The nation's best-kept basketball secret is that the best high school basketball teams are found at the postgraduate level (schools that allow fifth-year players). Names like Hargrave Military Academy, Bridgton Academy, St. Thomas More, Winchendon Academy and Maine Central Institute are regular stops for college coaches. These schools spawn players who excel in college, with several becoming future NBA lottery picks.
The talent level is far superior -- save for a handful of high schools -- and most teams are strong enough to compete in Division I. In fact, these rosters are often stocked with at least eight Division I players, and it's not uncommon for 10 Division I players to take the floor simultaneously.
The New England Prep Schools Athletic Council Class A is the nation's gold standard. The loop is a hotbed of high-major talent, but the talent isn't confined to the six New England states. Mid-Atlantic states such as New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania also have some prominent schools. Plus there's a strong contingent in the Carolinas and Virginia.
The ESPN Prep Ten boys' basketball division rankings are compiled by senior writer Christopher Lawlor of ESPN.com and Adam Finkelstein of the New England Recruiting Report. The rankings highlight schools with fifth-year and/or postgraduate players. The main criteria include the quality of the team's strength of schedule with an emphasis on national games -- especially those played against teams in the Prep Ten, the program's history and tradition and the quality of its personnel. All records are from the 2008-09 season.
ESPN Prep Ten
1. Hargrave Military Academy, Chatham, Va. (27-2)
Division I-bound players: 12
This loaded roster is highlighted by eight players who inked national letters of intent Wednesday.
"We're a defensive-minded team; we'll get into you," coach Kevin Keatts said.
The Wildcats employ a three-guard attack with 6-foot-1 Isaiah Epps (Pittsburgh), 6-4 Lorenzo Brown (North Carolina State) and 6-2 Mardracus Wade (Arkansas), while 6-9 Shawn Kemp (Auburn) and 6-9 Dominique Ferguson (FIU) are up front. Jarvis Davis spells the backcourt and 6-9 David Chadwick (Rice) and 6-7 Colton Christian (Tulane) lend muscle. The schedule picks up next weekend at the National Prep Showcase in New Haven, Conn., against No. 4 Notre Dame Prep and Bridgton.
2. Brewster Academy, Wolfeboro, N.H. (22-11)
Division I-bound players: 9
The Bobcats advanced to the National Prep School Tournament semifinals and have the power to go beyond that this year. That's because 6-6 Will Barton (Memphis), 6-8 C.J. Fair (Syracuse), 6-3 Austin Carroll (Rutgers) and 6-6 Melvin Ejim (Iowa State) are in the fold. Point guard Naadir Tharpe runs the show and a pair of 6-10 Canadians, Maurice Walker and junior Richard Peters (Oklahoma verbal), are works in progress. The Bobcats are perimeter-heavy on offense and guard all 94 feet. Barton showed why he's one of the nation's most coveted players when he dropped 29 points and grabbed 14 rebounds in a 90-67 win over CJEOTO (Somerset, N.J.) on Monday.
3. Winchendon School, Winchendon, Mass. (23-12)
Division I-bound players: 11
Depth is the operative word for this national powerhouse. The Green Wave go 11 deep, with several signing with big-time programs. Expect 6-2 Devon Saddler (Delaware), 5-10 Anthony Ireland (Loyola Marymount), 6-8 Eric Ferguson (Georgia Southern), 6-5 James Stukes and 6-9 Markus Kennedy (Villanova) to start. The Green Wave also has an added luxury this season with both Akeem Williams and Ferguson returning.
"Normally we start from scratch with a whole new team," coach Mike Byrnes said. "It's an advantage to have two players who know the league, me, game situations and what is expected of this program."
Once again, Byrnes' club will play the nation's most difficult schedule, but feels Ireland is the linchpin.
4. Notre Dame Prep, Fitchburg, Mass. (30-5)
Division I-bound players: 11
The Crusaders play seven in the top portion of the rotation, which includes 6-2 Antonio Barton (Memphis signee), 6-7 Ron Giplaye (Providence), 6-1 Jordair Jett, 6-8 Cleveland Melvin, 6-5 Levi Noel from England, 6-5 Marc-Antoine Bourgault from France and 6-3 Lamont Samuels. The first four are high-major players.
"It's kind of nice when you have when you have great depth," said coach Ryan Hurd, who goes 11 deep. "We run and press."
That formula has produced seven straight wins to open the season. NDP, an independent, plays a loaded schedule, featuring most NEPSAC A powers and top-ranked Hargrave Military Academy.
