that they are at least capable of shooting like this matters.
  • Indiana: Archie Miller landed the first marquee win of his tenure, as his Indiana team overcame a 14-point first half deficit and an eight-point deficit with just over two minutes remaining to knock off No. 18 Notre Dame in the Crossroads Classic. Performances like this is why Miller was hired for this job.
  • Cincinnati: After losing two straight, capped by a loss to Florida in the Never Forget Classic last weekend, the Bearcats bounced back with a pair of solid wins this week. They handed Mississippi State their first loss of the season on Tuesday and followed that up with a win over UCLA in Pauley Pavilion on Saturday.

Player of the Week: Juwan Morgan, Indiana

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Juwan Morgan made Bankers Life Fieldhouse his home on Saturday afternoon.

Not only did he post a career-high 34 points to go along with his 11 rebounds against No. 18 Notre Dame, but he did the majority of his damage in crunch time. Morgan scored the final 12 points in regulation for Indiana, points that came as the Hoosiers erased an eight-point deficit in the final two minutes and change. Morgan then scored eight of Indiana’s 15 points in overtime, including four points in the final 11 seconds.

Indiana trailed by three with 11 seconds left on the clock when Morgan was fouled on a layup. He missed the free throw, but Indiana grabbed an offensive rebound and it wound up in Morgan’s hands, whose dunk was the game-winning basket.

There was more meaning to this win than simply beating a top 20 in-state rival.

Archie Miller is still in the process of building a program in Bloomington. He’s developing a brand, so to speak, and while his team is still going to be at a talent-deficit more often than not, this is tangible evidence that things are trending in the right direction. Miller’s Dayton programs were built around versatile and under-sized forwards and tough defense.

That’s what we saw on Saturday from Indiana.

THE ALL-‘THEY WERE GOOD, TOO’ TEAM

  • TRAE YOUNG, Oklahoma: Young continued what has been a sensational season to date, scoring 21 of his 29 points and handing out seven of his 10 assists in the first half as the Sooners paid a visit to No. 3 Wichita State and left with a statement victory. The Sooners were up by 15 at halftime and threw it into cruise control in the second half.
  • UDOKA AZUBUIKE, Kansas: After a week full of criticisms for the inability of this Kansas team to find a way to get the ball into the paint, the Jayhawks finally did. Azubuike finished with 26 points on 13-for-17 shooting to go along with 10 boards and a game-saving block as the Jayhawks escaped a trip to Nebraska with a 73-72 win.
  • RAWLE ALKINS, Arizona: We finally got a glimpse of what Arizona was missing without Alkins in the lineup, as he went for 26 points on 11 field goal attempts to go along with five boards and a pair of assists. Arizona cruised to a win at New Mexico despite the fact that Allonzo Trier took just nine shots and Deandre Ayton scored just 14 points.
  • OSHAE BRISSETT, Syracuse: Brissett set a pair of career-highs in Syracuse come-from-behind win over arch-rival Georgetown on Saturday. The Orange were down by 13 points in the second half. Brissett scored 24 of his 25 points and grabbed 10 of his 14 rebounds in the second half and overtime.
  • COREY SANDERS, Rutgers: Sanders finished with 22 points – including a huge jumper with a minute left to put the Scarlet Knights up 67-63 – as Steve Pikiell and Rutgers landed their biggest win, coming from nine down with six minutes left to beat their biggest in-state rival, No. 15 Seton Hall.

College Basketball Power Rankings: Wichita State’s loss, Oklahoma’s gain, and ‘why Arizona?’

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It seemed like this was going to be a pretty straight-forward week for the Power Rankings … until Saturday happened, and five top 25 teams lost to unranked opponents.

The toughest one to figure out what to do with was Wichita State, who dropped all the way down to No. 16 from No. 3. They currently sit one spot behind Oklahoma, who beat them in Wichita on Saturday. Ranking the Shockers is a difficult thing to do at this point in the schedule, mainly because what we see on the floor from them doesn’t exactly jibe with what we assume that program to be.

They have not been themselves defensively through the first six weeks of the season. Or maybe they have and they just aren’t as good on that end of the floor as we assumed they would be. However you slice, the bottom-line is this: If Wichita State is not among the nation’s elite defensively they are not going to be in the conversation with Villanova, Michigan State and Duke as one of college basketball’s best. They just don’t have the horsepower on the other end of the floor.

The ranking that I got the most push-back on last week was putting Arizona at No. 6. They’re at No. 5 this week, up a spot after Wichita State dropped out. My reasoning is this: I am generally going to bet on talent, and rare will be the night when Arizona is not the most talented team on the floor. How many teams in the country will they play where Allonzo Trier and Deandre Ayton are not the two-best players on the floor? Maybe five? Ten, tops? And of those five-to-ten teams, I don’t think a single one of them can claim that they have two of the three best players on the floor.

And now they have Rawle Alkins back, who just went for 26 points on 11 shots at New Mexico.

