Local players currently on NCAA Division I rosters
Michael Bradley / Tyner / Connecticut
Thomas Cooper / Tyner / North Carolina A&T
Brandon Herman / Grace / Robert Morris
Philip Jurick / East Ridge / Oklahoma State
Carter McMasters / Grace / Liberty
Jeremy Sexton / Tenn. Temple / Charleston Southern
Fred Sturdivant / Brainerd / Texas Southern
Picture the scene: In an AAU basketball tournament, Stedmon Ford dribbles downcourt. He passes the ball to Cordell James, then sets a screen for Corey Nelson. James takes two dribbles, fakes a pass to D.J. Bowles and tosses an alley-oop to Terrence O'Donohue.
Sounds good, right? Too bad it can't happen.
For area boys trying to play at the highest level of AAU basketball, there is no place like home, as the lack of a dominant local program has high-level players scrambling around the state -- or to other states -- searching for teams to give them the most exposure possible.
In a time when most NCAA Division I recruiting is being done during prestigious weekend tournaments around the country, the area's best players have gone to great lengths and distances to find nationally recognized AAU homes.
Most of Tennessee's cities have as many as five teams that play in national events in July -- the most important month for a high school basketball prospect. Chattanooga has one team -- the 15-under Titans -- that played recently in one of those, the Hoosier Shootout in Indianapolis.
Nearly every Division I college coach in the country was in Indianapolis when the Hoosier Shootout and the Adidas Invitational Classic were held there July 6-9. Over 30 area guys were on various rosters there, so the feeling around the state is that Chattanooga's loss is everybody else's gain -- especially going into a season in which as many as 10 or 12 legit D-I prospects will play high school basketball in the area.
"I think that to the rest of the state, Chattanooga is looked at as a football town," said Justin Woods, coach of the Nashville Celtics.
The Celtics -- one of four Tennessee programs that was in the Adidas Invitational, the other three being from Memphis -- have five players from the Chattanooga area: Cleveland's Bowles, McCallie's James, Grace Academy's Nelson, Ridgeland's Vonn Bell (formerly at Central) and Baylor's Reggie Upshaw.
Bowles, James and Nelson all moved from other teams to play for the Nashville team.
"I think in some cases, it's word of mouth," Woods said of how players come to his program. "Maybe the kid doesn't feel like he's getting quality coaching where he's at.
"We're just trying to get players to the next level of basketball and to get a quality education."
Ish Sanders from Cleveland, who played AAU for the Celtics, scored 51 points in a game last year as a Carson-Newman College freshman -- a school and conference record.
Woods said players stay on top of player rankings these days and know the importance of doing well at the right time.
"From a kid's perspective, AAU basketball is more important to a player's recruiting than high school these days," he said. "When you talk to them, they know about where an opponent is ranked than you do."
University of Connecticut sophomore Michael Bradley knows about playing well at the right time. The former Tyner standout, who played for the Tennessee Tigers out of Nashville, outplayed Andre Drummond -- the current No. 1 player in the class of 2012 -- in a tournament in Orlando, Fla. UConn coach Jim Calhoun was there watching Drummond but was so impressed by the 6-foot-10 Bradley that he started recruiting him and eventually signed him, although Bradley's other best offers were from Drake and Virginia Commonwealth.
"AAU was one of the best decisions I'd ever made," said Bradley, one of seven area players now on Division I rosters. "It helped me get the offers I got and ultimately getting into college. I wasn't on the radar at that time, so all of my exposure came from each game I played in.
"I wouldn't be where I am now if it wasn't for AAU."
There is no one compelling reason why there isn't a perennially powerful AAU boys' program in Chattanooga, but common responses from some people questioned ranged from the backing in the community to a lack of knowledge about the benefits of a program.
"I'm not sure that there's a clear-cut answer," said Andre Whitehead, an evaluator who runs the website TnPrepHoops.com. "I get asked that question a lot; Chattanooga used to be so dominant. Maybe it's population, or just an emphasis on other sports. There hasn't be a national-level player there in some time. Maybe Philip Jurick was the last.
