LAS VEGAS -- Anyone who follows high school and college basketball knows that we are in the midst of the frenetic July recruiting period where college coaches and high school players are crisscrossing the country for AAU tournaments and basketball evaluation camps. One place to be this past week was Las Vegas, home of scorching 100-degree-plus heat, over 100,000 hotel rooms, the $3.99 buffet and the temporary home of about 5,000 high school players.
Reebok, Nike and Adidas sponsor three major tournaments, all held at the same time. When Sonny Vaccaro, the godfather of grassroots basketball, began his "Big Time Tournament" in 1994, the city of Las Vegas had only a handful of high schools, making it easy for coaches and players to get from gym to gym.
This year, Vaccaro's tournament, alone, had 336 teams and 12 game sites, and, combined with the other two tournaments, over 460 teams ventured from Maine, Alaska and everywhere in-between to impress college coaches, scouting service gurus and media members. Even teams from Canada, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and Australia were represented.
To prepare myself for the upcoming ESPN season, I ventured out to the high desert of Nevada to watch some of the nation's best high school talent, as well as visit with many of my coaching buddies as they prepare for the season ahead. Four of my former players are now college assistant coaches.
In my 23 years as a college basketball coach, I enjoyed a love-hate relationship with recruiting. I loved the relationships I developed with players and parents who shared the same passion for the game that I had. This included not only recruiting the McDonald's All-American types, but also the guys who "flew under the radar." They maybe were not as talented but loved basketball.
What I hated was telling the parents of a 6-foot-5 power forward how I was going to turn their son into an NBA point guard. They wanted me to be John Wooden and David Copperfield at once. Then, there were the occasional "How am I going to see my son play?" questions, often code words for "Can you fly me out to some games?" which would be an obvious NCAA violation.
Las Vegas now has over 40 high schools, and most of them were in use last week. Games started as early as 8 a.m. and often ended after 11 p.m. With all three tournaments going on at once, college coaching staffs had to be as organized as a Pentagon logistics expert. Only three of a staff's four coaches can be recruiting at any one time, and many staffs send all three to Las Vegas, often rotating them in and out of the city so they can also get to other events around the country. Staff meetings are common to plan out the next day's game schedule.
With the Vegas tournaments starting last Thursday, most coaches arrived a day early to plot out how they would navigate the city to cover as many games as possible. Usually, they begin prioritizing with their top recruiting targets so that they are seen at as many games as possible. The high-level programs and coaches like to "baby-sit" their top recruits, making sure there is always at least one coach at every game.
It was not uncommon to see Roy Williams and Mike Krzyzewski in the same gym anytime Jon Brockman of Snohomish, Wash., played for the Friends of Hoop Seattle team. Unless you've lived in Uzbekistan the last 10 years, it is hard not to notice Roy and Coach K.
Programs at the low- and mid-major level often have to cast a wide net, trying to see as many players as they can in the hope of finding undiscovered talent. So the amount of teams to see and games to attend actually becomes very cost-effective for a school like Montana State or Arkansas-Little Rock. There were 27 teams playing from New York and New Jersey playing this week, making it easy for Rider or St. Peter's to evaluate a lot of players in a short period of time.
With gyms spread out over 34 miles -- from one side of Las Vegas to the other -- a good rental car agreement was a must. One assistant coach told me his best investment of the week was the $9 daily fee for his car's global positioning system. I overheard another assistant tell his head coach that one gym was so far away from the center of Las Vegas, it might be easier to fly into Salt Lake City and walk over the mountains.
Spending four days at these tournaments is a test of physical endurance and mental acuity. On the first day of the tournaments, Cleveland State coach Mike Garland and Canisius coach Mike McDonald made sure to get their workouts in at 7 a.m. at the hotel fitness center before starting their busy days. Grabbing lunch is usually on the run between gyms. And while some coaches are still able play a few recreational hands of blackjack, hanging out on The Strip seemed to be on the decline this July compared with years past.
Watching players in this environment usually gives you a more accurate read on a player, compared to a camp setting like the ABCD or Nike camps, where the teams and games are usually more loosely organized. At the tournaments, the players are playing in a familiar system, with familiar teammates who know their roles. In fact, I saw some excellent game coaching in Las Vegas, which made the games fun to watch and the players easier to evaluate.
Billy Shepard, the former Indiana Pacer star, had a bunch of mid-level players who resembled the cast of "Hoosiers," and the Granite State Raiders from New Hampshire could have passed for one of Ralph Willard's Holy Cross squads. Players from Los Angeles' famed Westchester High School were on numerous California AAU teams in the Vegas tournaments and, from what I could tell, Ed Azzam's squad should be hanging around the top of this year's USA Today's high school rankings.
With all three major tournaments ending by Monday, college recruiters moved on to places like Los Angeles and Orlando to conclude their July evaluation period. Hopefully, the Las Vegas experience has been good for everyone. In the next few months, the coaches will be gambling that players pan out as prospects, and players will be parlaying their skills into college scholarships. And everyone will be trying to hit the jackpot.