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AAU basketball: The good, the bad and the ugly

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AAU basketball: The good, the bad and the ugly

How bad was the basketball class of 2012 in Illinois? Was it an aberration or a hint of things to come? Will it all be forgotten when the highly touted classes of 2013 and 2014 graduate and go off to college? Or is it a forerunner of something that could devastate the sport locally?
A survey by longtime recruiting analyst Van Coleman of Hot100Hoops.com reveals, to no one's surprise, that few Illinois products from the class of 2012 were recruited by major Division I programs. In fact, not a single one was signed by any of the top 20 schools on Coleman's list of the leading recruiting classes.Champaign Central's Jay Simpson committed to No. 23 Purdue, Evanston's James Farr was signed by No. 28 Xavier, Hyde Park's Fabyon Harris (by way of Community College of Southern Idaho) was signed by No. 32 Texas A&M and Simeon's Steve Taylor was signed by No. 35 Marquette. Taylor was generally regarded as the No. 1 player in the state in the class of 2012."We do think that 2012 was a cyclical thing, one bad year, not reflective of any downward trends in Illinois high school basketball talent," said recruiting analysts Roy and Harv Schmidt of Illinois Prep Bulls-Eye."The classes of 2013 and 2014 are both loaded with talent. However, we believe there is a downward trend of developing and nurturing young talent in this state."Illinois, more than any state in the nation, over-hypes young talent. The Internet landscape and the Chicago media are just awful with it. Everyone wants to discover the new young talent and is ready to anoint them before they even play one organized team game."The Schmidt brothers trace the problem to AAU programs that don't have enough time to conduct routine practices and youngsters who spend all of their time on Twitter and negotiating recruiting websites to see where they are ranked locally and nationally. And that doesn't begin to take into account the parental involvement."Too many parents are caught up in rankings and exposure instead of making sure their kids develop their games and do what they need to do in the classroom," the Schmidts reported.
"So when adversity comes on the court and in the classroom, the kids do not handle it and everything suffers. So raw talent doesn't get developed and nurtured. This is the downward trend in Illinois talent, not a drop-off in talent but a drop-off in developing talent."AAU or summer or travel basketball has come a long way in a relatively short period of time. In the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, kids played American Legion baseball in the summer or went on vacation with their parents. There were no 7-on-7 leagues or summer basketball leagues or private clubs like Meanstreets, Warriors, Fire, Wolves or Rising Stars. Kids wore Chuck Taylors or Converse All-Stars, not Nike or Adidas or Reebok.Then Sonny Vaccaro met Phil Knight and Nike organized its grassroots basketball program in the 1980s. Mac Irvin and Larry Butler were pioneers and built strong AAU programs in Illinois. And Nike began subsidizing high school coaches from coast to coast, including King's Landon Cox. All of a sudden, a monster was born.Butler's Illinois Warriors program began to lose its dominance when Butler's affiliation with Nike ended. Therefore, recent Warriors teams have taken on a different focus with the majority of the roster made up of players who are low-Division I and small college prospects.
"There are no ifs, ands or buts about it -- the bottom line is that without having a big-name shoe company behind you, it is that much tougher for an AAU program to attract marquee players and thus maintain an elite status," the Schmidt brothers said."In our opinion, the main objective of any successful program should be player development. As far as the state of Illinois goes, no program is better in that area than the Illinois Wolves. Just look at some of the past Wolves who continued to develop and get even better once they got to college -- Evan Turner, John Shurna, Chasson Randle and David Sobolewski. They will tell you that it was the result of the training and instruction that they got from Wolves coaches."Despite the decline in talent in comparison with his past teams, Butler also knows how to develop players. Two excellent examples from the class of 2012 are Curie's Devin Foster and Elgin's Kory Brown."At the beginning of last summer, we would have told you that neither player was a Division I prospect," the Schmidts said. "But now it is a different story. Brown had a fantastic season in leading Elgin to the sectional finals. Foster was the glue to Curie's success. Both were All-Staters and both now stand a good chance of landing at a Division I school. Playing for the Warriors during the past spring and summer certainly played a part in that."The Mac Irvin Fire has always sported as much talent as any AAU program in the state and always will because of its strong relationship with influential Chicago Public League coaches and their ability to attract top players from throughout the city. Mike Irvin runs the program in place of his late father but the beat goes on."Player development has never been a strong suit of the Irvins, which is why the past knock on the program has always been that there are chemistry issues," the Schmidts said. "But that has begun to change as the result of the Irvins bringing other coaches on board who are