"We keep waiting. We keep hearing about players coming up, but it just hasn't happened yet."
Tre High, an assistant coach at Brainerd High School who coaches the 15-under Tennessee Travelers, offered lack of exposure as an explanation.
"Some of the larger AAU programs have sponsorship, which cuts the costs to go to some of these tournaments," he said. "[The Travelers] are sponsored by Nike, so these kids get a good amount of free stuff, but the downside is that when we want to play in a tournament not sponsored by Nike, we've got to pay for that out of pocket.
"We need a team in Chattanooga, though. You're telling me with some of the kids that just graduated -- Barry Griffin, Nick Ross, Travis Core, Kelvin Clay -- that we couldn't have had a great team? We could have beat some people with those four."
High also pointed to the basketball preseason -- better known as football season -- as a cause.
"Memphis has a Super 80, where they get the 80 best players and split them up on eight teams and play from August to late September," High said. "That's where we fall behind, because they're playing basketball all year long and we have a bunch of football players that play basketball."
Tyner assistant coach Kelcey Watson cited "daddy ball" as one explanation for not having a local landmark program.
"You have a lot of cases where a dad thinks he has a good ballplayer, so he goes and finds about six or seven other kids and makes an AAU team," Watson said. "These factions are more about seeing their son do well, but they're not realistically interested in seeing a program do well.
"Their kid might average 25 points per game, but who are they playing? What tournaments are they playing in? It hurts because kids in our area aren't getting objective feedback concerning their skills. We as coaches have to start thinking programmatically, instead of just about a team."
Tyner head coach Gerald Harris added: "I don't think some of these kids understand the purpose of AAU. It's about exposure. If you're playing on a team and you go to a tournament or play a game at Fort Oglethorpe that's not a sanctioned AAU event, you're not going to get seen.
"Don't get me wrong. Those teams are good because it's keeping kids playing basketball in the offseason, but it's not the same as playing for a legit AAU program."
Believing that the AAU circuit gives a good gauge of a player's ability, college coaches have started putting more stock in how a player does during the summer months, as opposed to stats a player puts up during the high school season. The thought is that a player could average 25-30 points a game for his prep team yet lose some credibility for what is perceived as a lack of competition.
"It's just so important to play AAU these days," Bradley said. "Without it you're not going to get that exposure unless you really put yourself out there. You might be well-known in your city, but you'll be unknown nationally unless you give coaches a chance to see you firsthand."
Some of the more veteran high school coaches in the area are not AAU fans.
"I'm not against AAU. I think it provides a good venue for the kids," Bradley Central coach Kent Smith said. "My problem with it has been that these college coaches don't get a fair evaluation of the kid. You see him on the basketball court, but you don't get the total package. How are they in school? What kind of kid are they?"
Tre High noted that his uncle -- longtime Brainerd coach Robert High -- has even stronger anti-AAU sentiments.
"He hates it, but the main thing I have to tell him is that it's the best way to get these kids in front of college coaches," Tre High said. "That's what I do it for; if it'll help a kid get to college, I'm all for it.
"Think about it: A college coach goes to a high school game, he can see at most 30 kids playing. He goes to one of these big AAU tournaments, he can see 300."
Back on track
Smith believes it's not going to be too hard to establishing a solid AAU boys' program in the area.
"You would need someone who is really committed to starting a program," he said. "They have to be able to purely advise kids -- and not just on basketball, but the academic side as well. So many kids have a blind view of their abilities, but college coaches aren't stupid."
Watson already is on track with getting a program started, as he has formed the Chattanooga Elite -- which he expects to compete at all levels by 2012.
"We want to be able to combine all the teams that Chattanooga currently has and put on the floor the best that Chattanooga has to offer," Watson said.
"That's what's going to happen for us to be able to compete nationally again."