5. South Kent School, South Kent, Conn. (26-7)
Division I-bound players: 8
Four interchangeable guards who like pushing the ball provide South Kent with a guard-heavy scheme, which is a big difference from last year's Cardinals team that featured height, reaching the NEPSAC Class A final.
"We can score, we can shoot; this team will stretch defenses," coach Kelvin Jefferson said.
The lineup includes 6-6 J.J. Moore, 6-2 Russell Smith, 5-10 Danny Langhorn, 6-8 Nemanja Bjurisic of Serbia and 6-8 Daichi Taniguchi of Japan. Ronnie Mack, Nikolas Staukas and Mike Buffalo add backcourt depth. Moore scored 33 points as the Cards beat CJEOTO (Somerset, N.J.), 93-79.
6. Westwind Prep International, Phoenix, Ariz.
Division I-bound players: 9
This is one of the few prep schools west of the Rocky Mountains. Three starters -- 6-8 Tony Snell (New Mexico), 6-9 Ludovic Ndaye (Cleveland State) and 6-4 Freddie Wilson (Seattle) -- have signed letters of intent. Bo Barnes is the team's top shooter and 6-5 guard Brandon Tuggle is high-energy. The Warriors play several Arizona junior colleges, and coach Bobby Bossman isn't fooling around with the fledgling program, which played an abbreviated schedule in 2009.
7. St. Thomas More, Oakdale, Conn. (19-11)
Division I-bound players: 7
Coach Jere Quinn, who is entering his 32nd season, is the leader and senior member of the NEPSAC Class A coaching fraternity. His clubs are known for tough man defense and team play. The Chancellors go nine deep, but the biggest addition is 6-10, 250-pound sophomore Andre Drummond, who might be Quinn's most talented player ever.
"He's holding a winning Powerball ticket in his pocket," Quinn said.
Jacob Jenkins (Bellarmine) and 6-3 Dominique Langston (Quinnipiac) signed early, while Bryon Allen, Amadou Bah, Tre Bowman, Matt Conway and John Brown are Division I talents. The Chancellors open next weekend against Lee Academy and Fork Union Military Academy at the National Prep Showcase in New Haven, Conn.
8. New Hampton Prep, New Hampton, N.H. (14-15)
Division I-bound players: 7
After missing the NEPSAC A playoffs a year ago, the Huskies should be in the thick of things.
"These guys play hard; they understand how to play," coach Pete Hutchins said. "The guys stress defense and that sets the tone."
The team's top athlete -- 6-7 Kyle Cain -- signed with Rhode Island and sharpshooter Brady Heslip is headed to Boston College. Add 6-8 Dartaye Ruffin, a Drexel recruit, Michigan-bound 6-9 post Evan Smotrycz and 6-1 high-major guard Jordan Laguerre and it's easy to see why the Huskies are a team to be reckoned with.
9. Mack Academy, Charlotte, N.C. (NA)
Division I-bound players: 9
The first-year prep program is bursting at the seams with talent. Will Sperow, who coached the last four seasons at NAIA powerhouse Jarvis Christian in Tyler, Texas, has recruited the New York City metro area, Philadelphia, Las Vegas, Texas, Georgia and Arizona. Calvin Newell orchestrates the offense at the point, 6-3 Isiah Stokely and 6-3 Tahj Tate are scorers, while 6-6 Alex Lubsey and 6-2 Will Bunton are high flyers. Expect the Wildcats to push the tempo, but Sperow said they are really set-oriented on offense.
10. NIA Prep, Newark, N.J. (29-7)
Division I-bound players: 8
The Eagles won the Apex School Regional Prep Tournament title in March and look for the same this year. There's a solid mix of postgraduates and high school players. Senior forward Shaquille Thomas might be the most recognizable player, but 6-1 point guard Devon Gibson signed with Maryland-Eastern Shore. Gibson is averaging 20 points and nine assists during the team's 10-3 start. At 6-4, Kelvin Amayo is a mid-major and 6-0 Rameel Johnson (17 points, 13 rebounds per game) and 6-7 Isaiah Williams will have plenty of suitors.
"Our defense creates turnovers, and that's where we get a majority of our points," NIA coach Vince Robinson said.
It's worked so far because the Eagles' average margin of victory is 23 points.