much stronger in the areas of instruction and skill development."Meanstreets, co-founded by Tai Streets and Carlton Debose, has succeeded and prospered because they have established a high talent level to go along with a tremendous amount of unity that Streets and his coaches have been able to generate among their players and also parents and high school coaches in the south suburbs."Everyone is on the same page," the Schmidts said. "They buy into Streets' philosophy and it is a true community atmosphere. In addition, Streets will not take a player who is known to have off-the-court issues and is perceived as being a 'bad kid.' Many of his best players over the years, including Jerel McNeal, Maurice Acker, Joevan Catron, Brandon Ewing and Anthony Davis, were model citizens as well."The Illinois Wolves, founded 14 years ago by Mike Mullins and based in Downers Grove, doesn't enjoy the luxury of a Nike or Adidas or Reebok sponsorship. But the Wolves and Meanstreets sent more kids to college and produce more college graduates than any other program in the state. College coaches, who rightly or wrongly judge the success of a travel program by the number of college recruits that it produces, are aware that the Wolves and Meanstreets develop kids who qualify academically and are productive at the college level.
College coaches often criticize summer programs because they don't teach fundamentals, leaving them to train many incoming recruits from scratch. But that isn't the case with most players who are graduates of the Wolves and Meanstreets programs."We have been to a Wolves practice," Roy and Harv Schmidt reported. "They are like well-oiled high school practices. They teach and run drills. Mullins has high school coaches like Carl Maniscalco and Frank Kaminsky. Many AAU programs are run by 'daddy coaches,' parents and handlers who pursue an agenda of getting their kids exposure with certain college programs."But these people have little credibility when it comes to coaching, development and training. They get media people and website administrators representing colleges that have an interest in recruiting their kids to over-hype their kids to the point where they have nowhere to go but down. The development never seems to catch up to the hype."Unfortunately, the Schmidt brothers believe this trend if becoming more and more of a problem that has to be reversed. "If not, in four or five years, Illinois could have the reputation of being the most overrated state in the country. It is far from that now but the trend has to be reversed," Roy Schmidt said.Another issue is the colleges themselves. As it is today, they are trying to establish "feeder programs," much as major league baseball has a minor league development system. They seek to establish close relationships with certain high-profile clubs that have a history of producing big-time college prospects, and try to persuade them to steer their best players in their direction and they will take care of the youngster...a la make sure he gets a scholarship, is accepted to the college, stays eligible and is prepared for the NBA. It's all part of the package."Producing players for the NBA should not be nor ever should be criteria for judging the ultimate success of an AAU program," the Schmidts said. "Anyone who makes that a priority is in it for the wrong reasons and you have to question their ultimate motives. The criteria for success should be preparing student-athletes for the rigors of college, both on and off the court. Future graduation rates of players should be criteria."Mullins was encouraged to organized the Illinois Wolves when his son Bryan, who later played at Southern Illinois, was in fifth grade because, at the time, there were very few travel programs available for kids of that age. Some of Bryan's friends wanted to play together and Mullins, who had coached basketball at North Central College in Naperville, decided to get involved."My philosophy is to try to produce a well-balanced player and help with his personal development," Mullins said. "We do skill work on the basketball court and do grade checks and provide a place where all kids can play whether they can pay or not. We have never charged kids. We felt charging kids to play was discriminatory."Now Mullins, who grew up learning how to play the game at Ray Meyer's camp in Wisconsin, has four teams and 44 players in his program. Of his first nine classes, over 100 went to Division I colleges. They have earned over 13 million in scholarships."Our mission is to help produced academically, athletically and socially qualified kids who are pursuing high school and college basketball dreams," Mullins said. "I have never worried about the perceptions of summer basketball. I am confident of what we have done. Our best recommendations come from the players who have played for us."Summer basketball has come a long way since the days of Ray Meyer's camp. Mullins believes it is mostly for the better. "It allows more participation than in high school. It allows more instruction and allows the players to compete outside their area and gives them more recruiting exposure. They aren't just limited to Midwestern schools," he said."In addition, there is a high level of coaching. The kids play against a better caliber of competition than in high school, against other Division I prospects. It is the same trend in all youth sports in the last two or three decades, including soccer and swimming and tennis and volleyball for boys and girls. More kids are getting more opportunities than ever before."

