The AAU basketball scene was where Minnehaha Academy's Chet Holmgren skyrocketed in the recruiting rankings last summer, positioning him to become the nation's current No. 1 recruit in the 2021 class.
For a long time, it looked as if AAU basketball this year would be lost to the coronavirus pandemic. Holmgren and other elite prospects with little to gain still might opt out of playing. But states lifting restrictions on athletic competition last month had some teams jumping at the chance to return.
"It felt good to get back on the court and start playing," said Tamin Lipsey, a 6-2 guard from Ames, Iowa, who plays for D1 Minnesota and has scholarship offers from the Gophers, Arizona and Iowa State.
AAU basketball is back, but it looks markedly different with restrictions surrounding the coronavirus. Players and fans will see changes, and the NCAA has prohibited coaches from attending these games through Aug. 31.
D1 Minnesota and Howard Pulley are among Minnesota's shoe company-sponsored programs who waited for the reopening last month and a chance to make waves on the national AAU scene.
Holmgren's Grassroots Sizzle AAU team is taking a more cautious approach. Its 17U team is holding tryouts this month, but some parents have said they're not comfortable with their kids playing during the coronavirus crisis. If those games aren't held, Holmgren's AAU days could be over.
"Kids want to play," Rivals.com recruiting analyst Eric Bossi said. "People are working to try to find a way where it's not totally a lost summer."
D1 Minnesota and the Minnesota Heat will play in their first tournaments this weekend in Iowa. The following week, they hope to prove which program has the state's best 17U squad during the D1 Summer Classic, July 17-19 at Shakopee High School.
Games have already been taking place for weeks from Arizona to Iowa. In fact, some Minnesota basketball families have grown uneasy after seeing large crowds at AAU games in other states with lax social distancing and few wearing masks.
A Missouri mother said her daughter tested positive for COVID-19 after playing in an AAU tourney. A Dallas judge demanded on Twitter that his governor shut down youth sports events because of soaring coronavirus case numbers in Texas.
Then again, Minnesota's AAU tournaments are currently limited to 25% capacity for spectators, and some wonder if that's enough.
"We're behind all of our neighboring states for sure," Minnesota Heat AAU director Willie Vang said of capacity limits here. "I question it literally daily. It's a tough situation because the governor is saying we can do it. Schools are renting to us.
"Obviously, it's something that weighs on us if this is really the right thing. But we've done everything we possibly could to [be safe.]"
Besides playing for D1 Minnesota, Lipsey also competes for All Iowa Attack and led that AAU team to a 4-0 record last week in Ames. He hit a game-winning shot against Sizzle's 16U team. It was his first time playing organized basketball in nearly a year after recovering from knee surgery, but that wasn't his only health concern.
"They take temperatures and have different precautions," Lipsey said. "You never know if that helps or not."
Another DI Minnesota standout from outside the state is Joe Hurlburt, a 6-10 junior from Enderlin, N.D. He's eager to showcase his talent after receiving recent interest from Iowa, Wisconsin and the Gophers.
"I've been waiting for this for a while," said Hurlburt, whose 16U team includes Hopkins' Elvis Nnaji and East Ridge's Kendall Blue. "I hope we win a lot as a team. Coaches will still be watching, so I hope to get more looks."
With the NCAA prohibiting coaches from going on the road recruiting for the entire summer, coaches are doing virtual assessments. Tournaments now charge handsomely for onlookers to livestream games.
"I definitely think streaming will be in high demand," Vang said. "… There really is no other option."
Holmgren and Minnehaha junior forward Prince Aligbe would be must-see streaming if Sizzle plays. So would Cretin-Derham Hall's junior point guard Tre Holloman with Pulley's 16U team. The state's highest-ranked 2022 player is Wayzata four-star wing Camden Heide, but he's out another month after having surgery on a broken left foot.
D1 Minnesota is still an exciting team with Lipsey, Caledonia's highflying junior Eli King and Treyton Thompson, a Gophers recruit from Alexandria who will be a senior at La Lumiere Prep in La Porte, Ind.
Thompson's college future is certain, "but he wants to prove he deserves to be ranked among the best players in the country," said Bossi, the recruiting analyst.
Stewartville senior Will Tschetter committed to Michigan on Monday after also landing offers from the Gophers, Iowa, Michigan and Nebraska. The high-scoring 6-8 Minnesota Heat forward hasn't been hampered by not playing during the pandemic.
Whether players need the exposure in AAU basketball or not, they're just tired of endless workouts and practices in driveways and empty gyms. They want the real thing, but safety will come first.