By Joe Henricksen
There are always things in life you can't figure out. Why aren't there more berries in Crunchberries cereal? Why wouldn't a Waffle House that I went to at least have pancakes on the menu? Why bring a newborn baby to the ballpark to watch a Major League Baseball game? And why wouldn't a 5-10 white kid with the athleticism to win a NCAA Dunk Contest not have developed better skills to play at a higher level than Illinois College?
And when it comes to the spring and summer circuit of AAU/club basketball, there is plenty to scratch your head over. There is always something to be figured out as it pertains to club basketball and constant "I wonder why they couldn't do this?" moments.
And the Hoops Report isn't talking about the seedy side, cleaning things up or the recruiting games that are typically front and center when it comes to AAU/club basketball discussions. This is simply trying to figure out how to improve the product, which shouldn't be that hard. Should it?
There are roadblocks to be sure. The biggest roadblock in being able to see better basketball from AAU/Club teams is the limited amount of practice time. In defense of the AAU/Club teams, they just don't have as much time to practice together and work as a team or have as much structure as a high school team. (A few of the other roadblocks will be talked about later in this blog).
But after watching an endless amount of basketball (some good, some great, but mostly bad) from April through July, there has to be a way to see better basketball as a whole. So this is more of a plea to organizers of AAU/Club tournaments than anything else. While the U.S. government figures out how to get out of this financial mess our country is in, you basketball organizers take the next eight months, before the start of the club cycle begins again next April, and figure out a plan to make the AAU/Club basketball brand a better one. There has to be a way of playing and watching better basketball than what we're currently seeing on the club circuit.
Nike's EYBL plan is at least on the right track. The Elite Youth Basketball's mission was to improve the game of basketball from the ground up. The EYBL hoped to provide instruction and structure to the travel team circuit and let the top high school players in the country play one another.
In a nutshell, the EYBL identifies the top club teams (obviously with the top players) and has them play in three preliminary spring events in Virginia, Texas and California. Then the top teams qualify for what is considered the best tournament of the summer -- the Nike Peach Jam in North Augusta, SC in July.
While the EYBL does bring great teams and superior talent all to one event, we're only talking a few tournaments a year when there are hundreds of others going on around the country. Plus, this is relegated to only Nike-sponsored teams, leaving dozens and dozens of other top club programs out of the mix.
The Hoops Report just wants to get away from so many meaningless and dreadful AAU games that are played from April to July on the circuit. And the calendar turning to August, the only month now where high school basketball isn't played, isn't the answer. It will all heat up again next spring. So lets fix it.
The proliferation of AAU events (and the amount of teams) is mind-numbing, beginning the weekend after the IHSA state tournament (Yes, the very next weekend!), going through the months of April and May and then, the mother lode of events played throughout the month of July. And the number of AAU teams in the Chicago area, throughout the state and around the country borders insane. Everyone can play basketball, right?
But as long as parents will pay the money for Johnny Jr. to get his basketball fix, club programs will continue to sign up for tournament after tournament -- no matter what the talent level is -- and pay anywhere from $300 to $600 to play in a weekend event. And as a result, there are so many bad, bad teams. These teams infiltrate the tournaments and the majority of games played are nearly unwatchable. Just because the uniform name may have "Elite" or "Stars" or "Select" or "All-Whatever" on them doesn't mean they're any good.
No one wins when the halftime score is 38-9 and final scores look like 72-27, 64-30 -- or worse. In matchups like these the play is ragged, the hustle is lacking, the players don't enjoy it on either side and basketball people sit and wait for the next set of games hoping to find a decent matchup. I spent three hours at a practice of a respected, high-level club program and found it to be more entertaining and worthwhile than sitting at some of the AAU tournaments this past spring.
Listen, this is club basketball! AAU! Whatever you want to call it. There aren't any rules of how you do things. There is no governing body. The IHSA isn't looking over your shoulder to make sure fairness, sportsmanship and equality are present. And quite frankly, few people care -- or even remember -- who wins games aside from those playing in them (and most of the time I'm not even sure that is the case). Tournament titles are great and all, but the fact is there is another tournament starting in a few days and the last one was forgotten about.
There are too many games, too many teams, too many tournaments to care too much about results.
Lets face it, the AAU/Club scene is about the individual player. It's about individual players matching up against other individual players with a similar talent level. And hopefully, as a result, they get better and noticed by college coaches during the evaluation period.
There aren't rivalries or conference championships. There aren't regional and sectional titles to be won in front of sold out high school gyms. It is what it is, so why can't we do this in a way that benefits everyone? (Yes, I'm being selfish. If I'm stuck in gyms all spring and summer at least give me some good basketball to watch!)
My dream? At this point, with all the horrendous basketball being played in AAU and, along with it, the deterioration of the game, I would do anything to copy the European professional club basketball system. Pipe dream? Maybe. But there is a pyramid for professional Europe hoops talent with a hierarchical format. You have the top tier, the Euroleague, followed by the second tier Eurocup and the third tier EuroChallenge.
In Europe, the winner of the two bottom divisions gets promoted the following year. The same concept could be used for the big AAU tournaments each spring and throughout July. If we're going to allow all these teams to bottom out the brand, we're going to have to weed some of them out while still allowing them an opportunity.
Right now the common way an AAU/Club tournament is run is teams are put into small pools of either three or four teams. Typically, all the elite teams are spread out into different pools to beat up on the two or three other inferior teams in pool play. Then the winners move on, usually to the next day, where they finally play one another in tournament play.
Unfortunately, that can sometimes be just one, two or three games where top teams are potentially matched up with one another. The second and third tier of teams do the same against one another in two other tournaments.
Every once in a blue moon, a tournament organizer will shake things up with a concept called "Super Pool" or "Match Play." Now this is what I'm talking about. This is how all AAU/Club tournaments should be. The "Super Pool Play" format puts all the top teams in the event into one pool, matched up against one another and squaring off throughout the event. Perfect.
But ... Always a but. Every team that pays to play in these events, even those with considerably less talent, wants a shot at the top club teams. They want their exposure, too.
We can have it all while incorporating our tiered European-style format. We can have "super pool play" and still have every team in the event -- the good, bad and horrible -- with each of them having a shot at being the overall champion of an event that no one will remember.
We can have "Super Pool Play" where the top teams play one another, knowing every team in that "super pool" will automatically qualify for the top-tier tournament -- no matter their record -- to be played at the end of the event. Depending on the size of the field of teams and the event, those teams in "Super Pool Play" will play two, three or four games leading up to the tournament. The remaining teams (the second tier of teams) play in their own pools, with the winner of those pools advancing to the top-tier tournament to join the "super pool play" teams. Everyone still plays the same amount of games and everyone still has a shot at playing the big, bad club teams. But they have to earn that right first by winning their pool.
Meanwhile, the top teams get tested regularly and throughout an event. Players get better. I don't get bored watching so many meaningless games. And in July, college coaches get the most out of the limited time they have to evaluate.
Go Euro, baby!