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Prep basketball takes backseat to AAU in recruiting game

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MANHATTAN, Kan. — Back when Bruce Weber was an up-and-coming assistant on Gene Keady’s staff at Purdue, the coach would spend countless hours on planes and behind the wheel to catch as many high school basketball games as possible.

He would walk into the gymnasium of an elite prospect on a cold January night and wedge his way into a crowd of half a dozen other coaches, all trying to scout their next potential star.

“These young guys, they can’t even imagine,” said Weber, now the coach at Kansas State, “but there was no AAU, and the young guys that grew up in it, played in it, that’s all they know.”

A gradual but pronounced change has occurred in basketball recruiting, one that has taken much of the importance away from the high school game. Instead, more and more college coaches spend the majority of their time and budgets to watch travel teams playing on the sneaker circuits sponsored by the likes of Adidas and Nike, and the multitude of high-profile summer tournaments that have cropped up.

It makes sense, too: Weber can see dozens of top recruits in a single night at the Peach Jam event in July than he’d see by logging thousands of frequent flyer miles to see their high school teams.

Is prep basketball becoming an afterthought for those who stock rosters in college?

“Many college programs still make an effort to watch and recruit student-athletes at high school competitions, but elite showcases and summer basketball definitely offer these programs more chances to see kids in the offseason than ever before,” said Alex Schobert, the coach of Belleville West High School in Illinois, which sent elite prospect EJ Liddell to Ohio State this season. “The landscape of college basketball and recruiting has changed tremendously the last few years.”

The powerbrokers of the NCAA have noticed it, too.

The governing body made sweeping changes this past year to off-season recruiting and evaluation periods over the summer months. Among the many moves was the addition of a second three-day evaluation weekend at the end of June that is only for scholastic events, an attempt to bring some of the focus back to the high school basketball programs that once formed the backbone of recruiting.

“Being in Dallas, we get a lot of college coaches through here,” said David Peavy, the coach of powerhouse Duncanville High School, whose son Micah is a top-50 recruit headed to Texas Tech.

“But it’s tough. It’s tough on the schools,” Peavy said. “I’m glad in a way for the way it is now — that these kids get so much exposure — but it’s tough on high schools.”

It doesn’t help them that their seasons coincide with the college season, when coaches find it difficult to slip away for a few days to drop in on high school games.

John Oxton, who has spent three decades coaching Lakeville North High School in Minnesota, also has seen the trend. But he points out that if a coach is really interested in a player, they still get in touch with the high school coach, who often can offer a broader assessment of the individual.

Shooting, rebounding and scoring matter. So do academics, personality and general disposition.

“It’s not an exact science, recruiting,” said Oregon coach Dana Altman, who spent nearly two decades seeking the best mid-major prospects for Marshall and Creighton, and who now is landing five-star recruits with regularity in the Pac-12.

Part of recruiting, Altman said, becomes a game of who you know.

That is where the value still exists in high schools.

“I don’t know if there’s been more focus put on elite events and the like, but I do know that relationship building seems to be one of the main focuses now,” said Mike Jones, who coaches perennial power DeMatha High School outside Washington, D.C., and USA Basketball’s under-16 national team.

“I would agree that being seen in gyms of top-level players has become a priority,” Jones said, “but rules allow for only a certain number of visits, so coaches have to be very strategic.”

It’s not just that coaches are putting more emphasis on summer games, either. The kids taking the court understand a showcase tournament that attracts dozens of high-level coaches usually means more to their future than a regular-season game with their high school friends.

“In high school, it’s all about winning,” said Kansas State freshman DaJuan Gordon, who was Mr. Chicago at Curie High School last season, and who starred for Team Rose on the Adidas Gauntlet circuit in the summer months. “With AAU, it’s about winning and your individual achievement.”

Gordon’s new college teammate, Antonio Gordon, agreed that summer games pack more pressure, along with more exposure and more opportunities.

“I feel like the games we played were more fun at AAU rather than high school games,” said Gordon, who played alongside Christian Braun (Kansas), Malik Hall (Michigan State) and Grant Sherfield (UCLA) for MoKan Elite and helped his team to the Peach Jam semifinals last year.

“Games were pretty easy in high school,” Gordon said, “but AAU games are against people that are similar to you, just as good as you and even better than you, going to big schools.”

That talent level — and the volume of players at that level — are why Weber and his coach staff at Kansas State have embraced the trend toward scouting the summer leagues and sneaker circuits.

It’s why every other coach in America emphasizes them over the prep season, too.

“I hope we get a little mixture of both. That’s the goal of the NCAA,” he said. “Hopefully we can meet with the AAU and work with the shoe companies and make this a very positive thing.”

Bubbles brewing with season on horizon

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
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INDIANAPOLIS — With the coronavirus pandemic already forcing changes for college basketball, a bubble may be brewing in Indianapolis.

Indiana Sports Corp. released a 16-page proposal Friday that calls for turning the city convention center’s exhibition halls and meeting rooms into basketball courts and locker rooms. There would be expansive safety measures and daily COVID-19 testing.

The all-inclusive price starts at $90,000 per team and would cover 20 hotel rooms per traveling party, testing, daily food vouchers ranging from $30-$50 and the cost of game officials. Sports Corp. President Ryan Vaughn said the price depends on what offerings teams or leagues choose.

