Minn. prep basketball tournaments are one-stop shop for recruiters

  • Article by: JASON GONZALEZ , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 11, 2012 - 7:30 AM

At events such as Minnetonka's Breakdown Tip Off Classic, college basketball coaches and recruiters come in droves looking for talent.

It was hard to tell whether fans were more excited for Tyus Jones, Quinton Hooker or John Calipari.

Jones, a junior point guard and top national high school basketball recruit from Apple Valley, and Hooker, a touted senior guard from Park Center, packed Minnetonka High School's west gym to the point that some fans were left outside closed doors for Saturday night's marquee game of the Breakdown Tip Off Classic.

Calipari, the University of Kentucky head coach, and one of his assistants slipped into the gym to catch a glimpse of the two prize recruits, but it wasn't long before fans spotted them and lined up, wanting their pictures taken with him.

The recurring visits of high-profile college coaches, which kept heads turning from the action on the court to coaches' faces such as Calipari's in the stands, have rarely been so prevalent on the Minnesota basketball scene. The rise of such tournaments and other events intended to showcase the state's talent on one day or at one site has attracted a lot of recruiting attention from around the country.

It wasn't long ago that the Gophers would snatch the state's top recruit without much competition and, beyond that, struggle to find local Division I talent. But in the past 10 years, more alluring high school basketball gatherings, offseason AAU tournaments and an improving crop of players have made the Twin Cities more of a regular stop on the college recruiting trail.

"You look up in the stands and you have 30 to 50 people you know saying 'There goes Calipari.' It's fun," said Ian Theisen, Osseo's 6-9 junior center. "I love to play in front of [college] coaches like this, 'cause who knows? It's almost like AAU season, except there is a lot more structure to it."

Such invitation-only events differ from traditional two- and three-day tournaments with pool play or brackets. They are intended to create a high- intensity environment and endless hype.

Calling all coaches

Setting the standard for this format during the high school season is Breakdown USA's boys' Tip Off Classic, held last Saturday, and a girls' Tip Off Classic on Dec. 1.

Along with Calipari, 42 other college coaches and three national scouting services scattered themselves throughout the stands at Minnetonka and Hopkins the past two Saturdays to closely evaluate some of the state's best talent. The opportunity to see so much in one day has labeled a growing number of these events in the Twin Cities a must on college recruiting calendars.

"It's in one location. A lot of teams. A lot of kids," Baylor assistant coach Jerome Tang said. "Especially in such a competitive environment. For us, it is [a priority to attend]."

Tang left Waco, Texas, at 5 a.m. to make sure he arrived in time for the tournament's 11 a.m. start. He was still diligently taking notes at 11 p.m. during the 14th and final game of the day.

University of Wisconsin-Green Bay head coach Brian Wardle began his four-hour drive at 6:30 a.m. He spent 10 hours roaming the two Minnetonka gyms before driving back to Green Bay that same night.

Events such as the Breakdown and the AAU session at High Performance Academy are where NCAA Division 1 mid-majors build their rosters. But a chance to see the athletes play during the high school season is irreplaceable, Wardle said.

"We've gotta be there. This is more college-like and I like to evaluate in this setting," Wardle said. "They're playing to win. They're playing for scholarships. You see the atmosphere Minnesota basketball has here. It's a lot of fun to be in."

Creighton women's basketball assistant Steve Huber spends a lot of time recruiting in the Twin Cities and the Midwest. He said it is becoming a trend to feature so many elite teams in a short time. He speculated that if the girls' Breakdown was held Sunday, when the college game schedule is lighter, hundreds of college coaches would show.

College assistants, however, have missed their own games for a chance to visit the Breakdown and other Twin Cities tournaments. That's what Northern Illinois' Kevin McManaman did last year. He found it so valuable that he was back roaming the sidelines last week at Hopkins.

Calipari and his recruiting assistant, Orlando Antigua, hopped on a plane immediately after Kentucky's game Saturday afternoon, intent on seeing Jones and Cooper junior forward Rashad Vaughn.

"It compares. There is a lot of good talent here," Jones said, comparing the Breakdown to other top national tournaments he's played in. "You can go to any one of the games from a.m. to p.m. and find great talent."

Chance to see and be seen

Though the pressure can be intense, Osseo senior guard Janay Morton said she prefers the tournament atmosphere because of the better competition and exposure that comes with it.

Part of the improved competition is out-of-state teams. The Breakdown invited four teams from Kansas, Iowa and Wisconsin to this year's event and has plans to add more in the future. This variety of competition is a treat for Minnesota schools, which are limited on how far they can travel outside the state to play by Minnesota State High School League rules.

Hopkins boys' coach Ken Novak Jr. said it's nice to play other teams. While there are similar tournaments around the country, Tartan boys' coach Mark Klingsporn said he's convinced the Twin Cities event is the largest single-day tournament.

Breakdown started out nine years ago as two games, four teams in one gym. This year it featured 29 games and 58 teams, spread across five gyms at two sites.

Breakdown coordinator Justin Hegna said his goal is to promote the relevancy of the high school season. Those efforts have spawned an event that continues to outgrow itself, as last Saturday's overflow crowds showed.

"It's a college coach's dream," Iowa State men's assistant Matt Abdelmassih said. "It's very constructive."

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