All Flights Lead to KUA: Wildcats Attract Hoop World's Elite
Kimball Union Academy junior Malik Abu is one of many Wildcats attracting attention from Division I schools. Abu already has received scholarship offers from Connecticut, Boston College and several other Division I schools. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
KUA coach Mike Olson has guided the team’s rise to one of New England’s top prep teams. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
Devon Thomas, front, and Crew Ainge, take instruction during Kimball Union Academy basketball practice in Meriden on Wednesday. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
Meriden — If keeping Lebanon Municipal Airport open should ever come down to a vote, Mike Olson may be one of the first people in line, pen and ballot at the ready.
He wasn’t solely the person who has put Kimball Union Academy boys basketball on the map, but he’s helped get the school’s GPS coordinates into more than a few major college basketball coaches’ smartphones. Hence the need for an airport; KUA, after all, isn’t exactly the convenience store set next to the interstate off-ramp.
“Last year, when Tilton was here, they had some star power,” said Olson, Kimball Union’s fourth-year coach, during a workout on Wednesday. “(University of Florida coach) Billy Donovan flew his private jet and landed into Lebanon Airport, followed shortly by Kentucky’s coach, John Calipari. That was a pretty big thing on our campus.”
It’s becoming a common occurrence.
The guest list may pick up tomorrow. That’s when Cushing Academy pays a 1:30 p.m. visit to KUA’s compact gym for a game that could go a long way to determining the top seed for the NEPSAC Class AA championship tournament later this winter. Beyond that, enough potential NCAA Division I talent is expected to take the floor that a familiar face or two wouldn’t come as a surprise to Olson.
“We’ve had anywhere from two dozen to three dozen head Division I coaches this fall,” said Olsen, a former Dartmouth College assistant coach. “Last couple of weeks, I’ve had calls from Duke, North Carolina. So you really never know, when you pick up the phone, who’s going to be scheduling an appointment to come to Meriden.”
The reasons are many and varied, and not limited to Olson’s crew alone, although the Wildcats (9-2) have earned some of the attention.
KUA is riding a wave that’s been growing in New England for about two decades. Lakes Region rivals such as New Hampton and Wolfeboro’s Brewster Academy were part of the first crest, and they continue to play basketball at a very high level. But Olson and Kimball Union have begun to build a reputation for developing good players and good students as well, and the Wildcats’ competitive fortunes have improved as a result.
It began with the prep school’s commitment to upgrade its athletic programs in order to raise its profile. From a roundball perspective, Olson said, getting Maryland native Devon Thomas to come north three years ago signalled KUA’s intention to perform at a high level.
Thomas committed to Missouri State of the mid-major Missouri Valley Conference during the early national signing period in November. As the 5-foot-11 point guard has grown, so as KUA’s potential.
“The program’s growing a lot,” said the 18-year-old senior, now in his third year in Meriden. “When I first came up here, we barely had fans in the gym. Now it’s getting packed every night, and that’s a big change for us.”
With skill at the point, high-level talent has followed. Olson’s most notable — and, from a college coaching point of view, most recruitable — talents include 6-5 forward Devin Gilligan, a former all-stater from Souhegan High School, bound for D-II Augustana (S.D.) College; a pair of Boston-area forwards, 6-5 junior Duby Maduegbnunam and 6-8 junior Malik Abu; and junior guard Malcolm Brent, another Marylander who followed Thomas to New Hampshire. (KUA’s roster also includes sophomore guard Crew Ainge, son of Boston Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge.)
Abu drives much of the attention from Division I schools. According to Olson, Abu already has scholarship offers on the table from Michigan State, Connecticut, Providence, Boston College, Miami, Florida State, Wisconsin, Northwestern and Cincinnati, with more likely to follow until he makes a choice on college, perhaps by spring.
“There’s a buzz in New England,” Olson said. “It started with Brewster and New Hampton, and it’s really filtered down now to about three dozen schools that really are playing basketball about as well as anybody in the country.”
Olson deliberately has his team punching above its weight. KUA would be a Class B school based on enrollment, but it petitions the New England Prep School Athletic Council for inclusion in Class AA, a 16-team alignment that’s one step below the highest rung of New England’s prep hoop ladder. Last year’s Wildcats went 21-6 and reached the Class AA quarterfinals, losing to Claremont native (and University of Arizona freshman) Kaleb Tarczewski and St. Mark’s School. Cushing — featuring Butler-destined 2,000-point center Andrew Chrabascz and uncommitted junior guard Kaleb Joseph — comes north bearing a 9-0 record; the Wildcats knocked Phillips Exeter from the ranks of the unbeaten last Saturday.
“I was talking with Jay Tilton, the Exeter coach, the other day; he and I crossed paths at Dartmouth — he was leaving and I was coming on,” Olson recalled. “He said, ‘We’ve come full circle now. We’re sitting in a little gym in Meriden, New Hampshire, and Danny Ainge is here and all these Division I coaches are here, watching our kids.’ We kind of chuckled about it. I think it reflects well on what we’re trying to do.”
Olson, who is also the school’s assistant director of college advising, takes the calls from interested college coaches, but he doesn’t know the full list of attendees until game day. The calls are a courtesy, he said; nothing is expected of Olson or the school to make the trip easier for their high-profile visitors.
“We probably had about 500 people in this gym; it was standing-room only,” Olson recalled of last year’s Tilton tilt. “(Donovan and Calipari) were signing autographs, and my guys stepped up to the occasion. … Guys like Calipari, they’re like Bill Clinton. They live for the adulation. We just let them do their thing.”
The KUA coach also doesn’t inform his players who may be in the crowd at any certain game. Not that Thomas would notice — once on the floor, the senior said he tunes out everything that doesn’t have to do with beating the guys in the different-colored shirts.
Still, the Kimball Union co-captain grasps the significance of Olson’s guest list.
“It just means we gotta play a lot harder, because have to live up to what the hype is,” Thomas said. “We don’t want them to come here and we play bad. We gotta play good, not just for the (visiting) coaches but for Coach Olson. He puts in so much time and effort into it. Everybody’s gotta play hard. We don’t want to disappoint anyone.”
So long as the airport’s open and no one gets lost on a rural road or stuck in a snow bank, they won’t.
Greg Fennell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3226.