Leave it to Nike to revolutionize the travel basketball circuit.
After bouncing around a simple concept for the past five years, the company with the trademark swoosh will debut the Elite Youth Basketball League this weekend at the Boo Williams Invitational in Hampton, Va.
"We were looking to bring structure to the travel game," said Jeff Rogers, the league commissioner and director of Nike elite grassroots basketball. "We have had a tremendous response without having played a game. We hope this changes the way things are done."
"It's a wonderful league. It's innovative and brings structure to the travel scene. This might serve as a future model for how things may be done. We're anxious to get started."
”-- Albany City Rocks director Jim Hart
The EYBL is a first-ever league featuring 42 high-level, U17 grassroots teams playing for a championship. It culminates in July at the Nike Peach Jam in North Augusta, Ga.
The concept is simple. The teams, divided into four divisions, will play a predetermined schedule during three weekends this spring -- in Hampton (Friday through Sunday), Houston (May 14-16) and Los Angeles (May 29-31). After the third event, the top five teams in each of the four divisions will automatically advance to the Peach Jam bracket, with four at-large teams added to round out the 24-team championship tournament. Teams that receive an automatic bid are guaranteed spots for 2011.
Yes, that means 18 teams won't make it and could be dropped from the EYBL next year.
"This will unify and organize the game at the highest level," said Paul Biancardi, ESPN's national basketball recruiting director. "It blends the best of what Nike does on the grassroots level."
Rogers believes the EYBL will promote ownership within the constituency during the course of three months.
"We'll find out a few things about these teams," Rogers said. "Teams will be scouting their next opponents, booking travel, playing each possession and investing their time.
"Unlike some tournaments where teams win their first three games by 30 or 40 points and lose interest, or lose three games and go home, there won't be any championships awarded on the first three weekends of league play.
"Kids like organized competition but are used to playing for a championship every weekend. That devalues the word championship. When you do compete for the EYBL championships you'll have earned it over the course of two or three months," he said.
The action tips off Friday evening at the state-of-the-art Boo Williams Sportsplex in Hampton with 20 games on seven courts. The opening weekend includes 85 EYBL games.
"It's a wonderful league," said Jim Hart, president of the Nike-sponsored Albany City Rocks. "It's innovative and brings structure to the travel scene. This might serve as a future model for how things may be done. We're anxious to get started."
Several clubs have already inquired about joining, but Rogers will stick with 42 teams who have been "loyal to Nike over the years and shown success."
Here's a breakdown of the four 17-and-under divisions (listed alphabetically).
A: Albany (N.Y.) City Rocks, Baltimore Elite, Georgia Blazers, Howard Pulley (Minn.), Louisiana Select, Mean Streets (Chicago), Team Final (N.J.), Tennessee Travelers; Wisconsin Playground Soldiers, YOMCA (Memphis, Tenn.)
B: All-Ohio Red, Arizona Stars, Each 1 Teach 1 (Fla.), King James Shooting Stars (Ohio), South Carolina Ravens, Seattle Rotary, Spiece Indy Heat (Ind.), Team Takeover (Md.), Team Texas, The Family (Detroit).
C: Alabama Challenge, Athletes First (Okla.), Birmingham (Ala.) Storm, Boo Williams (Va.), California Supreme, Houston (Texas) Hoops, ICP Portland (Ore.), Jackson (Miss.) Tigers, Oakland (Calif.) Soldiers, St. Louis Eagles.
D: Arkansas Wings, BABC (Boston), Charlotte (N.C.) Royals, D-One Sports (N.C.), Friends of Hoop (Seattle), Georgia Stars, Mac Irvin Fire (Chicago), Metro Hawks (N.Y.), New Jersey Playaz, New York Gauchos, Southern Kings (Ga.), Team Florida.
Playing by the rules
Structure means rules, set forth by Rogers. Keep the following in mind as the opening weekend approaches.
• Rosters, composed of 15 players, must be locked before the start of league play. Teams cannot share players but can change out three players during the first two tournaments. Up to three players from outside a team's home state will be permitted.
