It started with a simple question: What can be done in the fall to help top-level high school basketball players avoid developing bad habits on the court and stay sharp?

It was a question Brian Allfrey and James Ballstaedt, along with AAU coach Eric Johnson, pondered often as their sons went through the AAU and high school basketball experience. When they were teenage hoopers, they simply stayed sharp by playing pickup games. Whether it was game at the Deseret Gym or other places around the valley, there were always places to play during the weeks and months leading up to the November high school season.

The trio’s nostalgia would inevitably stir up frustration as this current generation of players rarely tries to play pickup games. They simply relied on competing against teammates at the school’s open gyms. Without being pushed much, player development stagnated.

That simple desire to fill a void ultimately led to the creation of an innovative fall league for elite high school basketball players in Utah, called the Top 50 Elite League.

The league’s website says, “The purpose of this league is to allow the top players in the state to continue to compete against high level competition once a week leading up to tryouts, without compromising individual team open gyms, leagues or practices.”

In Year 1 last fall, Allfrey said it was treated like “Fight Club.” They didn’t want publicity, but rather a chance for 50 invited players to compete against each other under the watchful eyes of coaches from junior colleges who coached each game.

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A funny thing happened along the way.

“What happens is once you get all those kids playing at the same place, now all of a sudden college coaches are very interested and want to watch,” said Allfrey.

College coaches can’t attend the games in person because of recruiting rules, so organizers last season and this season made sure all games played at Salt Lake Community College are streamed on for college coaches to watch. It’s the biggest expense the league has, but Allfrey said it’s absolutely worth it.

Murray coach Jason Workman has two players participating in the fall league, including his son, and he said organizers have filled a need that not many realized was there.

“The recruiting landscape has really changed drastically with the transfer portal and the colleges are looking at high school-age kids less and less and they’re offering less and less, so all the exposure camps and events they used to do has gone down drastically,” said Workman. “I think it’s really good and those guys have worked really hard to make it into something valuable, and now there’s coaching eyeballs on the kids. “

Games in the Utah Top 50 Elite League are held at Salt Lake Community College on Monday nights from Sept. 12 to Oct. 10, with the championship games taking place on Tuesday, Oct. 25 at Vivint Arena.

A total of 60 players were invited and they were meticulously placed on six teams by Allfrey, Ballstaedt and Johnson to create the most even teams possible. It started with making sure each team had one of the six best point guards in the state, and then one of the best big men, etc.

A year ago the organizers invited the top 50 players, but quickly realized they didn’t have enough players when conflicts arose. This year they expanded the roster size, and ultimately turned away 150 additional kids who asked to be invited.

The interested spawned the idea of a Top 50 Next, which will play a more condensed version of games and practices next month to simulate the experience the Top 50 invited players get during the six weeks of games. They’re also pursuing a night of girls games as well next month.

“We’re trying to go the extra mile so that they feel like this is the best event they’ve ever had,” said Allfrey.

There’s a fee for each player to participate, with the sponsors picking up the rest of the cost.

The format of each game is two 20-minute halves with a running clock until the final two minutes of a half. A 30-second shot clock is utilized. Free throws are kept to a minimum to speed up the game. When shooting fouls are called, one free throw is shot and counts for multiple points if made. In the case of an “and 1”, the free throw point is automatically counted.

A big effort is made to keep the games competitive to make sure they don’t turn into a chuck-it-up all-star game. Last year Allfrey said they had to stop a game to remind players of that. With college coaches tuning into the live streams to recruit, it’s pretty easy to get the kids to buy into playing competitively.

Houston Johnson (31), from Crimson Cliffs High, and Logan Deal (70), from Sky View High, fight for possession during Utah Top 50 Elite League play at Salt Lake Community College’s Bruin Arena in Taylorsville, Utah, on Monday, Sept. 26, 2022 | Adam Fondren, for the Deseret News

Organizers chose old ABA team names for the names of the teams, except for one, the Flint Tropics, which is from the movie “Semi-Pro,” starring Will Ferrell. The other team names are the Oakland Americans, Washington Caps, Kentucky Colonels, Anaheim Amigos and Dallas Chaparrals.