Nationals join White Sox as only teams to beat Gerrit Cole since April

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USA TODAY

Nationals join White Sox as only teams to beat Gerrit Cole since April

Baseball fans might want to sit down for this shocking news: Gerrit Cole lost last night.

The Washington Nationals played in and won a World Series game for the first time in their history, but the more hard-to-believe news was Cole's performance, in which the potential AL Cy Young winner gave up five runs and took the "L."

That result made the Nationals the first team to hand Cole a loss since May 22, when he lost to the White Sox in Houston. The two squads are the only teams Cole has lost to since the calendar switched from April to May. It was just the third time since that loss to the White Sox in which the Astros lost a game Cole started.

That goes to show you just how insanely good Cole has been this season. Between losses, he owned a 1.59 ERA in 25 games, including his first three starts of this postseason. All in all during the regular season, he led the American League with a 2.50 ERA and led baseball with 326 strikeouts.

But the Nationals flipped that script in Game 1, tagging Cole for five runs on eight hits, including a pair of homers off the bats of Juan Soto and Ryan Zimmerman. It was a performance reminiscent of that May night, when the White Sox scored six runs off Cole, getting home runs against the ace from Eloy Jimenez and Jose Abreu.

Of course, this statistical happenstance won't be the only thing tying Cole to the White Sox this fall. The South Siders have starting pitching at the top of their offseason to-do list, and Cole will be the biggest name on the free-agent market. What's expected to be the richest pitching contract in baseball history and a supposed preference to play on the West Coast might lessen the chances that Rick Hahn's front office will reel Cole in, but they're just one offseason removed from chasing the two biggest names on the free-agent market, when they pursued Manny Machado and Bryce Harper last winter.

Cole in a White Sox uniform come Opening Day? Maybe if Cole subscribes to the old logical of "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em."

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How will Cubs players respond to David Ross as manager?

How will Cubs players respond to David Ross as manager?

David Ross is officially moving from "Grandpa Rossy" to "Manager Rossy."

The affable former backup catcher is not only a fan favorite, but he's immensely popular inside the Cubs clubhouse among the core group of players. 

However, that popularity has always come in a different form, as he now enters into a new dynamic as Cubs manager. Ross was first a teammate, then transitioned into a front office role with the organization, which included a vital role in recruiting Craig Kimbrel to Chicago.

Now that Ross has been tabbed as Joe Maddon's heir, how will his relationship with the players change?

The Cubs announced Maddon's departure on the final day of the regular season and in turn, immediately stoked the fires of the Ross-as-manager rumors. Players were asked how they'd feel if their former teammate became their boss, including Jon Lester, who was instrumental in bringing Ross to Chicago before 2015 as his personal catcher.

"I think that's something that you'd just have to learn as you go," Lester said. "I would like to think that [former Red Sox manager Tito Francona] was a good friend of mine, but still my manager when it came down to it. 

"Obviously the dynamic's different — I didn't play with Tito and that sort of thing, but when it came down to it, that's my boss. If he makes a decision, he makes a decision and you have to respect that."

Anthony Rizzo and Ross formed an immediate bond in 2015 and have grown very close over the last five years.

"If it's Rossy, we would obviously sit down," Rizzo said on the final day of the season. "I've talked to him about it before. He's in a really good place right now at home with his family and what he's doing and he's happy. He's my biggest mentor in the game player-wise, really, behind Joe [Maddon] and [former Cubs coach Eric] Hinske. Can it work? Yes."

Back in August, on the five-year anniversary of his MLB debut, Javy Baez crushed two homers in a Cubs win and after the game, shouted out Ross unprompted. Baez credited his former teammate for helping him understand how to keep things simple and just his natural abilities take over while allowing the game to teach him.

So it's no surprise Baez said in September he would be stoked if Ross were named manager.

"We all love David and he knows the team and the organization," Baez said.

In reality, it will be difficult to transition from teammate and mentor to boss. Maddon found a way to be both mentor and friend to this group of Cubs players, but he obviously never played with any of them and he came to Chicago with an already impressive resume as a manager and coach.

Ross doesn't have that same experience to fall back on, but the Cubs are confident he's up to the challenge because when it boils down it, so much of the job is based off communication. 

What Ross has working in his favor that the other managerial candidates like Joe Espada lacked was an immediate rapport with the front office and the core guys in the clubhouse. There's already a built-in level of trust between him and Rizzo, Baez, Lester, Kris Bryant, Jason Heyward and a host of others — including Kimbrel (the two were teammates in Atlanta). The guys he hasn't played with have at least seen him around Wrigley Field or the spring training complex in his front office role the last three years.

That preexisting relationship will be a huge advantage immediately, as it eliminates the time another candidate would've needed to earn the trust of the players on the roster. Plus, the relationship between Ross and Epstein's front office is already so far advanced for a first-year manager that there's an instant level of understanding and rapport before he's even officially introduced into the role.

During his time in the clubhouse, Ross was known to be direct and honest, holding his teammates accountable and helping the young players realize their potential without crushing their spirits. That's not an easy task for a backup catcher in the twilight of his career to accomplish.

Still, the Cubs' choice to go with Ross seemed at least somewhat contradictory when presented against the backdrop of change Theo Epstein emphasized in his end-of-season press conference. The Cubs president talked at length about the organization's need to stop looking back at 2016 and avoiding the "winner's trap" of sticking with things that worked years ago but might not be the best avenues to success today.

In that same presser, Epstein also insisted Ross' connection to the players left over from the World Series championship team was not the main reason they were considering the former catcher as manager. 

"His connection to the players on this team and especially his connection to the 2016 team are not necessarily things that are going to be important to us," Epstein said. "...It's not necessarily a detriment, either, as long as you trust the person to handle it the right way and trust the players to handle it the right way. It's something you have to consider.

"I'm just saying, what we're looking for is someone who's a great manager for the Cubs moving forward. Certainly not looking backwards and not with undue emphasis on a couple players there might be a personal [connection]. That's not a major factor for us."