• Games will feature NCAA rules, including the college 3-point line, 16-minute halves, 35-second shot clock, a bonus after 10 fouls, player disqualification after five personal fouls and three-man officiating crews.
• Appearance counts. Players and coaches will wear provided game gear, meaning coaches will wear polo shirts and slacks.
• Tiebreakers in the standings are head-to-head competition, 3-way point system and conference record.
• There's no leeway on fifth-year players or reclassified seniors; they are out. Players must have at least one year of high school eligibility remaining.
• Traveling will be enforced, in other words: be on time. If a team misses a game because of a flight delay, they will forfeit it. Same goes for being late for the scheduled tip-off. No games will be made up, period.
"Every possession, every game, every weekend will count; it's a compounding effect," Biancardi said. "It teaches players accountability, and team and winning become important."
EYBL's got talent
The EYBL will feature 52 players in the ESPNU Super 60 rankings.
Biancardi, who coached at Wright State, Saint Louis, Ohio State and Boston College, believes the individual talent is off the charts. Colleges will be able to follow a player's team progression, capped by Peach Jam, which falls during a live viewing period in July.
"Each weekend the EYBL is played, that's where all the superior talent will be of any event across the country," Biancardi said. "You'll be able to gauge the progress of players, teams; it gives you something to talk about because it's a long-term process. You'll see how teams respond. Teams will be playing for their future in the EYBL."
Here are players on opening weekend rosters that will likely elevate their teams during the competition:
Six-foot-nine sophomore DaJuan Coleman (Albany City Rocks), Jamesville-Dewitt (N.Y.); 6-8 junior James McAdoo (Boo Williams), Norfolk (Va.) Christian; 6-10 junior Quincy Miller (D-One), Quality Education (Winston-Salem, N.C.); 6-3 junior Nick Johnson (Drew Gooden Soldiers), Findlay Prep (Henderson, Nev.); 6-4 junior Austin Rivers (Each 1 Teach 1), Winter Park (Fla.); 6-2 sophomore L.J. Rose (Houston Hoops), Second Baptist (Houston, Texas); 6-10 junior Johnny O'Bryant (Jackson Tigers), East Side (Cleveland, Miss.); 6-5 junior Wayne Blackshear (Mac Irvin Fire), Morgan Park (Chicago); 6-0 Jabarie Hinds (Metro Hawks), Mount Vernon (N.Y.); 6-6 junior Anthony Wroten (Seattle Rotary), Garfield (Seattle, Wash.); 6-1 junior Marquis Teague (Spiece), Pike (Indianapolis); 6-8 junior Michael Gilchrist (Team Final), St. Patrick (Elizabeth, N.J.).
Walking in Memphis
Marko Petrovic (Findlay Prep/Henderson, Nev.) is living the American dream. That's exactly what he hoped when he left Croatia for Findlay Prep.
Instead of just existing in the club system that defines the European game, Petrovic was searching for more. He wanted to defend some of the nation's top teenagers. He was looking for an athletic scholarship. Mostly, he just wanted to improve his overall game.
When his uncle suggested he leave Zagreb, Croatia, this past summer, Petrovic was on board; he wanted to expand his horizons.
"It was the best decision I've ever made," he said.
Last week Petrovic, a 6-3 wing guard, played an integral part of Findlay Prep's second consecutive successful run at the ESPN RISE National High School Invitational in Baltimore.
He dove on the hardwood for loose balls. He knocked down 3s. He defended top players from the likes of Mountain State Academy (Beckley, W.Va.), Charlotte (N.C.) Christian and Montverde (Fla.) Academy en route to the Pilots' second straight NHSI title.
After winning the NHSI, Petrovic realized the Findlay way paved his road to success.
So much so that he was selected to play with Findlay teammate Godwin Okonji in the Jack Jones Shootout, a third-year senior national all-star game, Saturday (4 p.m. ET) at FedExForum in Memphis, Tenn.