“The interest has been high,” Vaughn said. “I think as conferences figure out what conference and non-conference schedules are going to look like, we’re we’re a very good option for folks. I would tell you we’ve had conversations with the power six conferences, mid-majors, it’s really kind of all over the Division I spectrum.”

Small wonder: The NCAA this week announced teams could start ramping up workouts Monday, with preseason practices set to begin Oct. 14. Season openers, however, were pushed back to Nov. 25 amid wide-ranging uncertainty about campus safety and team travel in the pandemic.

There is already scrambling going on and some of the marquee early-season tournaments have already been impacted.

The Maui Invitational will be moved from Hawaii to Asheville, North Carolina, with dates still to be determined and organizers clear that everyone involved “will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.” The Batttle 4 Atlantis has been canceled. The Cancun Challenge will be held in Melbourne, Florida, not Mexico.

More changes almost certainly will be coming, including what to do with the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.

“I think we’re past the guesswork on whether we play 20 conference games or more than that,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said Friday. “We’re trying to get everybody set like in terms of MTEs (multi-team events), figuring out when to play the ACC-Big Ten challenge.”

Painter, who was part of the NCAA committee that recommended how to start the season, noted part of the uncertainty stems from differing protocols imposed by campus, city and state officials.

In Indianapolis, Vaughn believes the convention center, nearby hotels, restaurants and downtown businesses, many within walking distance of the venue, could safely accommodate up to 24 teams. The 745,000-square foot facility would feature six basketball courts and two competition courts.

Anyone entering the convention center would undergo saliva-based rapid response testing, which would be sent to a third-party lab for results. Others venues could be added, too, potentially with more fans, if the case numbers decline.

If there is a taker, the event also could serve as a dry run for the 2021 Final Four, also slated for Indy.

“It’s not going to hurt,” Vaughn said. “I can tell you all the planning we’re doing right now is the same for a Final Four that’s been scheduled here for any other year. But it would be nice to have this experience under our belt to see if it can be done.”

Maui Invitational moving to North Carolina during pandemic

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ASHEVILLE, N.C. — The Maui Invitational is moving to the mainland during the coronavirus pandemic.

One of the premier preseason tournaments on the college basketball schedule, the Maui Invitational will be played at the Harrah’s Cherokee Center in downtown Asheville, North Carolina.

Dates for the tournament announced Friday have yet to be finalized. The NCAA announced Wednesday that the college basketball season will begin Nov. 25.

This year’s Maui Invitational field includes Alabama, Davidson, Indiana, North Carolina, Providence, Stanford, Texas and UNLV.

All teams, staff, officials, and personnel will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.

Burton eligible at Texas Tech after 2 seasons at Wichita State

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LUBBOCK, Texas — Junior guard Jamarius Burton has been granted a waiver from the NCAA that makes him eligible to play this season for Texas Tech after starting 52 games the past two seasons for Wichita State.

Texas Tech coach Chris Beard announced the waiver Thursday, which came five months after Burton signed with the Big 12 team.

Burton has two seasons of eligibility remaining, as well as a redshirt season he could utilize. He averaged 10.3 points and 3.4 assists per game as a sophomore at Wichita State, where he played 67 games overall.

Burton is from Charlotte. He helped lead Independence High School to a 31-1 record and the North Carolina Class 4A state championship as a senior there.

NCAA season set to open day before Thanksgiving

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The NCAA men’s and women’s basketball season will begin on Nov. 25, the day before Thanksgiving.

The Division I Council voted Wednesday to push the start date back from the originally scheduled Nov. 10 as one of several precautions against the spread of coronavirus.

The later start date coincides with the decision most schools made to send students home from Thanksgiving until January out of concern about a potential late-fall and early-winter flareup of COVID-19. Closed campuses could serve as a quasi bubble for players and provide a window for non-conference games.

The maximum number of regular-season games has been reduced from 31 to 27. The minimum number of games for consideration for the NCAA Tournament was cut from 25 to 13.

Teams can start preseason practices Oct. 14 but will be allowed to work out 12 hours per week beginning Monday.

No scrimmages against other teams or exhibitions are allowed.

In other action, the council voted to extend the recruiting dead period for all sports through Dec. 31. In-person recruiting is not allowed during a dead period, though phone calls and other correspondence are allowed.

The men’s and women’s basketball oversight committees had jointly recommended a start date of Nov. 21, which would have allowed for games to be played on the weekend before Thanksgiving. The council opted not to do that to avoid a conflict with regular-season football games.

The council is scheduled to meet again Oct. 13-14 and could delay the start date and change other pieces of the basketball framework if circumstances surrounding the virus warrant.

UConn’s Tyrese Martin granted waiver to play this season

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STORRS, Conn. — UConn swingman Tyrese Martin, who transferred from Rhode Island in April, has been granted a waiver that will allow him to play for the Huskies this season.

The 6-foot-6 junior averaged 12.8 points and 7.1 rebounds and started every game last season for URI, where he was recruited by current UConn coach Dan Hurley.

NCAA rules require undergraduate transfers to sit out a season, but the organization has been more lenient in granting waivers during the pandemic.

Martin, 21, is expected to compete for playing time at UConn on the wing as both a guard and small forward.