Rockridge standout basketball player Ethan Happ admits to being nervous the first time he saw Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan in the stands at an AAU basketball tournament. The last thing he wanted to do was have a bad game.
AAU tournaments are prime hunting grounds for college coaches.
"Big names will circulate before the game," said Happ, who plays for the Quad-City Elite and already has committed to Ryan and the Badgers. "Everyone will look over there whether they say they will or not. You just have to play as hard as you can."
During NCAA-live events, college coaches are not allowed direct contact with a player. All they can do is observe. Once a college coach becomes interested in a player, he is allowed to speak to the AAU coach or make contact with the high school coach to get more information.
Summer basketball is all about recruiting. How a college team and player find each other is often a complex process with factors both on and off the court.
On the lookout
Aside from one-stop shopping, college coaches like AAU tournaments because they allow them to evaluate players as they compete against those with similar skills. How much weight AAU performance carries can vary from program to program, though.
"I think it all depends on the kid," Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg said. "I think you have to look at the whole package. You have to get as much information as possible. You look at them equally for the most part, but there are some kids you put more stock in their high school game and some you put more stock in their AAU."
Other coaches, such as Black Hawk College coach Darren Bizarri, lean more on what they see from AAU competition.
"You look at the talent and how they competed against talented kids," Bizarri said. "I think it's always good to see them play with their high school teams, but at the same time you need to see them play against talented kids to make those evaluations. It's all based on what the NCAA rule is. If the NCAA said the only time you could see a player was during their high school season, AAU wouldn't be what it is."
While working as an assistant at George Mason University, Assumption boys basketball coach Joe Barrer put his emphasis on the high school season.
"It's a longer season and you're dealing with multiple practices," Barrer said. "You do need to see the whole picture. A lot of times at George Mason it wasn't always all about AAU basketball because it wasn't a good fit where they were playing, or they weren't that well-coached, or the games weren't that good or competitive. It was a balance."
United Township coach Marc Polite said while he was a recruiter for Florida Gulf Coast University, the AAU season was where most of his relationships with players began.
"We'd rank kids off ability and score and which ones we thought we'd have a chance of getting,'' Polite said. "But those lists were based largely off the evaluations of AAU. We'd see those kids, like those kids, and then when fall started, you'd really start zeroing in on the high school level."
For Happ and former Rock Island standout Chasson Randle, who plays for Stanford, there is no doubt AAU helped them.
"Going to a smaller school, there aren't a lot of coaches coming to watch you play or hear your name," Happ said, noting that once the first Division-I offer came, others quickly followed. "It's hard to get your name out there without AAU."
Hoiberg said summer basketball was a critical part of his development and finding his way to Ames during his playing days.
"We had a game when I started that we were outscored 100-58 and I had 50 of our points," Hoiberg said. "I got picked up to play by a different team and we won state, then we won nationals and we went on to keep that team together, and three of us went on to Iowa State."
Randle said AAU helped raise the level of awareness about his game.
"I think it helped me significantly," he said. "Coming out of Rock Island and not being from a big city like Chicago, it helped me get on the national stage. It gave me the exposure I needed to get to college."
On the move
To find the right fit, some players go to great lengths to find a team. Randle traveled every weekend to Chicago to practice and play with the Illinois Wolves.
Those who are still being recruited think along the same lines. North Scott sophomores Cortez Seales and Grant Graham travel to play AAU ball. Seales plays for Kingdom Hoops out of Ankeny, while Graham is part of All Iowa Attack from Ames.
"When I first started, there wasn't that many teams around here, so we went kind of far to play with the best," said Graham, who started playing AAU in fourth grade.
"I wanted to go out and get different competition," said Seales, who has played AAU since eighth grade. "I had played with guys around here growing up and was looking for something new."
Graham has interest from Truman State, Northern Iowa, Iowa, Colorado and North Dakota State, while Seales is being recruited by UNI, Iowa, Iowa State, Baylor, Texas and Creighton.
Rock Island's C.J. Carr plays close to home for the Quad-City Elite.
"A lot of guys leave because of exposure," Carr said. "I was going to do that before QC Elite. Now, a lot of guys will want to stay here."
Carr said he was looking for a great staff and teammates that would allow him to get better in his pursuit of a college opportunity.
"Those guys push you, the staff pushes you and we're like a family," Carr said.
In four years, the Quad-City Elite has kept most of the area's top talent.
Along with Carr and Happ, the Elite 17-under roster includes Rocky's Trey Sigel, Moline's leading scorer Brandon Vice, Clinton leading scorer Jalen Jones, and Dylan Sortillo, Kendall Jacks and Nicholas Baer from a Bettendorf team that reached the Class 4A state title game.
Kewanee standout Donovan Oliver plays for the Elite on the 15-under squad, while Galesburg's Grant Gibson highlights the 16-under team.
Founder and Quad-City Elite 17-under coach Logan Wynn said he expects to see more Quad-City talent staying closer to home in the future.
"As you see this moving forward, you won't see as many kids going out of town," Wynn said. "Now, it always sparks interest when Nike or Adidas calls up so you can say to your buddies, 'Hey, I'm driving two or three hours to play on this sponsored team.' We might lose a kid now and then to something like that, but for the most part, the top talent in the area will be sticking around."