Since the disaster in the Bahamas, Arizona has won five straight. They won at UNLV. They won a semi-home game against a very good Texas A&M team. They beat Alabama. They handled New Mexico fairly easily in The Pit. In a year where everyone has warts, I’m fine being the first one to say that those three games in Atlantis were just one of those weird things that happen in college basketball.

Anyway, here are this week’s Power Rankings:

1. Villanova, 10-0 (Last Week: No. 1)
2. Michigan State, 10-1 (2)
3. Miami, 9-0 (3)
4. Duke, 11-1 (5)
5. Arizona, 8-3 (6)
6. Arizona State, 10-0 (7)
7. Texas A&M, 9-1 (8)
8. North Carolina, 10-1 (12)
9. Xavier, 10-1 (9)
10. West Virginia, 9-1 (10)
11. Purdue, 11-2 (16)
12. Gonzaga, 9-2 (14)
13. Kansas, 7-2 (13)
14. Kentucky, 9-1 (17)
15. Oklahoma, 8-1 (19)
16. Wichita State, 8-2 (3)
17. Seton Hall, 9-2 (11)
18. Virginia, 9-1 (18)
19. TCU, 10-0 (25)
20. Notre Dame, 8-3 (15)
21. Cincinnati, 9-2 (23)
22. Tennessee, 7-2 (20)
23. Texas Tech, 9-1 (24)
24. Baylor, 9-2 (NR)
25. Arkansas, 8-2 (NR)

NEW ADDITIONS: 24. Baylor, 25. Arkansas

DROPPED OUT: 21. Florida State, 22. Florida

No. 5 Arizona State rallies to beat Vanderbilt 76-64

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TEMPE, Ariz. (AP) — Arizona State came out flat, missing shots, tossing balls into the stands, allowing open 3-pointers.

The No. 5 team in the country? The Sun Devils looked more like they should be unranked, not among college basketball’s elite.

In a matter of minutes, it all changed. Arizona State forced turnovers, got out on the break and dropped in 3-pointers to keep the crowd on its feet.

Once the Sun Devils get rolling like this, there’s no stopping them.

Tra Holder scored 25 points, Shannon Evans II added 15 and No. 5 Arizona State overcame a dismal start with a massive halftime-spanning run to beat Vanderbilt 76-64 on Sunday. The Sun Devils improved to 10-0 for the first time in their history.

“We had the bursts and it’s great we took the game from a one-two possession game and all of a sudden it’s mid-doubles,” Arizona State coach Bobby Hurley said. “It happens fast.”

Arizona State built a national buzz with last week’s road win over Kansas and its highest ranking in 36 years.

The Sun Devils looked nothing like the team that won at Allen Fieldhouse early against Vanderbilt (3-7), falling into a 13-0 hole. Once one of the nation’s most explosive teams finally came to life, Vanderbilt had no chance.

Sharp at both ends, Arizona State used a 26-3 run spanning halftime to turn what started out as an embarrassing performance into a runaway that had Wells Fargo Arena the loudest it’s been all season.

Mickey Mitchell provided the Sun Devils a spark off the bench, playing solid defense while grabbing 13 rebounds. Arizona State hit 14 of 28 shots in the second half to remain one of the nation’s four undefeated teams.

Saben Lee had 24 points to lead Vanderbilt, which shot 4 of 30 from 3-point range.

“We’re a small team, like ASU, and we have to make 3s,” Vanderbilt coach Bryce Drew said.

Following last Sunday’s 10-point win over then-No. 2 Kansas, the Sun Devils moved up to No. 5, their highest ranking since being No. 3 in 1980-81, and received five first-place votes in the Top 25, a program first.

Suddenly, they were a trendy pick to make a Final Four. Hurley was being touted as a national coach of the year candidate by the coach of Arizona State’s biggest rival. A buzz spread across the Valley of the Sun and beyond about the program being touted as “Guard U.”

The spotlight appeared to be too bright for the Sun Devils early against Vanderbilt.

Disjointed and struggling with double teams in the post, Arizona State had five turnovers in the game’s opening five minutes. The Sun Devils didn’t score until Romello White’s layup at 14:49, and the fans who were rowdy long before tipoff groaned with each miscue.

“We were knocking down shots and they were missing at the beginning,” Lee said.

Then Arizona State got back to playing the way it had to open the season.

The Sun Devils harassed the Commodores into difficult shots late in the shot clock and jumped into passing lanes to create turnovers. Shots missed earlier at the rim started going in, and they made a couple of late 3-pointers after missing their first nine.

Holder had one of those 3s, dropping a deep one at the halftime buzzer that put Arizona State up 30-29.

The Sun Devils kept the engine revving in the second half, scoring 12 straight points to push the lead to 49-31. Vanderbilt made one push, but got no closer than 12.

“We were just a little rusty. We had a long week off,” said Holder, who made all 11 of his free throws. “But we got back to our groove.”

