Kimball Union Basketball Preps Players for Big Time
KUA's Crew Ainge goes for a layup during the Tilton at KUA boys basketball game in Meriden, N.H., on Feb. 11, 2014.
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KUA students sit on the stage and cheer during the Tilton at KUA boys basketball game in Meriden, N.H., on Feb. 11, 2014.
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Meriden — The laws of science take a backseat to the laws of basketball in Meriden, these days. Contrary to popular opinion, out here in the Cat House, the stars come out during the day.
Hosting the New England Preparatory School Athletic Council Class AA quarterfinals earlier this week, the Kimball Union Academy Wildcats put on an afternoon show for their rabid followers, packed tightly along the walls of tiny — and that’s being considerate — 57-year-old Alumni Gymnasium.
While the Upper Valley is in the throes of basketball season, they don’t play this style of hoops — with this much talent on the floor at one time — anywhere else. The guys you watch playing prep hoops in Meriden today will be guys you will watch on college television broadcasts tomorrow. And quite possibly be playing in “The Association” not long after that.
That’s the kind of game Mike Olson has recruited at KUA. And he’s not alone. When it comes to prep basketball these days, unless you keep up with the talent level across the board, you will be left behind.
It’s not like the old prep school basketball days, when college coaches quietly slipped incoming post-grad hopefuls into a school for a year to get their grades up, get their game refined and get ready for college. It was all on the hush-hush, protecting their future stars.
Today, with AAU and the Internet, there are no secrets. Instead of a hiding place, the New England prep school courts have now become a showcase for the best high school talent in the country where players get to hone their skills while acclimating to a more rigorous academic environment. And recruiting is as fierce on this level as it is on the collegiate level.
Check out some of the most recent and notable NEPSAC grads:
Noah Vonleh, a potential lottery pick in this year’s NBA draft as a freshman from Indiana. He played his prep ball at New Hampton School.
Kansas freshman Wayne Selden, who played his ball at Tilton School.
And don’t forget Tilton’s 6-11 dominator, Noel Nelens, who now plays for the NBA Philadelphia 76ers.
It was Nelens who turned the KUA gym into celebrity city when Florida’s Billy Donovan and Kentucky’s John Calipari came calling the same night.
The show isn’t only restricted to the court, however. To get the whole experience you’ve got to see the KimballCrazies, manning their post on the stage at one end of the court, keeping up a constant barrage of cheers, jeers and chants. The stage, built over a swimming pool years ago, holds 40 students, in various stages of dress and costumes — from superheroes to the Pope. And what other school (OK, Stanford) can claim the student dressed as a tree?
The only time they quiet down is during free throws, when they open up their newspapers and feign indifference to the opposing shooter. But it’s all in good fun and at the end of Wednesday’s 54-51 quarterfinal victory over Vermont Academy, the entire student contingent rushed the floor to embrace their victories schoolmates.
That effort was not lost on Olson. The next day he wrote on his blog: “Our home crowd gave us a big lift and the emotion and intensity in the gym was extremely high.”
To keep up with the star-laden teams around the league, Olson has brought a stellar group to Meriden, headed up by 6-foot-8 Malik Abu. The power forward has been a standout for three years, averaging 23 points per game and 11 rebounds.
“He’s an elite player,” says Olson, now in his fifth year at the school.
Abu is already signed for a scholarship at North Carolina State. His future college coach, Mark Godfrey, has been up to see him play on a number of occasions.
The Division I basketball talent runs deep up and down the KUA lineup. There’s 6-6 point guard Oliver Tot from Slovakia, who is headed for William & Mary; 2-guard Crew Ainge — son of former Celtic standout and current general manager Danny Ainge — who has received offers from Utah State, Rhode Island and Boston University, along with guard Malcolm Brent, who is signed by Maryland-Baltimore County.
Olson has players from as far away as Lagos, Nigeria, London and Texas along with a handful from Massachusetts and a pair from Meriden.
The quality of basketball in the New England prep leagues, and the competition among the schools for talent has changed the basketball landscape.
“There’s a talent drain in New England (high schools),” Olson says. “The majority of the top players go to prep schools. That exodus has affected the public schools, but the players know where the best opportunities for them to develop.”
Because high school players may take up to five years to complete their obligation, most opt for the extra post-grad year to build up their stats and their bodies.
“The best kids go for two years ... some as long as four years (to prep school),” Olson says. “Of our nine-man rotation, everyone of those kids has repeated a year and will go into college a year older than the other freshmen.”
There is, however, one drawback to the fast track and bright lights. It is the need to identify prospects at a younger age to keep ahead of the competition.
“Right now we’re looking at a 6-9 eighth-grader,” says Olson.
“It’s not something I like to see happening, but you have to keep up. We are, after all, judged by our wins and losses.”
Olson need not worry. The talent pipeline runs right through Meriden.
Don Mahler can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3225.