Puzzling summer ends at Nike Nationals

Ariel Massengale, who helped lead USA to a gold medal, now will try to win the club circuit's biggest prize at Nike Nationals. Glenn Nelson/ESPN.com

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- These are not the cymbals at the end of the symphony, nor the markers at the end of some marathon. These can't really even claim to be the usual end-of-summer girls' basketball coronation. No, these certainly are not your cousin's Nike Nationals.

As a fitting end to a dissociative summer, in which USA Basketball had a bigger impact on the evaluation period than any team or player, these are the who-the-heck-knows-what's-going-to-happen, back-in-the-US-of-A, new-look Nike Nationals.

The tournament many consider to be the most competitive of the July evaluation circuit events has a new look because, in recession-mandated cuts, the field is down from 24 to 20 teams and, in its continuing efforts to redefine its grassroots girls' basketball program, Nike has thrown a U15 tournament into the mix.

But the biggest source of uncertainty in a question-mark-riddled tournament is the summer-long absence of 12 of the nation's top prospects, who just on Sunday claimed the gold medal at the FIBA U17 World Championships in Toulouse, France. Many of those American golden girls will rejoin their teams in time for Wednesday's opening round matchups. But their reintroduction into the mix raises as many mind-ticklers as their overseas hiatuses did -- not the least of which is, what's really real about summer ball, 2010?

To wit, one of the hottest teams on the circuit is about to undergo a significant transformation, laying to question its true readiness for the ultimate test of team mettle. The Tennessee Flight, which has beaten all comers in July, will add Ariel Massengale and Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, the two masterminds of the U.S. gold-medal victory. What can be expected of those two, as well as the others, who just competed with 11 of the best teammates their country could find and literally were on top of the world one day and a couple days later will be playing with lesser talent, several time zones and a transcontinental flight later?

Under normal circumstances, the Flight, Boo Williams Summer League and Philly Belles would be considered co-favorites based on strength of roster. But like the Flight, Boo will have to reconnect quickly with Elizabeth Williams and Cierra Burdick, and the Belles with Breanna Stewart, Bria Smith and Temi Fagbenle. Under normal circumstances, well, those three teams also might be disfavored as Nike Nationals has yet to have been won by a super-regional team that didn't play and practice together on a regular, longstanding basis.

In that light, the two participants in last year's consolation (Silver) championship here, DFW TJack Elite and the New York Gauchos, have as strong a claim to favorite's status as any team. DFW's quicksilver point guard, Moriah Jefferson, has as much to prove as any player in the field. In a gaping misstep by the USA Basketball selection committee, she was omitted from the U.S. national team and, as its backcourt struggled for much of pool play in France, Jefferson and TJack played as if fired from a canon. This week, lightning bug Amber Orrange, the Stanford commit, will be added to what already is one of the fastest teams to lap the club circuit in recent years. Coming off its run to the championship game at the USJN Nationals, the Gauchos will add national teamer Betnijah Laney to a team anchored by Starr Breedlove and Briyona Canty.

That's not to say all the best teams even are here. The Midwest Elite, which would be welcoming back Jewell Loyd from France, has ridden blossoming star Samantha Logic, and the most sought-after digits in recruiting, to the USJN title and a runners-up finish (to TJack) at the Nike Summer Showcase. Though led by the Swish, last year was the year of California, the golden staters may be paced this summer by FBC Blue, a non-Nike program. Exodus NYC may not boast the klieglight-hogging star power of recent years, but, when its busses are operating properly, it can wheel out one of the best collections in the country of length, athleticism and wow-inducing basketball skills.

Also conspicuous by her absence is Alexis Jones, formerly one of the three fastest gears in the DFW express. She helped anchor the USA effort at the FIBA U18 Americas championships, then left the DFW program to spend the summer with her ailing father and high school coach, David. Her inspired play in New Orleans triggered an embarrassing cha-cha-cha by DFW and organizers of Basketball on the Bayou after her Lady Cardinals (essentially, her high school team) unexpectedly made the championship game, but refused to play when offered DFW TJack, which had forfeited its semifinal game.

Also in the wish-they-were-here category are some candidates for the new, 16-team 15U tournament. Georgia Ice, based only a couple hours from here, is probably the best of the younger teams, with the Arkansas Mavericks, also in the region, not very far behind.

So this week won't be perfect. If it were, it wouldn't be the summer of 2010. This is, after all, a July during which two major tournaments couldn't stage a proper championship game because at least one of the scheduled participants passed.

And, as things stand, it just may be enough to settle a few scores left over from USA tryouts in Colorado Springs last month.

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Glenn Nelson is a senior writer at ESPN.com and the founder of HoopGurlz.com. A member of the Parade All-American Selection Committee, he formerly coached girl's club basketball, was the editor-in-chief of an online sports network, authored a basketball book for kids, and was a longtime, national-award-winning newspaper columnist and writer. He can be reached at glenn@hoopgurlz.com.