Cyprus point guard Quentin Meza is one of the featured players on the Flint Tropics. His team started off 2-0, but lost to Dallas 81-61 in Week 3 on Monday night.

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“I feel like it’s been really good, especially right now there’s not a lot going on right now, so it really helps us get ready for the season. We’re playing against the best competition, once it comes to the season it gets us ready and makes it a little easier,” said Meza, whose Cyprus team opens the season against fellow 6A contender Pleasant Grove.

“Say you just play open gym, the pace isn’t what the pace of varsity games is, but Top 50 games are close to that,” added Meza.

Also on Monday night, Kentucky beat Oakland 83-74 and Anaheim beat Washington 76-55. Through three weeks, there are no undefeated teams, and only Washington is winless.

Players drive from all over the state to participate in the Top 50 League, including players from Parowan, Snow Canyon, Pine View, Green Canyon and Ridgeline.

League at a glance

Anaheim Amigos (2-1)

  • Jax Allen, Cedar Valley, So.
  • Dutch Dowdell, Olympus, Jr.
  • Jagger Francom, Ridgeline, Jr.
  • Isaac Garrett, Pleasant Grove, Sr.
  • Bowen Hammer, Snow Canyon, Sr.
  • Matani Hinckley, Brighton, Sr.
  • Malcolm Johnson, Herriman, Jr.
  • Ace Reiser, Bingham, Jr.
  • Nash Schroeder, Pine View, Jr.
  • Jaxon Smith, Woods Cross, Sr.

Dallas Chapparals (2-1)

  • Chudi Anosike, Murray, Sr.
  • Paul Beattie, Farmington, Jr.
  • Tanner Davis, Sky View, Jr.
  • Logan Deal, Sky View, Sr.
  • Hunter Hansen, Fremont, Jr.
  • Mitch Jeppesen, Viewmont, Sr.
  • Owen Odom, Green Canyon, So.
  • Ike Palmer, Herriman, Jr.
  • James Rust, Timpview, Sr.
  • Hunter Schenck, Weber, Jr.

Oakland Americans (1-2)

  • JJ Apathjang, RSL Academy, So.
  • Peter Broadbent, Skyline, Sr.
  • Christopher Cox, Cottonwood, Jr.
  • Kyson Hymas, Copper Hills, Sr.
  • Mekhi Martin, Layton, Jr.
  • Brock Mendoza, Layton, Sr.
  • Diego Mulford, Cyprus, Jr.
  • Lyman Simmons, RSL Academy, Sr.
  • Charlie Smith, Bountiful, So.
  • Jaxson Workman, Murray, Sr.

Kentucky Colonels (2-1)

  • Jordan Barnes, Olympus, Jr.
  • Mason Bendinger, Woods Cross, Sr.
  • Tyler Christensen, Cedar Valley, Sr.
  • Kaden Ericksen, Syracuse, Sr.
  • Corbyn Hansen, Timpview, So.
  • Jackson McKee, Box Elder, Sr.
  • William Santiago, Wasatch, Sr.
  • Isaac Staley, Lone Peak, So.
  • Cameron Swiggett, Lone Peak, Sr.
  • Brayden Whitehead, Bingham, Sr.

Flint Tropics (2-1)

  • Coleman Atwater, Davis, So.
  • Cale Barclay, Herriman, So.
  • Easton Duft, Fremont, So.
  • Brock Felder, Parowan, Sr.
  • Houston Johnsen, Crimson Cliffs, Sr.
  • Jaxon Johnson, Alta, Jr.
  • Sam Lind, Wasatch, Jr.
  • Quentin Meza, Cyprus, Sr.
  • Zach Robison, Viewmont, Sr.
  • Ashton Wallace, American Fork, Sr.

Washington Caps (0-3)

  • Souleymane Barro, Layton Christian, Sr.
  • Chamberlain Burgess, Lone Peak, So.
  • Kyle Carley, Mountain Ridge, Sr.
  • Reece Dent, Wasatch, Jr.
  • Malick Diallo, Wasatch Academy, Jr.
  • Griffyn Doughty, Weber, Sr.
  • Yorgio Golesis, Skyline, Sr.
  • Nathan Johnsen, Highland, Sr.
  • KJ Miller, Layton, Jr.
  • Carson Smith, Bountiful, Jr.
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