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.

No. 11 Cincinnati rallies for 82-74 win over Tulsa

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HIGHLAND HEIGHTS, Ky. — Gary Clark led a 24-4 run that put Cincinnati ahead to stay early in the second half, and the 11th-ranked Bearcats held on for an 82-74 victory over Tulsa on Sunday that preserved their one-game lead in the American Athletic Conference heading into the final week.

Cincinnati (25-4, 14-2) stayed ahead of No. 13 Wichita State (23-5, 13-3) in the race for the regular-season title. The Shockers won on Cincinnati’s home court 76-72 a week ago.

Wichita State plays at UCF on Thursday and hosts Cincinnati next Sunday in a potential showdown game. The Bearcats play at Tulane on Thursday before heading to Wichita State.

The Bearcats struggled defensively, giving up a season-high 14 3-pointers, but made a season-high 15 from beyond the arc. Clark and Jarron Cumberland had 17 points apiece.

Tulsa (17-11, 10-7) led by eight points early in the second before Clark scored during the decisive run. Junior Etou scored 21 for Tulsa, which had its six-game winning streak snapped.

Cincinnati completed its season playing at Northern Kentucky University while its on-campus arena is renovated, going 14-1 at BB&T Arena.

BIG PICTURE

Tulsa: The Golden Hurricane is wrapping up a regular season that marks a step up for the program. Tulsa went 15-17 last season and 8-10 in the AAC, finishing seventh. It’s fourth in the league with two games to go.

Cincinnati: Even though the Bearcats rank second nationally in defense, they’d given up a lot of open shots in the previous two games, a concern to coach Mick Cronin. The Golden Hurricane got plenty of those, too, while shooting 59 percent in the first half. The Golden Hurricane led 47-44 at the break, the most points Cincinnati has allowed in a half this season.

UP NEXT

Tulsa: Golden Hurricane plays at East Carolina on Thursday. Tulsa opened AAC play by beating ECU 79-53 on Dec. 28.

Cincinnati: The Bearcats have won four straight and 14 of 15 against Tulane, including a 78-61 victory last season.

Bubble Banter: Sunday Funday on the bubble

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As we will do every day throughout the rest of the season, here is a look at how college basketball’s bubble teams fared on Sunday.

It’s worth reminding you here that the way winning are labeled have changed this season. Instead of looking at all top 50 wins equally, the selection committee will be using criteria that breaks wins down into four quadrants, using the RPI:

  • Quadrant 1: Home vs. 1-30, Neutral vs. 1-50, Road vs. 1-75
  • Quadrant 2: Home vs. 31-75, Neutral vs. 51-100, Road vs. 76-135
  • Quadrant 3: Home vs. 76-160, Neutral vs. 101-200, Road vs. 136-240
  • Quadrant 4: Home vs. 161 plus, Neutral vs. 201 plus, Road vs. 240 plus

The latest NBC Sports Bracketology can be found here.

YET TO PLAY

TEMPLE
UCLA
PENN STATE
NEBRASKA
N.C. STATE

Georgia’s Mark Fox ‘disgusted’ by investigation into college basketball

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Georgia head coach Mark Fox did not hold back when asked about the FBI investigation into corruption in college basketball, calling is “disgusting” and pleading with coaches and the institutions that employ them to do right.

“It starts with our coaches, and then you ask how the NCAA has handled it,” Fox said. “The NCAA is made up of member institutions. How are the institutions handling it? That’d be my first question. How are they handling it? Putting their head in the sand and looking the other way? I’m past anger, sadness. It’s just disgusting, and we’re really hurting the game, and the game has been so good to everybody.”

Fox is in a difficult position. He’s regarded as one of the nicer coaches in the business and is considered to be ‘clean’. He team also appears headed for another NIT, which could end up costing him his job.

“We’ve had some situations where we didn’t get players because of that reason, and other teams have, too,” Fox said.

“I’m disgusted,” he added. “I’m disgusted with how people have treated our game. It’s absolutely disgusting.”

Cuonzo Martin: ‘No timetable’ for a Michael Porter Jr. return

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There still is not clarity on whether or not Missouri freshman Michael Porter Jr. will return to the court this season.

On Saturday, he participated in Missouri’s shootaround at Kentucky but did not run through warmups and did not play in the game.

“I don’t have a timeline,” Missouri head coach Cuonzo Martin said after Saturday’s 87-66 loss. “He wants to play.”

“We have to make sure he’s ready to go.”

Porter has only had one full practice since he underwent surgery on his back in November, and that came on Friday. A source confirmed to NBC Sports that Porter was, in fact, cleared for full contact on Thursday afternoon after a visit with a doctor.

Porter is expected to continue practicing with the team. He told reporters earlier this month that he would like to get a few games prior to the start of tournament play if he happens to take part in any games.

Kentucky, Duke, Arizona comment on player eligibility amidst FBI scandal

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On Saturday night, Kentucky won their third straight game over an opponent that will be in next month’s NCAA tournament. They were led by freshman Kevin Knox, who finished with 21 points just 36 hours after his name appeared in a report by Yahoo Sports in connection with a runner that was tied to disgraced NBA agent Andy Miller.

“I’m not here to talk about that,” Knox said in response to questions regarding the runner, Christian Dawkins, or the story that Yahoo published.

“That was all the university dealing with it,” Kentucky head coach John Calipari said, adding that he did not discuss the matter with Knox. “I wasn’t involved in any way. But I felt good about it.”

“I was sure I would be able to play this whole week,” Knox told reporters. “I wasn’t really focused on none of that. I let Kentucky handle it.

“I just focused on me, focused on my game, and let them handle it. I slept well at night knowing I was going to be able to play.”

Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski went a step further, detailing precisely how he found out about the report and how Wendell Carter’s parents were involved. Carter’s mother called him while he was walking his dog and told him what was in the story. According to Coach K, Wendell’s parents went to break bread with Dawkins, but Wendell’s father did not like him and left immediately while Wendell’s mother stayed to be polite. She said she did not have anything to eat.

“It wasn’t a distraction because I know I didn’t do anything wrong,” Carter told reporters after going for 16 points, 10 boards, four steals, four assists and two blocks in a win over Syracuse. “My family didn’t do anything wrong. No one around me did anything wrong. I knew I was going to play. Once I got out on the court, it was all good. It felt good.”

“We are very comfortable with where we are on this,” Coach K said. “We don’t feel like we are taking any chances with this. We very confident about this particular thing.”

Alabama told ESPN that any connection that Collin Sexton had to Dawkins or the Yahoo story was dealt with during his one-game suspension at the start of the season.

“We reviewed i, and after we reviewed it, we made the decision that Collin was going to be available for us,” Alabama coach Avery Johnson said. “That’s the extent of it.”

Meanwhile, Arizona lost at Oregon after Sean Miller was replaced by Lorenzo Romar as head coach for the night. Romar offered no answers as to whether or not Miller, who was reportedly caught on a fire tap talking about a $100,000 payment to Deandre Ayton, will return to the program anytime soon because, as he put it, “I don’t know.” Romar was unable to even answer if he would be coaching practice on Sunday.