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.

Villanova, Syracuse fall out of Top 25 poll as Duke, Kansas stay on top

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Two of college basketball’s bluebloods remained firmly entrenched atop the AP Top 25 after a week of easy wins, while two more tumbled all the way out after a week filled with defeats.

One of them happens to be the reigning national champion.

While top-ranked Duke and No. 2 Kansas did little to hurt their status as early national title contenders, Villanova and Syracuse slid all the way out of the Top 25 on Monday. The Wildcats lost a rematch of last year’s championship game with Michigan, then lost in overtime to Furman on Saturday to give coach Jay Wright’s team back-to-back losses for the first time in five years.

The Wildcats had risen to No. 8 last week. They were among those receiving votes this week.

“We’re trying to work out a lot of chemistry things with our team. We have a lot of new guys,” Villanova guard Phil Booth said. “We’re trying to play more together and figure things out.”

Indeed, the Wildcats are trying to replace key players Mikal Bridges, Jalen Brunson, Donte DiVincenzo and Omari Spellman after last year’s championship run. But while a strong recruiting class is trying to find its way, the Wildcats are off to a 2-2 start for the first time since 1997.

They’re also the first national champion to start 2-2 since UCLA in 1995.

The Wildcats weren’t the only big-time program to take a tumble this week. Syracuse dropped from No. 15 out of the poll after losing to Connecticut and Oregon in the 2k Classic.

“We have to play better offensively we’re going to be successful. Our defense is nowhere near the point it was last year. That’s something that also has to get better,” said Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, whose team is 2-2 for the first time since the 1987-88 season. “There’s no doubt we have a lot of work to do. We’re a long ways away.”

The top five remained unchanged with Duke remained the clear No. 1, receiving 53 of 63 first-place votes after blowing out Eastern Michigan. Kansas was second with seven first-place votes after wins over Vermont and Louisiana-Lafayette, followed by Gonzaga, Virginia and Tennessee.

“I think in the past few days we grew up a bit more,” said Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski, whose team played San Diego State in the first round of the Maui Invitational on Monday.

Gonzaga (3-0) and eighth-ranked Auburn (3-0) are also in the tournament.

“It’s a great field,” Krzyzewski said. “You’re playing three straight days, which will never happen otherwise during the season, so success or failure there has to be looked at a little bit closer. It’s a great opportunity for competition, and there are some big-time teams in the tournament, which usually there are when we’re in the tournament.”

AT THE TOP

The only major movement in the top 10 involved Villanova dropping out and Michigan (5-0) climbing from No. 18 to ninth. Nevada (3-0) remained sixth and North Carolina (4-0) seventh. Auburn moved up one spot and Kentucky (3-1) rounded out the first 10.

BIG RISERS

The Wolverines were the biggest movers, while Virginia Tech (4-0) climbed three spots to No. 13. Clemson was No. 16, followed by UCLA, TCU and LSU after each of them also moved up three spots.

ALSO SLIDING

Marquette joined Villanova and Syracuse in dropping from the poll after the Golden Eagles (3-1) were routed by Indiana. Oregon (3-1) dropped from No. 13 to No. 21 after splitting its games against Iowa and Syracuse in New York.

BIG TEN NEWCOMERS

Iowa (4-0) leaped into the poll at No. 20 after beating Oregon and blowing out UConn to win the 2K Classic. It’s the first time the Hawkeyes have been ranked since the final poll of the 2015-16 season.

The other newcomers this week were also from the Big Ten: Ohio State (4-0) entered at No. 23 after beating Creighton and South Carolina State, and Wisconsin squeaked in ahead of another Big Ten rival in Nebraska at No. 25 after the Badgers (3-0) took care of Xavier and Houston Baptist.

Brian Bowen sues Adidas, associates over corruption scandal

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Former Louisville and South Carolina player Brian Bowen II has sued Adidas and several associates caught up in the college basketball corruption scandal alleging federal racketeering violations that cost him the chance to develop his game.

Bowen’s lawsuit was filed Monday in U.S. District Court in South Carolina. It has asked for unspecified damages and says Bowen and other players targeted by Adidas’ “criminal racketing enterprise” were denied the chance to grow their talents in college on the way to becoming professionals.