The game is relatively new to the national landscape but gaining momentum.
Named after Memphis basketball enthusiast John Paul "Jack" Jones, the game has grown each year since 2008. This year's version features youth contests, an M33M club team exhibition and a senior showcase.
"I saw the rosters; what a great bunch of players; there's a lot of talent," Petrovic said. "This game is a really big deal; it looks good."
The game has a distinctive Memphis flavor, as eight of the 22 players have ties to the city renowned for Elvis Presley, barbecue and Blues.
Petrovic, along with Okonji, is one of eight unsigned seniors invited. He joins 7-0 Skylor Blackler of Bell City (Mo.); 6-5 Jarekious Bradley of East (Memphis); 6-0 Allen Farmer and 5-9 Masceo Harmon, both of Central (Memphis); 6-6 Joshua Langford of Lee (Huntsville, Ala.); and 6-0 Kenyon McNeaill of Conway (Ark.).
Petrovic, whose father coaches in Croatia and was a former standout point guard in Europe, is sifting through his options. He'll visit Delaware next week, followed by San Francisco, but insists he can play at a higher level. Hawaii, Santa Clara and Oakland have expressed interest. He'll likely decide later this month but has no timetable.
"Maybe this game can help me find a school. Hopefully college coaches will see it," said Petrovic, who averaged 10 points and led Findlay with 18 charges taken.
The game also features four players from the University of Memphis' top-rated recruiting class, giving the locals a glimpse into the future of Tigers. The unsigned players may be auditioning for a full ride.
Dan Hurley was introduced Wednesday as the new coach at Wagner. Hurley, who rose to fame on the high school level at St. Benedict's Prep in Newark, N.J., has a full plate as he transitions from an elite prep school to a low-major program at the bottom of Division I. The Seahawks finished 5-26 last season under Mike Deane.
Hurley's vision on the college level hasn't changed.
"We're looking for student-athletes who can get it done in the classroom and will develop on the court," Hurley said Wednesday at his introductory news conference in Staten Island, N.Y. "We're looking for kids who fit this profile and will thrive in this college community."
One of the first orders of business is recruiting. Hurley is hamstrung over the next two seasons, with two available scholarships. Hurley has only one in the late signing period this spring and one other for the 2010-11 season. However, that could change if players transfer.
"Recruiting is about relationships and work ethic," he said. "I'll be reaching out to all the tri-state basketball contacts I've developed for the last 20 years."
He's already called both recruits signed by the previous regime in November.
Hurley's St. Benedict's squad annually played St. Patrick, New Jersey's top-ranked team. Daniell is an athletic power forward with dribble-drive skills and 3-point shooting touch.
Pierce (the No. 186-rated shooting guard) can create off the dribble and shoot the three as combo guard. Pierce, who averaged 16 points, was a key player for Mount Lebanon (26-2) which won the WPIAL Class AAAA title but was knocked out of the states tournament in the second round in March. According to reports, Pierce maintains he won't back out of his commitment and "looks forward to establishing a relationship" with Hurley.
"Both these guys come from winning programs," Hurley said. "That's the kind of culture I'd like to develop here."
Hurley also said his brother, Bobby Hurley, who led Duke to back-to-back national titles (1991 and '92) and was a first-round pick of the Sacramento Kings, will be appointed to his staff. Dan Hurley likely also will add Bashir Mason, his former player at St. Benedict's, to the staff. Grant Billmeier, a former Seton Hall post, might get a call.
"I'd like to finalize the staff in a day or two," Hurley said.
As for the St. Benedict's vacancy, Rev. Edwin Leahy, the school's headmaster, said he's received more than 50 inquiries. "The phone is going nuts," he said, smiling. "We'd like to hire someone sooner than later."
Scott Smith, Hurley's longtime associate head coach, is a viable in-house candidate. Smith likely will interview for the opening sometime this week.
Christopher Lawlor has covered high school sports for more than 20 years, most recently with USA Today.