If you’re a high school or college student, I’m sure you’re upset that August is here and another year of school is about to begin. It always seems like summer flies by; but for thousands of AAU players, the summer is long, competitive, cruel, and rewarding all at the same time. While most of you are enjoying long days and long nights with friends and family having cookouts and making memories on vacation, these young men are focusing on the next step of their life; college. From place to place, tournament to tournament, airport to airport, week after week, thousands of young hoopers come together and play with one another on their respected club teams to; get better, be scouted, and most of all, just play the game they love. So when the Bigfoot Las Vegas classic came around last week, it was no exception; another business trip for the books. Luggage, check. Tickets, check. Hotel room, check. Kiss your loved ones on the way out the door, go through air port security, and it was a quick trip to Sin City to battle it out for what would be the last tournament of the summer for most of these players. The only difference this time was the wear and tear of a harsh three months was setting in and really testing the strength of the players both mentally and physically. It wouldn’t prove to just be a battle of which team was the best, but which players were toughest, and there were an abundance of some of the most respected names in college basketball there to take note of who was ready to show out, and who should’ve stayed home.
What started off as a slow opening day with some of the second tier teams tipping off the tournament, progressed to some of the best basketball we may have seen all summer. From thirty plus point blowouts to double overtime single digit wins, this tournament had it all, and if you didn’t take the time to bounce around gym to gym and team to team, you might have missed something special. Soldiers proved to us than when they stand together, anything’s possible. Cali Supreme showed us that having two minutes on the clock and being down eleven doesn’t necessarily mean the odds are against you, and a group of kids from Houston showed us all how to extinguish the Fire. Coming into the tournament a lot of attention was focused on both the Oakland Soldiers, who had just won the Peach Jam tournament held the previous week, and the rest of the attention seemed to be focused on the Mac Irvin Fire from Chicago, particularly on the fact that one of their stand out players and number one recruit for the class of 2013 (according to Rivals), Jabari Parker (Simeon HS, IL 2013, #1), who injured his right heel during the FIBA U17 World Championship Tournament and underwent an MRI, would miss the remainder of the July AAU circuit with the Fire, including the conclusive event of their summer, the Las Vegas Classic. With the Soldier’s coming off of the Peach Jam victory and big man, Aaron Gordon (Archbishop Mitty HS, CA 2013, #5-Rivals.com) delivering on the court after sitting for three months with a foot injury, averaging 13.5 points and 9.4 rebounds per outing, while also contributing 1.6 blocks and 1.4 steals during the tournament, the Las Vegas Classic looked very winnable for the California based squad.
The variable, while not overlooked or unaccounted for, but certainly not the center of attention, lied in the Houston Hoops AAU squad. With four of their five starters being nationally ranked for their respective classes, according to Rivals.com, Keith Frazier (Kimball HS, 2013, #14), Brian Bridgewater (Episcopal HS, LA,2013, #93), Justise Winslow (St. Johns HS, TX, 2014, #8), and Justin Jackson (HCYA HS, TX 2014, #30), and a solid six-man in guard, Robert Hatter (Westside HS, TX, 2013), Houston was a prime candidate to take down the tournament’s finest and make a deep run for the championship. For the majority of the tournament, the games were hit and miss in terms of talent, but now and then there was a solid, unsuspecting match up, that captivated the masses that came out to support. The first solid match-up that was circled on coaches’ lists was the Mac Irvin Fire facing off against Houston Hoops. With the game suppose to be tight and either team winning by a slim margin, it left some people in aw and some dumbfounded as Justin Jackson and Keith Frazier led the assault for Houston in a 89-65 route of the Fire. Things really started to get tense when the Oakland Soldier’s faced off against Seattle Rotary in what was projected to be a sub par game with Oakland winning substantially. The game turned into a battle early on with chippy fouls that drew out the tension to last the entire game and Oakland earning the victory by single digits in the end. From there, the games only got better heading into bracket play as Cali Supreme, led by guard Kris Yanku (Taft HS, CA, 2013), rallied to come back against a Bryan Alberts (Village Christian HS, CA, 2014) led BTI Pump-N-Run team and send them home as Yanku scored eight points in a matter of a minute for Supreme, including a three pointer and a solid finish for an and one in traffic. Continuing into the next game, intensity was high as the Oakland Soldiers tipped off against the Arizona Stars, a game that would be close until the end, but with Soldiers prevailing to move on. Something to take note of that game was that Aaron Gordon led the charge for Oakland. It was his first game he played in in the tournament and he looked very sharp in the paint, dominating on both the offensive and defensive end; including a nasty reverse, Kobe-esque windmill dunk to seal the highlight real. He did, however, play very limited minutes in the game and his numbers continued to be limited for the remainder of the tournament.
