Originally posted on www.gazette.net by Travis Mewhirter
Most of America was sound asleep last weekend when 30 or so college basketball coaches yawned their way through McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas and crammed onto a red-eye flight bound for Orlando. As George Washington University's coach, Mike Lonergan, skimmed the glassy-eyed scene, he said he saw all of the familiar faces: John Beilein from Michigan, Bob Huggins of West Virginia, Purdue's Matt Painter, Navy's Ed DeChellis.
Unlike the rest of the passengers on the flight, it wasn't so much a trip from the neon of Vegas to the beaches of Florida, rather an exhausting recruiting voyage from one Amateur Athletic Union basketball tournament to the next.
“It was unbelievable,” said Lonergan, who signed Col. Zadok Magruder High School's Nick Griffin last year. “… I'd say about 90 percent of our recruiting is based on AAU because of the time of year and the recruiting is so accelerated.”
Hyperdrive might be the more apt descriptor of recruiting when AAU hums into full swing. Within two weeks last summer with the local AAU team D.C. Assault, Suitland's Roddy Peters had gathered offers from schools with prestigious basketball pedigrees such as Kansas, UCLA, Georgetown, Illinois, Maryland, Cincinnati and scores of others. He said it took three years of headlining the Rams for Peters to scrape up one, lonely offer from St. Joseph's.
“I didn't think that I would have been recruited that much,” said Peters, who opted to play for Mark Turgeon and the University of Maryland. “I thought I was going to be kind of small time.”
With the Assault, and many other elite AAU teams in the area and around the nation, the notion of small-time recruiting is near comical. Said Assault general manager Damon Handon, “A high school team may have one, maybe two Division I kids, but every kid in our program is a [Division I] prospect.”
To be on an elite high school team is one thing; to be on an elite AAU team represents a whole new world of exposure and opportunity, where teams play in front of “basically every big school,” Peters said, and offers are extended by the handful. Before Potomac's Dion Wiley could get recruited by the big time schools, according to Wolverine coach Renard Johnson, he had to be recruited by the big time AAU programs. Now, after a few seasons with Team Takeover, Wiley is the most heralded rising senior in the state, bound for Maryland over his chopped down list of Georgetown, Cincinnati and Florida State. Former Magruder standout Garland Owens, headed for Boston College this year after a prep season with Massanutten Military Academy, had created a little buzz during his successful stint as a Colonel, but it wasn't until he joined the Mid-Atlantic Select that the high-level offers began pouring in.
“It's pretty much a common thing,” Select coach James Lee said. “A lot of [college] coaches know the [Washington Catholic Athletic Conference] and the [Interstate Athletic Conference] but they're not familiar with kids from Oakdale and some of the public schools, so once he gets on the AAU circuit his exposure, his recruiting stock skyrockets.”
The first true star to graduate from the Select was Springbrook's Jamal Olasewere, who picked Long Island over Georgetown, Xavier and several others. As Olasewere's name grew, so did the Select's. Since the summer of 2010, Lee estimates he has sent “at least” 30 to 40 players onto schools, scholarship in hand, with “seven or eight” from last season's crop alone.
“I think it's a great opportunity for kids to get exposure, to showcase what they can do and it's a great avenue for college coaches to see athletes play,” Lee said. “These tournaments have 32, 64 teams you can see play on a few courts.”
Added Lonergan, “You can go to one event and see 100 Division I players.”
National championship tournaments hosted in Milwaukee, Atlantic City, Las Vegas and Orlando are the obvious hotbeds for scholarship offers, but Peters said that even in the smaller tournaments he saw dozens of coaches in the stands. When exactly it is that AAU became the prime recruiting grounds for basketball players is near impossible to pinpoint — Springbrook coach Tom Crowell estimates it to be about 14 to 15 years ago — but it's easy to see why. College coaches' schedules are freed up for traveling — both Turgeon and Dalonte Hill, the Terps' top recruiter, were also in attendance in Vegas for the Adidas Super 64 tournament last weekend — they get to see what the players can do not only playing alongside some of the best players in the country, but against the best players in the country.
“That's huge,” Lonergan said. “It's a good level of AAU, it's not like they're scoring 18 points in a summer league game and the two best players on the other team are away on vacation. Nearly every player on the court is a Division I player.”
Not that high school doesn't matter, or that college coaches don't frequent the local matchups during the winter — Otto Porter, the Washington Wizards' recent No. 3 lottery pick in the NBA draft, never took a single shot in AAU basketball — but it has become what some coaches are calling a “necessary evil.”
“It's funny, because all these guys go around through AAU ball, but the final decision — they almost always call the high school coaches,” Crowell said. “They want to know 'What kind of kid is he?' I think the AAU and high school coaches can go hand in hand.”
In the end, Crowell said, there are ultimately three factors in deciding an athlete's future at the next level: talent, character, and the ability to expose the two. All it takes, he said, “is just one guy to look at them.”