BIG PICTURE

Vanderbilt showed it can play with highly-ranked teams in the opening 10 minutes. The final 30 showed the Commodores still have plenty of work to do before the SEC season starts.

Arizona State looked like the No. 5 team in the country after its shaky start and could move up in Monday’s poll after No. 3 Wichita State lost.

LEE’S HOMECOMING

Lee grew up in Arizona and played at Corona del Sol High School in Tempe, so Sunday’s game was a homecoming of sorts.

The freshman guard is Vanderbilt’s assist leader with 34 and made 9 of 14 shots to set a career high in points.

“It was pretty weird, knowing that I watched a lot of games here and now I’m going against them,” Lee said. “But it was a good experience..”

UP NEXT

Vanderbilt hosts Houston Baptist on Wednesday.

Arizona State hosts Longwood on Tuesday.

Illinois State’s Dan Muller pleaded for a tougher schedule on Twitter and got it

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Finishing the regular season at 27-6 wasn’t good enough to get Illinois State into last season’s NCAA tournament.

Although the Redbirds shared the Missouri Valley Conference title with Wichita State and split a regular-season series against the nationally-ranked Shockers, the NCAA tournament selection committee left Illinois State in the cold for an at-large bid on Selection Sunday.

The major reason: schools from power conferences continually refuse to schedule quality mid-major opponents like Illinois State. The Redbirds only played TCU from a “Power 5” conference during non-conference play last season. A road loss to the Horned Frogs didn’t do Illinois State much good in the eyes of the committee.

So Illinois State head coach Dan Muller took an interesting approach to generating a more respectable non-conference schedule. Muller took to Twitter and fully utilized his bitmoji game to call out programs from bigger conferences. His goal was to get the NCAA tournament selection committee’s attention with how tough it is for mid-major programs to schedule bigger schools. Muller also hoped the Redbirds could secure a home-and-home series against legitimate, power-conference competition.

“It got a lot of play. I thought it would go national. I didn’t think it would get as big as it got,” Muller said to NBCSports.com. “I got interviews across the country, some TV stuff, and a lot of responses from coaches, friends. A lot of them said it was hilarious. A lot of them said it was great. My point was to emphasize the difficulty in how the selection committee wants schools like us to do [things].”

Muller’s plea quickly went viral. More importantly, Muller’s plea actually worked.

Ole Miss was interested in making a home-and-home deal with the Redbirds. The two programs literally started the series with a very public back-and-forth on Twitter. There was a previous connection between the schools as Torrey Ward had been an assistant coach with both programs. Ward was tragically killed in a plane crash after the 2015 Final Four while he was the associate head coach of the Redbirds.

“It was all public, to be honest. What you saw is how it started,” Muller said of the series. “Rob Bjork, the AD at Ole Miss, tweeted back to me and I hit him back. I’ve known Andy Kennedy for a long time. Obviously there’s a very close acquaintance and friend we’ve got in Torrey Ward — so we had a connection there. That’s why AK wanted to do it. So, we’re grateful and appreciative.”

The two programs started the home-and-home series in Oxford on Saturday as Ward was honored with a video tribute from Ole Miss before the game. Ward’s family was also in attendance — including his mother, ex-wife and two children.

“It was great to see [Ward’s family],” Muller said. “We honored Torrey before the game and I know that was a big part of what Andy wanted to do.”

Besides for the heartwarming gesture in honoring a fallen friend, the game was also beneficial for Illinois State because they earned an overtime win, on the road, against an SEC opponent. Muller’s plan actually worked. The Redbirds have tried to answer the committee this season by playing a top-20 non-conference schedule. Unfortunately, Illinois State isn’t currently in position to earn a potential at-large bid after a sluggish 5-6 start.

But the Valley appears to be wide open now that Wichita State has ascended into the American Athletic Conference. Illinois State has been missing two key members of its rotation for nearly the entire season. Muller is optimistic that the tough non-conference schedule has properly prepared the Redbirds for the conference slate. The race for the Valley’s at-large bid is still going to be tight.

“We’re getting better; we have a lot of talent. We’re building our depth. But we’ve got to be healthy,” Muller said. “If, and when, we’re healthy, I really do think we’ll have a chance to be right there in the end.”

Even if Illinois State falls short of the NCAA tournament this season, Muller has laid the groundwork for another competitive non-conference schedule for next season. Always an aggressive coach when it comes to scheduling, Muller and the Redbirds have some solid opponents like Ole Miss, BYU and Florida Gulf Coast coming to campus next season. Arizona State also called to show interest in a potential home-and-home series with Illinois State. The two programs couldn’t figure out a date to make things work but it served as a reminder that Muller’s tweet was working.

What started as a plea to the NCAA tournament selection committee has turned into an unexpected boon to Illinois State’s scheduling practices. Muller acknowledged that he doesn’t prefer to use Twitter. But Muller might have to bring out his popular bitmoji character more often if it continues to lead to results like this.