Dan Ricci wasn’t demeaning AAU basketball.
After all, Ricci actually heads an AAU team that includes girls basketball players he coaches at Ossining High School, which sits about an hour north of New York City, and those players attract their fair share of attention from college basketball coaches on the recruiting trail. But Ricci isn’t exactly enamored with the style of play on the AAU circuit.
“There’s more ‘me’ ball,” said Ricci, who had beads of perspiration dotting his forehead Wednesday as he stood outside of the main gym at Oakdale High School — the site of the annual three-day Under Armour Best of Maryland Basketball Tournament.
The defending Best of Maryland champion, Ricci’s Ossining team had just won its second pool play game at the tourney, and they did so with virtually the same team that will suit up to represent Ossining during the 2019-20 high school season. The 21 other teams in the tournament have a similar makeup.
The emphasis on the structure that goes hand-in-hand with high school basketball along with the quality of the field and the presence of college recruiters explains why teams such as Ossining and the South Jersey Vikings — it includes players from Saint John Vianney High School in Holmdel, New Jersey — make multiple trips to the annual showcase despite having to log hours of travel time.
Ricci estimated Ossining’s commute to Maryland at four and a half hours.
“We look forward to this more than any AAU tournament,” Ricci said. “We’re going against like competition. We’re not going against All-Star teams. We’re going against all the best high school teams and all the best high school coaches.”
Frederick County resident Steve Pisarski, who completed his 20th and final season as the girls basketball coach at Damascus two years ago, has run the tournament since its inception 21 years ago. Each year, it attracts teams that make appearances in national polls.
This year’s tournament does not include any teams from Maryland, but St. John Vianney appeared in USA Today’s top 25 poll last year, and Pisarski said Paul VI (Virginia) and Pickerington Central (Ohio), and Northwestern (Indiana) have cracked national polls in recent years. And if any of the teams in this year’s field weren’t nationally ranked, Pisarski said, they were likely among the top five teams in their respective states.
Last spring, Ossining claimed its fifth state title in school history behind the play of University of Connecticut-bound Aubrey Griffin.
As for current high school players who have flocked to Maryland for the Best of Maryland tourney and have aspirations of playing college basketball, Ricci said they may have a better chance of being seen considering the games take place on just two basketball courts at Oakdale.
Each of the 22 teams play two pool play games during the first two days of the tournament, with the top two teams in each of the tourney’s four pools advancing to eight-team single elimination play on Friday. The quarterfinals take place at 9:15 a.m. with the semifinals and championship game scheduled for 2:15 and 5 p.m., respectively.
“If you go to the big [AAU] tournaments, there might be 200 coaches, but there’s 50 courts,” Ricci said. “There’s only two courts [at Oakdale]. So with 60 coaches, 80 coaches, whatever it is here, you’ve got a much better chance of coaches seeing you play.”
Pisarski anticipates each Division I program devoting at least two coaching staff members to recruit at AAU tournaments in Atlanta this week. However, there are coaches who truly appreciate watching how players perform under the guidelines of systems put in place by high school coaches, and they show up at his tournament.
“If you’re playing at a high level, the high school game is closer to what the college game is, in my opinion,” Pisarski said.
Three lists posted outside of Oakdale’s main gym rattled off the 50 college programs that sent representatives to the Best of Maryland tourney on Wednesday. Upon completion of past tournaments, Pisarski said, 100 coaches had funneled in and out of the tournament’s host school. Oakdale has hosted the tournament for the past five years, with Damascus being the tournament site the previous 16.
Dawn Karpell, the coach of the South Jersey Vikings, said a previous appearance at the Best of Maryland tourney directed resulted in one of her former Saint John Vianney players, Kelly Campbell, receiving a scholarship to attend DePaul.
“The structure of high school systems allows us to show strengths that maybe our players aren’t necessarily able to execute in their club ball [seasons],” Karpell said.
Karpell also said her players, who stay in a hotel during the tournament, have an early chance to bond before the start of the season. On Thursday night, they plan on having their own talent show that will include singing, dancing and acting, with the coaches serving as judges.
“We get a little bit of chemistry,” Karpell said. “It really is a springboard into our regular season and really preparing the kids for what’s ahead of us.
“I put a lot of stress on ... the kids learning how to play for me and what we want and how our system is going to be run.”