Keep an eye on
Blair Academy, Blairstown, N.J. (17-4)
The defending New Jersey Prep champions feature 6-5 Jesse Pritchard (Yale), 6-0 Hakeem Harris, 6-3 Ryan Lubreski, 6-7 junior Mark Bevaqua, 6-9 junior Lionel Gomis of Senegal and 6-10 Mattia Bradascio of Norway.
"We play fast, guard the arc and are known for defense and transition," coach Joe Mantegna said.
The Buccaneers open Sunday against St. Andrew's School (Barrington, R.I.) at the National Prep Showcase in New Haven, Conn. and look to annex a seventh Mid-Atlantic Prep League title in the past decade.
Bridgton Academy, North Bridgton, Maine (26-9)
The Wolverines have won four of the past five NEPSAC Class A titles. This year they'll do it with a smaller lineup (only four players are 6-5 or taller), featuring future Seton Hall guard Dashaun Wiggins. Coach Whit Lesure's club split its first two games, beating Edison Prep of New Jersey 74-54.
Charis Prep, Wilson, N.C. (43-3)
The starting five of 6-0 Quentin Jones, 6-5 Antonin Galaya, 6-5 Auraum Nuiriankh, 6-8 Curtis Moore and 6-6 Nico Jones blend speed, defensive prowess and athleticism. Guard Anthony Myer is also getting a serious look from Fordham. The team has eight Division I players, said coach Carlos Peralta, who is the school's founder.
Fishburne Military School, Waynesboro, Va. (NA)
The Caissons tipped off their inaugural postgraduate season with coach Ed Huckaby, a veteran of the Division I coaching ranks. Forward Khalil Murphy (San Francisco), 6-1 Quincy Taylor and 6-5 Arthur Bell lead the roster of 10 Division I players. Huckaby's team is 4-2.
Fork Union Military Academy, Fork Union Va. (19-11)
This legendary program has turned out more than 200 Division I players under veteran coach Fletcher Arritt, in his 40th season. The Blue Devils play tight man defense and feature an inside-outside offensive look. Once Josh Birchfield, a 6-8 post, has the ball he'll kick out to shooters 6-4 Allen Dickerson, 6-4 Eddie Johnson and 6-6 Tom Rogers.
Kiski School, Saltsburg, Pa. (5-13)
The all-male boarding school has been around since 1888, but is committed to building a national program with Darryn Freedman leading the way. Barry Smith and 6-1 Daymond Cowlah highlight a group of eight Division I players. Kiski also has height, with 7-2 junior Sim Bhullar and 7-4 freshman Tanveer Bhullar, the Canadian brotherly force via Toronto.
Northfield Mount Hermon, Northfield, Mass. (20-6)
Over the past three seasons, NMH has sent 19 players to Division I programs. This year, the Hoggers feed off a pair of Harvard recruits in 6-2 Matt Brown and 6-5 Laurent Rivard, as well as 6-7 swingman Hector Harold, who is headed to Pepperdine. At 6-11, junior Vince Van Nes of Dorchester, England, is a late addition to the roster, and 6-2 junior Aaron Cosby is high-major guard.
Separating the prep basketball myths from reality allows aficionados to appreciate the games, which college and pro scouts flock to in droves to find future NBA lottery picks.
Who better to explain the prep game than Mike Hart, the president of the New England Prep Schools Men's Basketball Association? Hart, who enters his 16th season as head coach at St. Andrew's School in Barrington, R.I., is passionate about educating and coaching in that order.
Hart said the more than 200 NEPSMBA coaches are united in the mantra: The kids are first; basketball is second.
"The myth is postgraduate programs are renegade programs," Hart said. "Not only are schools in the NEPSAC among the top 10-15 schools in the nation academically, but we play in the best leagues that are non-college. I'm not bragging, but this is reality."
Postgraduates are student-athletes who have earned high school diplomas but are looking to improve academically and become eligible for NCAA participation or improve on the court with an extra year of maturity. Fifth-year players have been reclassified. These student-athletes have not earned a high school diploma and are seeking an extra year to improve in the classroom.
"People think we're handing out grades here," said South Kent coach Kelvin Jefferson, who was previously a Division I assistant. "There are an awful lot of very good students and there are some looking to qualify; they want to challenge themselves."
The NEPSAC has four classes: A, B, C and D. Class A is considered the elite, with some schools boasting an entire roster of Division I athletes.
"Those schools are predominantly post-grads, but there are true high school kids on some rosters," Hart said.