“Adidas has thus far infiltrated college basketball with complete impunity. It is now time for them to answer for what they have done and to suffer the consequences of their corporate misconduct,” attorney Mullin McLeod said.

Adidas did not immediately respond to a message from The Associated Press seeking comment.

The suit also names Adidas associates James Gatto, Merl Code, Christian Dawkins, Munish Sood, Thomas Gassnola and Christopher Rivers. Gatto, Code and Dawkins were found guilty last month in a federal trial.

Sood and Gassnola were witnesses at the trial after pleading guilty.

Bowen’s attorney Mullins McLeod said Adidas should answer for their misconduct. The company “has thus far infiltrated college basketball with complete impunity,” he said.

It was alleged the scheme involved giving Bowen’s father $100,000 to have his son play for Louisville.

The younger Bowen enrolled at Louisville in the fall of 2017, but never played a game. He transferred to South Carolina for the spring semester and left in May when it became apparent the NCAA would keep him from playing for longer than Bowen hoped.

Bowen took part in the NBA’s Draft Combine last spring and is playing professionally in Australia.

He has denied any wrongdoing and knowledge of his father’s plans.

“I have always felt that Brian was the true victim of everything that transpired with Adidas,” said attorney Jason A. Setchen, who represented Bowen II in his NCAA case.

Monday Overreactions: Michigan’s elite, Jay Wright on the hotseat, and weekly awards

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PLAYER OF THE WEEK: LaGerald Vick, Kansas

No one in college basketball shot the ball the way that Vick did last week. He went for 32 points in a win over Vermont and set a record by hitting all eight of the threes that he shot. Making that performance all-the-more impressive is that he also made two jumpers with his toes on the three-point line; he was six inches away from going 10-for-10 from three.

Vick then followed that up with a 33 point performance in a win over Louisiana, leading the Jayhawks back from a 12 point first half deficit with another seven threes. This time, however, he shot just 7-for-12. He finished the week 15-for-20 from beyond the arc.

TEAM OF THE WEEK: Michigan Wolverines

What else is there to say about the Wolverines at this point?

They are an elite defense, absolutely dominant at times, that can play big — with Jon Teske at the five — and matchup with teams that want to play small — using Iggy Brazdeikis and Isaiah Livers at the four and the five. There are still some kinks they are going to have to work out on the offensive end of the floor, as they ended the week ranked 149th in raw offensively efficiency, according to KenPom, but if there is anyone that can figure out how to make an OK team capable of scoring, it’s John Beilein.

MONDAY’S OVERREACTIONS

1. THE BIG TEN IS THE DEEPEST CONFERENCE IN THE COUNTRY

It’s hard to overstate just how good the Big Ten, as a whole, has been this season, which is a stark contrast from the way that we viewed this league entering the year.

Through the first two weeks of the season, the conference has suffered a grand total of just six losses. That’s the same number as the ACC. The Big 12, which has four fewer teams and has not yet played their conference challenge, has four total losses. Three of the Big Ten’s six losses have come against teams that are all-but destined to finish at the bottom of the conference. Michigan State lost to then-No. 1 Kansas in the Champions Classic, Purdue lost to No. 16 Virginia Tech in the finals of the Charleston Classic and Indiana lost by a point at Arkansas in a game where they missed two layups in the final five seconds that could have won the game.

As of today, there are eight teams that are in the mix for a spot in the top 25 and two more that could end up being tournament teams by the time it is all said and done.

The Spartans are just as good as advertised, while Michigan has climbed to the top of every Big Ten power ranking after their tremendous start to the season. Ohio State has won at Cincinnati and at Creighton. Wisconsin won at Xavier as Ethan Happ suddenly looks like the dominant force we have expected him to be all year long. Indiana blew out Marquette at home before the Arkansas loss. Purdue has looked better than expected even with the loss to Virginia Tech. Nebraska blew out Seton Hall. Iowa rolled over both Oregon and UConn in the 2K Classic.

Even Maryland and Minnesota have looked good through the first two weeks.

Who predicted that the Big Ten could end up with more NCAA tournament bids than any other league in the sport?

