FARGO — Those days when the state of North Dakota had zero Division I universities and the boys basketball talent was looked at with all the interest of watching paint dry are long gone. More evidence came over the weekend in Atlanta.

ECI Basketball, the premier AAU program in the state, mixed it up with the best at the HoopSeen Best of the South tournament at the 40-court Georgia World Congress Center. The 17U division alone had 231 teams.

For a few ECI players, it was their first time on an airplane.

“It was eye-opening for some of these kids,” said ECI director Lucas Moorman, the former North Dakota State center. “I would say it was very successful. It was an exciting and fun trip.”

The club combined at all levels went 10-10 with perhaps the most impressive performance by the 15U team. It went 3-2, but lost to the eventual champion (NYBA Elite out of Nashville) by a bucket late in the game. Moorman said the top recruit on his team is Fargo North’s Jeremiah Sem, who will be a sophomore this fall.

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The University of Minnesota kept a close eye on Sem in one game, Moorman said. Other local 2024 high school graduates on the team are Carter Zeller and Bode Hoeg from North, Dylan Zimmerman from Moorhead, Daniel Yorke from Fargo Davies and Isaiah Williams from West Fargo Sheyenne.

That team beat teams from Detroit (Motor City Grizzlies), Palm Beach County, Fla., (Ball4Lyfe United) and Atlanta (Atlanta Timberwolves).

“It was a different feel, something different for the kids,” Moorman said.

ECI has gone to tournaments in the likes of Kansas City and Milwaukee over the years. Seeing teams from across the country is nothing new. Moorman took over the program in 2013 when ECI had around eight teams. It has 16 this summer.

“We don’t do a ton of recruiting or advertising,” he said. “A lot of it is word of mouth from parents and coaches and the way we do things.”

And it is the No. 1 way to get in front of college coaches. Moorman figures most of his players are around the Division II or NAIA level. One of the ECI teams faced a team from Tennessee whose center was 7-foot-2. ECI won that game.

“It was a cool experience for our kids to see all the coaches lined up,” Moorman said. “We gained a lot of confidence down there. We hung around in every game. A few of our teams got down but they battled back and we were in pretty much every game.”

It’s been a return-to-normal summer for basketball. The NCAA lifted the 15-month dead period brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic and college coaches were allowed to see players in person beginning June 1.

The pandemic restricted ECI to playing in tournaments in Sioux Falls, S.D., last summer. It’s still affecting the older AAU players in that colleges have so many players returning next season because last year didn’t count toward their eligibility. And the transfer portal is in full force being its first year of existence.

“It’s a matter of when that ripple effect ends,” Moorman said.