Local AAU squad deals with ‘so many question marks’ with season in limbo

Sunday, March 22, 2020 | 4:27 PM

Normally at this time of year, Tom Droney and his fellow AAU coaches would be gearing up for the first weekend of practice to get ready for the opening tournament on the Adidas 3SSB national circuit.

But the word normal has taken on new meaning in recent weeks as the coronavirus takes its toll on all walks of life.

Sports most certainly didn’t get a free pass.

AAU basketball has been suspended indefinitely as organizers, officials and coaches await more details and methodically plan their next move.

Social distancing and self-quarantining have changed basketball, from the pros to pee wees.

The NBA was re-prioritized after being directly affected by the outbreak.

Even March Madness was sideswiped by covid-19.

AAU hinges on travel, which is perhaps the most taboo part of the country’s new guidelines, so it remains grounded until the pandemic passes.

What traditionally is a blast-off time of year for travel basketball, where teams play in big-bracket events on the weekends and top-level players get seen by Division I coaches, is inanimate and quiet.

“Right now, we are just hoping that the season happens in any capacity,” said Droney, a co-director and coach for the Wildcats Select program. “There are so many question marks at this point, so we will have to see how the next few weeks play out.”

Droney, a former Sewickley Academy and Davidson standout, runs Wildcats Select with fellow co-founder Nate Perry, once a star player at Hempfield and Seton Hill.

The AAU “live” calendar for April has been wiped out. The Nike Elite Youth Basketball League first announced widespread cancellations, and Adidas soon followed.

John Tate, the executive director of the Western PA Bruins Girls Basketball Club, thinks the season, should it resume, will be stalled for a while.

“From my conversations with both the NCAA & event directors, based on the ‘large gathering’ restrictions, there’s no way the April period happens, and personally, I think the May period is out also,” Tate said. “That means unless the NCAA adds dates, which I think they will, all we’ve got are the two July periods.”

The Bruins host one of the largest spring tournaments on this end of the country with the Western PA Bruins Spring Tip-Off Tournament. This year’s event was supposed to be April 3-5 but has been postponed until “late May.”

Players usually go straight from high school basketball to AAU, but a number of them are awaiting the outcome of seasons in limbo. The PIAA tournament was postponed after the quarterfinals, and the state’s governing body of prep sports is waiting until at least March 30 to consider whether to continue. Schools have been closed since March 16.

High school athletes have been practicing on their own because they are not permitted to gather as full teams. Tate said that also is the case for AAU players, even though they are not affiliated with schools.

“For both our youth and our high school players it will be the ability to work on their skills and to stay in shape,” Tate said. “I know a bunch of our players are working out on their own, but you can only substitute competitive drills for so long.”

The other big change with AAU is the “live period” for college coaches to watch players in person and make them scholarship offers.

Coaches are restricted from recruiting until further notice.

Tate said that could change the perspective coaches and teams have moving forward.

“For the class of 2021, it puts a big premium on playing well when it matters the most, which is during the NCAA evaluation periods,” Tate said. “Players benefit from the relationships that their AAU coaches have with college coaches. It’s incumbent on the AAU coaches and club directors that they put exposure over winning, meaning they put their teams in the best events at the highest level possible. That will maximize the exposure opportunities for their players.

“Too many coaches prioritize winning over playing in front of baselines full of coaches. For the 2021s, that can’t happen this season.”

Penn-Trafford senior Zach Rocco is done playing AAU, but as a long-time participant, he thinks recruiting will take the heaviest hit.

“This will cause kids to fly under the radar,” said Rocco, an Army West Point commit. “In turn, that will hurt kids that are not seen as much by coaches.”

Droney believes college coaches also could see a less-polished product and, therefore, make hasty decisions.

“There will be a lot of evaluation mistakes due to the lack of exposure and high-level competition,” he said. “Most college coaches want to see the top kids play against each other, and without it, coaches might not have enough information to make sound recruiting decisions. There will be kids who fall through the cracks, and there will be kids that get over-recruited (because) their skill and talent doesn’t fit the level of recruitment.”

Tate is not worried about AAU’s future in the long term.

“Like college hoops, the NBA and the NHL, AAU hoops will be fine,” he said. “In the end, everyone’s health and well-being have to be the priority and once this hiatus is over, I’m sure all sports, AAU included, will bounce back as strong as ever.”

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