Big-time summer youth basketball is being played nationally, and the Arkansas Rising Stars out of Pine Bluff have been building their brand since their founding in 2014.
The Stars have three teams under the same title, but they're separated by age groups.
The founder of the Stars is Coach Steven "Jay" Barnett, and he said he can see his guys becoming more competitive on the national scene. This past weekend, the Stars took first place in the Down By The River National Tournament in Memphis. Although a lot of the teams they play have a height advantage over them, they still win games.
"The sixth and seventh graders have competed on the national level since they've started," Barnett said. "Those guys have really adjusted to the level of competition that we see. The biggest thing is the height we face, because we play against a lot of tall kids."
Barnett credited his team's toughness as to what offsets the height disadvantage. This past weekend, the Stars took down the No. 1 team, and the former No. 1 team as well.
"They bring discipline and tenacious team defense to the floor every game," Barnett said. "That's what helps us overcome adversity. It helped us beat the former no. 1 team and the current no. 1 team in the country for sure."
In the semi-finals this past weekend, the Stars beat the Houston Hoops Blue Chips 60-46, and in the finals they took down the tournament host, the Tennessee Dream Chasers, 53-52 on a buzzer-beating shot.
The Stars went 6-0 in the tournament, including two wins in pool play, and four wins in the tournament format. So far, the Stars have competed in seven tournaments, and they've won four of them while finishing second in another.
Amateur Athletic Union basketball has evolved over the years, and now when kids reach a certain age group, they become part of a circuit. For example, there is the Nike EYBL, the Adidas Gauntlet, Under Armour and NY2LA Sports, among others. The Stars' 2023 group are a year away from being able to compete on a circuit and Barnett fully expects the opportunity to come into fruition.
Putting skills to the test on a national scene gives players a better aspect of where you are as a team and where they stand individually.
"The purpose is for the kids to gain exposure on a competitive national level," Barnett said. "They're getting the chance to compete against kids their age across the country. They'll have an idea of the people they'll be competing against nationally on down the line."
Arguably the biggest event of this AAU season that the Stars will compete in is the Nike Peach Invitational in Augusta, Georgia, that starts July 11. This invitational is centered around the Nike Peach Jam that features the best 15u-17u teams in the country.