Pups to preps: High school basketball players Matthew Hurt (middle), Tre Jones and Paige Bueckers are part of the latest wave of standouts who have risen through Minnesota’s AAU ranks. Following their lead are (from left) grade schoolers Jake Runya
Roy Williams won his 799th college basketball game on the afternoon of Jan. 14. North Carolina’s Hall of Fame coach didn’t celebrate long, instead hustling to a plane so that he could watch a high school sophomore play that night.
Williams flew to Minnesota, arriving in Rochester shortly after tipoff to scout heralded John Marshall sophomore Matthew Hurt, who scored 39 points in a victory.
“It speaks volumes, the message that that conveys,” said Hurt’s father, Richard.
That scene underscored another message: Basketball in Minnesota has exploded among boys and girls the past two decades. No longer producing just an occasional coveted big-time college player, the state has become fertile recruiting territory.
Veteran followers of the sport credit the growth of AAU basketball since its inception here in the late 1980s for opening doors for kids to play year-round and gain more exposure.
The talent uptick has been especially pronounced in recent years. In 2014, Minnesota produced three McDonald’s All-Americas — Tyus Jones, Reid Travis and Rashad Vaughn — that started an unprecedented run of blue-chip talent.
Five high school seniors this year signed scholarships with major conference teams. That doesn’t include former Apple Valley star Gary Trent Jr., a Duke signee whose talent allowed him to transfer last summer to a basketball-focused California prep school.
Including Trent, the state had a five-star player in every high school grade for the first time: Trent, one of the nation’s top shooting guards; Apple Valley junior Tre Jones, set to be one of the nation’s top point guards next season; Hurt, rated a top-10 sophomore nationally; and Minnehaha Academy point guard Jalen Suggs, regarded as one of the nation’s top freshmen.
In all, 23 seniors were offered Division I scholarships, according to recruiting analyst Ryan James, who also notes that 15 juniors, five sophomores and one freshman hold Division I offers, too.
“You can go to most high school games and find somebody that can play college basketball,” James said.
It wasn’t that way in the early 1990s, when Dave Thorson recruited players as a Gophers assistant coach under Clem Haskins.
“The way that we looked at it back then, if we had one guy a year that we could recruit that we felt could come in — not necessarily right away — but at some point come in and be a player, we were happy with that,’’ said Thorson, who later built the DeLaSalle boys’ program into a perennial champion. “There just weren’t as many guys to recruit.”
Girls’ basketball has experienced similar growth. On average, the state produces about 25 Division I players each year, according to Stillwater assistant coach Kevin Anderson, who has tracked recruiting for decades. Dozens more sign Division II scholarships every year.
The Minnesota Fury girls’ program co-hosted an AAU tournament in late April that drew 118 college coaches. Hopkins guard Paige Bueckers already has 15 scholarship offers as one of the premier freshmen nationally. The two most recent WNBA drafts featured two locals selected among the top five picks — Rachel Banham and Nia Coffey.
“When I took the Minnesota job, I had no idea how much of a basketball state it was,” Gophers men’s coach Richard Pitino said. “I always assumed it was a hockey state, which I know there’s a lot of hockey [players]. But it’s a terrific basketball state. There’s great high school basketball here and AAU basketball here.”
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The state’s evolution stems from deeper commitment by kids of all ages and skill level. AAU participation numbers are difficult to track because programs vary in size and visibility, but thousands of Minnesota kids are playing competitively beyond their winter basketball season.
The state features three boys’ AAU programs that are sponsored by shoe companies: Howard Pulley (Nike), D1 Minnesota (Adidas) and Grassroots Sizzle (Under Armour). A fourth — Net Gain — has two teams that play on the Adidas circuit. The contracts provide teams with apparel and, more importantly, help subsidize travel costs to national showcases that attract college recruiters.
Two girls’ programs have deals with shoe companies: North Tartan (Nike) and Minnesota Stars (Under Armour).
Howard Pulley, led by Tre Jones and Gophers recruit Daniel Oturu, a junior at Cretin-Derham Hall, is ranked No. 1 nationally, according to PrepHoops.com.
“Minnesota is a basketball state now,” ex-Minneapolis North star Khalid El-Amin said. “Look at the number of Division I players that Minnesota is putting out.”
Ex-Gophers star Al Nuness believes the success of El-Amin at Connecticut and other players at college programs outside of Minnesota has shined a positive light on the talent. More recently, Tyus Jones brought TV exposure to the state with his heroic play as a Duke freshman during the 2015 national championship.
“People said, ‘You mean there are players like this in Minnesota?’ ” Nuness said.
Former Gophers and NBA player Jim Petersen echoes that sentiment.
“If you only recruited the state of Minnesota, I think you could win a Big Ten championship with those kids,” said Petersen, now a Timberwolves broadcast analyst.
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Petersen, who played in high school at St. Louis Park, became Minnesota’s first McDonald’s All-America in 1980. The game for prep stars was played in Oakland, Calif., and featured future NBA players such as Doc Rivers and Sam Perkins.
Petersen remembers boarding a bus carrying all 24 players and feeling like a stranger. He didn’t know anyone. He played at a time when the Minnesota State High School League prohibited athletes in all sports from competing in national summer events.