The semi-final game for the Fire was one to watch if you were a scout. While the game itself was not a nail-biter, it was a breakout event for sophomore, Marcus LoVett (Providence HS, CA, 2015 #5). LoVett has proven himself on the court already at such a young age, putting on scoring clinics in high school matches putting up fifty plus points, it was another story for him to step on the court this summer with 17U AAU players, and while his summer contained ups and downs, the semi game versus Cali Supreme showcased what a special player he can be and how his “zone” can be dangerous for the other team. LoVett started hot going four of five from three point land and carried his display to the paint, finishing on every attempted drive no matter who threw themselves at him. At the half, LoVett had nineteen points while Cali Supreme as a unit had a mere twenty-five. LoVett proved his strength as the game progressed as well, when, with four minutes and some change left, a player from Cali Supreme, who was just a witness to LoVett’s ball handling skills when he was crossed over on the drive, leveled the young star when he went up for the lay-up, pushing him with both hands and causing LoVett to land on his body about five feet from where he initially took off from. Benches cleared and LoVett’s father came out from the stands to restrain him from the opposing player. LoVett would stay in the game and hit the technical free throws issued to him. While the Fire battled physically that game, Houston Hoops seemed to walk into the finals after beating their opponents through bracket play by a sizable margin.
The Championship match up ensued less than an hour after the altercation with a re-match between an exhausted Fire squad and jaded Houston Hoops team. Both of the AAU clubs had played three games in a four hour span to that point leaving the objective for one another clear; outlast the other team, and while the first match up was a blowout this time would be different. Both teams would be running close to E and Houston Hoops would be missing Keith Frazier, who returned home that morning with another AAU squad he had been playing with in the Fab 48 taking place up the street at Bishop Gorman High School. The game started slow with teams exchanging misses for a few minutes but escalated to the match-up it was hyped to be from the beginning with lead changes flipping back and fourth to the end. There was a point when Mac Irvin Fire seemed to be pulling away but that moment quickly disappeared when Robert Hatter nailed a corner three and drew a foul to make it a four point play, bringing Houston within two of the Fire. With the clock winding down both teams showed mass signs of fatigue, with players slouching over signaling to their benches for a break to hear their coaches yell, “Suck it up!” To make the matter worst, the game went into overtime after Bridgewater missed a shot for Houston at the buzzer. With a one-minute overtime following a game of anguish, the two teams pushed for one last run at the trophy. Houston came out quick, scoring, stealing, then proceeding to score while the Fire answered back with a quick two and an and one to go with it. The deciding factor in the end, however, was Bridgewater blocking the deciding shot at the buzzer to seal the win for Houston, 54-53. When the final buzzer sounded, there was no jumping, or yelling, or celebrating but Houston. Just signs of exhaustion and a slow walk to the bench to meet the rest of their team for hugs and high fives.
To that point in my life, I have never seen a more lifeless bunch of people after winning a title. The tiresome stretch they had endured proved that just because they’re young, doesn’t mean they don’t get tired. It was a gruesome period for both sides, and it was obvious that when it was said and done, both sides gave it everything they had. It was the perfect compliment of an ending to a great tournament full of future NCAA stars.
Stock up: Justin Jackson-The incoming senior for HCYA is listed as #30 in the nation according to rivals, but I think we may see a quick boost up the ranking’s list after his summer performance. Jackson is a lengthy forward who can do it all. His stroke from the three-point line is almost unblockable with his 6’7” stature and he is surprisingly strong inside for his figure, finishing everything at the rim. Jackson is also a very smart player with game beyond his years; his court vision is top notch, combined with that high IQ his decision making is excellent, capitalizing on taking someone off the dribble, hitting the cutter, or commanding the floor to set his team up for the appropriate play. Expect Jackson’s offers to ontinue expanding as he enters his Junior season.
Aaron Gordon: Showed signs of a decent recovery thus far but was cautious in his return to the court being limited in his minutes in the quarterfinal loss to the Mac Irvin Fire.