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2. THERE IS NOT A TOP 25 TEAM IN THE BIG EAST

As good as the Big Ten has been, the Big East has been just as bad.

What’s the best win that a team in the league has this season? Is it Butler’s home win over Ole Miss? Providence beating South Carolina in Uncasville? St. John’s winning at Rutgers? Georgetown winning at Illinois? Or beating South Florida in Jamaica? What about DePaul’s home win over Penn State? Might that be it?

I haven’t even gotten to the losses yet. The reason Georgetown played South Florida in Jamaica was because they lost to Loyola Marymount in the opening of a four-team tournament. Providence already has losses to Wichita State and Michigan, who man-handled the Friars. Those same Wolverines humiliated Villanova in Finneran Pavilion just three days before the Wildcats lost in the same building to Furman. They went just 3-7 in the Gavitt Games, and that didn’t include Seton Hall’s home loss to Saint Louis.

The league has certainly had better starts.

3. JAY WRIGHT IS ON THE HOT SEAT

I do not know if that ails Villanova right now is entirely fixable this year. I’ve talked about this over and over again, but the fact of the matter is that Villanova is a program that relies on their culture. They bring in good players and let them marinate a year or two within the culture that Jay Wright has built before unleashing them on the unsuspecting world of college basketball.

But since Wright worked his magic too quickly with Donte DiVincenzo and Omari Spellman, he’s left himself with too many youngsters and not enough veterans to plug those holes. After getting mollywhopped by Michigan, Wright did not play five-star freshman Jahvon Quinerly for a single second in a home loss to Furman. Brandon Slater did not play, either, while Saddiq Bey and Cole Swider combined for 17 minutes in the overtime loss.

It is far from uncommon for Wright to limit the minutes of freshmen that don’t understand what he is asking from them, but I can’t help but wonder if maybe this year — in a season where he needs that youth to be experienced as quickly as humanly possible — he might be better off throwing them to the wolves early and often.

Hell, it’s not like things can be worse than a 27 point home loss to Michigan or an overtime loss to Furman, right?

And for the record, Jay Wright isn’t actually on the hot seat. He’ll never be on the hot seat at Villanova, not before holograms are living creatures and I can write this column while vacationing on the moon.

4. VIRGINIA TECH IS REAL FINAL FOUR THREAT

The Hokies are not going to go anywhere this season, as it looks like Buzz Williams has the most talented group he’s had to date in Blacksburg. Nickeil Alexander-Walker was absolutely sensational during their run to the Charleston Classic title, and Justin Robinson and Ahmed Hill were just as impressive as they were last season.

The top of the ACC is no joke. Duke is Duke, Virginia looks like a juggernaut once against and North Carolina is impressively underrated. I don’t think Virginia Tech is in that group just yet, but they aren’t all that far away.

5. BOL BOL AND MOSES BROWN ARE THE MOST UNDERRATED FRESHMEN IN THE COUNTRY

Bol Bol and Moses Brown are two of the most polarizing prospects in the Class of 2018, and they also happen to be the two-best seven-footers in the class.

Those question marks are a product of the same root problem: motor. Bol Bol’s motor runs hot and cold. There are times where he is, unquestionably, the best player on the floor, a 7-foot-2 unicorn with length, perimeter skill and a soft touch that belies his size. He can be an utterly dominant defensive force when he wants to be. Last week, we saw it, as he went for 26 points, nine boards and four blocks against Syracuse.

Moses Brown has some of the same question marks, and his production has been elite through three games: 19.7 points, 13.7 boards and 4.0 blocks. It will be worth tracking them as the season moves on, but the early returns have been impressive.

NBC Sports Top 25: Michigan, Big Ten climbing in the rankings

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The biggest shakeup of the last week came thanks to Michigan, who not only rolled into Villanova and beat the brakes off of the then-No. 4 Wildcats, they then went up to Mohegan Sun and easily brushed off both George Washington and Providence en route to a dominating win in the Air Force Reserves Tip-Off tournament.

With that win, the Wolverines jumped all the way up to ninth in our preseason top 25, which might actually be low considering just how good this team has been to date.