“Here I was picked as being one of the 24 best players in the country, and I don’t know a single person,” Petersen said. “And they all know each other because they all played AAU basketball.”
The high school league lifted the rule in 1988 and everything changed. Free of restrictions, John Sherman started the Minnesota Magic program and took his team to Arkansas for a national AAU tournament. On the first day, his players watched future NBA stars Grant Hill and Chris Webber.
“Some of our guys were in awe,” Sherman recalled. “I said, ‘Well, this is where we have to be if we’re going to be jumping into this and competing.’ ”
About that same time, high school coaches Mark Klingsporn and Larry Ronglien founded an AAU program called Minnesota Select. They mailed letters to metro schools looking for participants. The first year 19 kids showed up. By the 10th year, 375 players came to tryouts.
Estimates vary on how many AAU programs exist today, but some put the number at 40-plus statewide, many with multiple teams for different age levels. Last summer James counted 86 boys’ teams in the 17U age division that played at least five events.
“That’s insane,” he said.
Many kids start playing AAU as early as third grade, focusing solely on basketball to keep pace with peers.
“No longer are kids putting the ball down in March and picking it up in November,” said Apple Valley boys’ coach Zach Goring, who has won three state titles in five years. “Even if a kid is in another sport, they’re also finding time to continue to play basketball.”
Mark Smith became president of the Minnesota Stars girls’ program 10 years ago. He started with eight teams. This spring there are 27.
Nick Storm founded the Fury girls’ program in 2007 with two teams. Now he has 21 statewide.
Hopkins girls’ coach Brian Cosgriff, winner of six high school state championships, said he believes year-round training has made the overall product “tremendously better.” His offseason philosophy for his players has evolved to accommodate AAU.
“We break it down like this: April to August, your priority should be AAU basketball,” Cosgriff said. “September to March is your high school team. Both have a role.”
Willie Vang started the Minnesota Heat 11 years ago as a freshman at the University of St. Thomas. His AAU program fielded 18 teams its first year, 36 the next year and 54 in the third. It has not dipped below 60 since.
“In Minnesota, there’s probably too many programs,” Vang said. “But a lot of them can still have success because there are so many kids that want to play.”
As specialization becomes more prevalent, one offshoot has been private instruction. Kids train under the guidance of former college and professional players privately or at basketball facilities such as 43 Hoops and Minnesota School of Basketball.
“That’s a testament to what’s going on in the basketball culture right now,” said El-Amin, who has his own business, El-Amin Training.
That extra commitment has resulted in what some regard as a seismic shift: better talent across the spectrum.
“The middle kids are way better because they specialize, and they’re training like professionals,” said former Gophers star Kevin Lynch, Mr. Basketball winner at Bloomington Jefferson. “There are so many AAU programs that the eighth player on a varsity team is playing AAU all summer.”
Luke Martens, a junior guard on Apple Valley’s state championship team, waited until seventh grade to start AAU. He also plays varsity football but focuses on basketball year-round, which he says helped him become a starter on a state championship team.
Tyus Jones began playing AAU in fifth grade before starring for Howard Pulley as a teenager. The Timberwolves point guard started his own youth program called Team 1 Tyus through the Top Flight Basketball Academy. Jones sponsors top-tier teams in grades 5-8.
“I wanted to do something with younger kids,” Jones said. “That’s important to me, teaching kids how to play the right way.”
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Conversations about the rise of basketball in Minnesota often point to Rene Pulley, founder of Howard Pulley youth program in 1996. The top team played mostly local tournaments that year before being invited to a national event in North Carolina, finishing first.
“That kind of put us on the map,” said Thorson, who coached the team.
Pulley disagrees with the theory that Minnesota has more blue-chip talent now than 20 years ago.
“They had no exposure back then,” he said. “I realized that [college] coaches weren’t coming here to see kids. We’ve got to go out there.”
Many credit Howard Pulley’s success nationally for attracting more recruiters to Minnesota. Other local AAU programs followed Pulley’s lead and began traveling to out-of-state tournaments.
“The floodgates opened for all these teams once we broke that glass ceiling,” Pulley said.
A similar pipeline exists for the girls. North Tartan counts hundreds of former athletes who played collegiately. Minnesota Stars alumni include Lindsay Whalen and current Gophers senior Carlie Wagner. The Fury had 36 Division I players from 2014-17.
Howard Pulley’s main competitor for top boys talent — D1 Minnesota — became Adidas-sponsored about six years ago. Richard Hurt, a senior business analyst at Mayo Clinic, became director of operations for D1 four years ago.
Hurt’s responsibilities include travel logistics and apparel distribution for the program’s 11 teams between ages 13 and 17. He also occasionally plays the role of recruiter.
In January, Hurt and son Matthew traveled to the Twin Cities to meet with East Ridge freshman Ben Carlson, who is attracting attention from Big Ten programs. A handful of other AAU programs also expressed interest in Carlson, who decided to play for D1 Minnesota’s 15U team.
“Recruiting is part of this,” Richard Hurt said. “We came up specifically not only to show support for Ben but also just to say, ‘Hey, we’re here.’ I think it means something, much like a college coach coming and watching and showing your presence.”
College coaches know this state well, too, as the talent pool continues to expand.
“Basketball has come a long way in this state,” Tyus Jones said. “People are taking it more seriously.”