No matter which of the four AAU basketball tournaments a fan or coach or media member chose to attend in Las Vegas in late July, the atmosphere was about the same at each one.
Games were played virtually nonstop, with coaches sitting in a designated area to the side, often hoping more to be seen by top prospects than evaluating them. Fans flooded the various gyms to get a glimpse of tomorrow’s college stars, and media members chased down prospects to see how close they were to choosing a school.
AAU, for a combination of reasons, long ago surpassed high schools as far as where college basketball coaches go to recruit. Anthony Brown, who directs local power Las Vegas Prospects, said that’s a good thing, because it creates a one-stop shop for players to be evaluated and against a more elite level of athlete than in high schools.
“When you’re playing against those guys, it shows people where you’re at,” Brown said.
But the AAU game is not without its critics. Many say fundamentals aren’t taught, and that AAU coaches hold unusual sway over players regarding which universities they choose.
Several notable college coaches who were in Las Vegas in May for a Coaches vs. Cancer event said it was unfair to label all of AAU bad.
“Unfortunately, a few summertime coaches who aren’t in it for the right reasons perhaps cloud it for everyone,” former UNLV and current Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger said. “But there are so many good coaches in the summertime, so many people that spend their time and give extra effort to help these young people have good guidance, have good direction. Those are the ones to be celebrated and appreciated.”
“Because one cop shoots a kid, does that make all cops bad?” Brown asked. “Just because one Muslim does something crazy, does that make all Muslims bad? Because one Christian shoots up a church, does that make all Christians bad? Of course not. There’s one bad apple in every bunch.”
North Carolina coach Roy Williams said the recruiting focus on AAU was overstated.
“You can’t say AAU because AAU is only the national events,” Williams said. “All the rest of these has nothing to do with AAU. But kids and families think summer basketball’s more important than their high schools in a lot of cases.”
Men’s basketball is the most visible sport in which the recruiting focus has switched from high schools, but it’s far from the only one. Football, in fact, might be the only sport in which the high school coach remains a major contact.
“The club teams have grown huge in the last probably five or six years,” Rebels volleyball coach Cindy Fredrick said. “When people say to us, ‘What high school did your player come from?’ We’re like, ‘I don’t know.’ We really don’t, because we can’t go out and watch them play in high school, because that’s our season.”
For baseball, UNLV coach Stan Stolte said the emphasis has switched to recruiting off travel teams.
“Kids are growing up playing travel ball and not playing (American) Legion and high school is not as crucial as it used to be,” Stolte said. “Travel teams have gotten so big and powerful, they’re getting kids to buy in and play for them. I’m not saying all travel teams are bad, I just hate that the high school coach and the parent are getting taken out of the recruiting process as much as they are.”
But UNLV women’s basketball coach Kathy Olivier said that though she doesn’t recruit as often anymore through high schools, she hasn’t abandoned going through prep coaches.
“If you’re local, with Vegas our small community, we deal with the local (high school) coaches,” Olivier said. “If we’re recruiting someone from (Los Angeles), I might go through the club coach a little more.”
First-year UNLV men’s basketball coach Marvin Menzies holds a similar view.
“I have always had the approach to recruit from the high school as well as the AAU programs,” Menzies said. “It seems as though the national exposure is often given to the AAU program.
“I am a firm believer that the high school coach plays a major role in the player’s development, so obviously touching base with the high school and interacting with them is a big plus as well.”
Contact Mark Anderson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2914. Follow on Twitter: @markanderson65