Class B allows up to four post-grads; C and D don't allow any. Class C allows up to five fifth-year athletes, while Class D allows only two. Most students board, but there are day students.
"There are standards," Hart said. "Our kids have to meet NCAA standards."
Class A schools play with college rules, meaning 20-minute halves while the three lower levels play National Federation of High School rules. NEPSAC schools have strict practice rules, whereas some independents practice for two months leading up to the regular season. Each class crowns a champion following a postseason eight-team tournament in February.
NBA players who attended postgraduate or fifth-year schools include Tyreke Evans (American Christian), Michael Beasley (Notre Dame Prep), Andray Blatche (South Kent School), Joakim Noah (Lawrenceville Prep), Charlie Villanueva and Luol Deng (teammates at Blair Academy), David West (Hargrave Military Academy), Caron Butler (Maine Central Institute) and Tracy McGrady (Mount Zion Christian).
"Players receive an excellent college prep education and outstanding coaching," said Paul Biancardi, ESPN's national recruiting director, who previously recruited post-grads as a coach at Boston College, Ohio State, Wright State and Saint Louis. "Many of the coaches should be in college, but they are dedicated to their schools and students. Players who go this route are just using it as an alternate way to college."
Typically schools such as Hargrave Military, Winchendon and Bridgton start from scratch each fall.
"I have a new team every year," Winchendon coach Mike Byrnes said. "We have to develop a new ID. I'm not complaining, but it's what you deal with."
The National Prep Showcase tips off Friday for a three-day run at Albertus Magnus College in New Haven, Conn. The elite event, previously held at Bryant College in Smithfield, R.I., consists of 20 games -- 14 of which will feature at least one team in the ESPN Prep Ten preseason rankings.
"It's the best event for the preps," Finkelstein said. "It's traditionally held on the same weekend each year, and we'll draw more college coaches than any other one. They came from coast to coast; the coaches anticipate the Showcase and come from all over."
Last year, more than 200 coaches from 100 colleges attended. This time, the 700-seat Cosgrove, Marcus, Messer Athletic Center provides an intimate setting.
"Two years ago [then-Memphis coach] John Calipari was sitting in the front row watching Tyreke Evans play, and he's now in the NBA," Finkelstein said. "I hope people will realize they can watch up to 10 future NBA players."
Biancardi added: "This is the highest level of competition all under one roof."
All times Eastern.
St. Thomas More School (Conn.) vs. Lee Academy (Maine), noon; Notre Dame Prep (Mass.) vs. Hargrave Military Academy (Va.), 1:45 p.m.; South Kent School (Conn.) vs. Mack Academy (N.C.), 3:15 p.m.; Winchendon School (Mass.) vs. Massanutten Military Academy (Va.), 5 p.m.; Proctor Academy (N.H.) vs. Wilbraham & Monson Academy (Mass.), 6:30 p.m.; Northfield Mount Hermon (Mass.) vs. Fork Union Military Academy (Va.), 8 p.m.
Lee Academy vs. Massanutten Military Academy, 9 a.m.; St. Thomas More vs. Fork Union Military Academy, 10:45 a.m.; Bridgton Academy (Maine) vs. Hargrave Military Academy, 12:30 p.m.; Winchendon School (Mass.) vs. Mack Academy, 2:15 p.m.; New Hampton School (N.H.) vs. NIA Prep (N.J.), 4 p.m.; Notre Dame Prep vs. Champlain St. Lambert (Quebec, Canada), 5:45 p.m.; Brewster Academy (N.H.) vs. Worcester Academy (Mass.), 7:30 p.m.; Maine Central Institute vs. Kiski School (Pa.), 9 p.m.
Brewster Academy (N.H.) vs. NIA Prep (N.J.), 10 a.m.; Bridgton Academy vs. Tilton School (N.H.), 11:45 a.m.; Northfield Mount Hermon vs. Maine Central Institute, 1:30 p.m.; South Kent School vs. Champlain St. Lambert, 3:15 p.m.; New Hampton School (N.H.) vs. Kiski School 5 p.m.; St. Andrew's School (R.I.) vs. Blair Academy (N.J.), 6:30 p.m.
Christopher Lawlor has covered high school sports for more than 20 years, most recently with USA Today, where he was the head preps writer responsible for national high school rankings in football, baseball and boys and girls basketball. He also worked for Scholastic Coach magazine, where he ran the Gatorade National Player of the Year program for nine years. Lawlor, a New Jersey resident, grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and is a graduate of St. Bonaventure University.