It also adds to a theme that we see this week: Big Ten teams jumping leaps and bounds into the NBC Sports Top 25. Michigan is 9th. Michigan State is still 13th. Ohio State, Iowa and Purdue climbed into the back end of the rankings at 22, 23 and 25, while Wisconsin, Nebraska and Indiana are all good enough that there would be nothing wrong with slotting them somewhere in the same range.

The ACC, for my money, is the best conference in the country, but the Big Ten looks to be right there with the Big 12 and the SEC in the running for the second best conference in the country.

1. Duke (3-0, Last week: 1)
2. Kansas (3-0, 2)
3. Gonzaga (3-0, 3)
4. North Carolina (4-0, 8)
5. Tennessee (3-0, 6)
6. Virginia (3-0, 7)
7. Nevada (3-0, 5)
8. Auburn (3-0, 9)
9. Michigan (5-0, 22)
10. Kansas State (4-0, 10)
11. Virginia Tech (4-0, 11)
12. Florida State (2-0, 12)
13. Michigan State (3-1, 13)
14. TCU (3-0, 14)
15. UCLA (3-0, 15)
16. Kentucky (3-1, 18)
17. Oregon (3-1, 16)
18. LSU (4-0, 19)
19. Mississippi State (3-0, 20)
20. Clemson (3-0, 21)
21. N.C. State (4-0, 23)
22. Ohio State (4-0, UR)
23. Iowa (4-0, UR)
24. Buffalo (2-0, 25)
25. Purdue (4-1, UR)

New Additions: No. 22 Ohio State, No. 23 Iowa, No. 25 Purdue
Dropped Out: 4. Villanova, 17. Syracuse, 24. Marquette

Sunday’s Three Things To Know: Michigan rolls, Gafford shines, Virginia Tech beats Purdue

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Some believe that Sunday is fun day.

Others think of Sunday as a day for football and nothing else. 

But Sundays are also for college hoops, as Michigan, Daniel Gafford and Virginia Tech showed us.

Here are the three things you need to know:

1. NO. 18 MICHIGAN CONTINUED TO DOMINATE

Fresh off of a 27 point blowout win at Villanova, the Wolverines went to the Mohegan Sun casino and rolled over both George Washington and Providence. The win over the Friars came on Sunday, as Iggy Brazdeikis scored 20 points and Jon Teske added 17. Providence shot just 28 percent from the floor in the loss, as a late first half surge from the Wolverines more or less put this one out of reach before the second half started.

I’m not sure what else there is to say about Michigan at this point in time. The Wolverines are already one of college basketball’s elite defensive teams, and given the new look they can run out this year — playing Brazdeikis and Isaiah Livers, both of whom are strong, 6-foot-8 athletic combo-forwards, at the four and the five — makes them all-the-more versatile. There are still kinks to work out on the offensive end, but if there is anyone that I would want to give four months to figure out how to make offense work, it is John Beilein.

2. NO. 16 VIRGINIA TECH LANDED A COME-FROM-BEHIND WIN OVER NO. 23 PURDUE

The best game of the night was Virginia Tech’s win over Purdue in the title game of the Charleston Classic.

Purdue jumped out to a 12-point lead thanks to a hot start from Carsen Edwards and some timely play-making by Evan Boudreaux, but the Hokies came roaring back in the second half. Nickeil Alexander-Walker was terrific while Justin Robinson and Ahmed Hill made big play after big play in the second half.

There is a lot to like about Tech this season, and it looks like Buzz Williams has them lined up for their third straight trip to the NCAA tournament.

3. ARKANSAS CENTER DANIEL GAFFORD WAS DOMINANT

Gafford looked every bit the part of a future lottery pick, as he went for 27 points, 12 boards and three blocks in a win over Indiana in Fayetteville on Sunday evening. This is exactly the kind of performance that Arkansas fans were expecting out of their star center when he announced that he would be returning to school for his sophomore season. It is also the kind of performance that could end up getting Arkansas on the right side of the bubble come Selection Sunday.

There is still so much time left this season, but Indiana has looked good at times this year. This result had quite a bit to do with a young Indiana team missing two starters while playing on the road for the first time this season. That ended up being a great combination for the Hogs, and it earned them a win that is going to look better two or three months from now than it does today.