Conference for high school basketball’s elite shows promise
VIDEO: Four-star combo guard Judah Mintz picks Syracuse over DePaul, NC State, Wake Forest
Mintz, a 6-foot-3 combo guard from Washington DC, will stay in the Northeast and play for Jim Boeheim and the Syracuse Orange next fall.
Alex Martin, Fort Myers News Press
The men’s basketball teams that participate in the GEICO Nationals tournament often know each other very well.
That’s never been truer this season, following the first organized year of the National Interscholastic Basketball Conference, a newly formed league of elite high school basketball programs.
The 2021-22 NIBC season featured matchups between eight powerhouses: Bishop Walsh School, Oak Hill, Montverde, IMG Academy, La Lumiere School, Sunrise Christian Academy and Legacy Early College. The conference recently announced the addition of AZ Compass Prep and Long Island Lutheran for a 10-team league in the 2022-23 season.
Paragon Sports chairman Rashid Ghazi, who is commissioner of the NIBC, said he was born out of the pandemic. The top schools saw their schedules collapse and wanted to guarantee games against the top.
“The schools were all looking for games, they wanted to play together, they wanted to form some sort of cohesive unit together, and they wanted to elevate their programs,” Ghazi said. “It really wasn’t hard to convince them to do it.”
GEICO Nationals: Girls final between New Hope and Montverde
The idea of an elite high school team conference had been around for a long time, but the pandemic has accelerated plans as top teams worked with Paragon during the 2020-21 season to informally help plan, organize and televise the matches between the programs.
“As this year approached, everyone realized that it was interesting for us to be able to work together to create an elevated platform for these schools,” Ghazi said.
This led to NIBC officially becoming an LLC to put Paragon in the best position to run the league and gain sponsorships. They also had to work out the details of adhering to individual national policies for each team, such as FHSAA rules for schools like IMG and Montverde.
“It’s not for an independent promoter to determine if they play together,” Ghazi said. “They have a conference that can actually organize and play together, and they’ve also realized that they can create more opportunities for student-athletes in terms of an elevated platform.”
The 2021-22 season featured a 38-game schedule, all of which aired on ESPN2, ESPNU or ESPN+. The US Marines were the title sponsor, and the league also got Gatorade, GEICO, Chipotle, and Chevrolet as advertisers.
Sunrise Christian, the top seed in the GEICO National Championships this year, became the NIBC champion.
“I think the competitiveness of the conference has raised a lot of eyebrows, and I think some athletes have really been able to use the conference to elevate their status this year,” Ghazi said.
IMG head coach Sean McAloon compared it to the former Big East roster.
“We want kids who want to be able to come to us and who want to play against the best,” he said. “The league was great, honestly. It was well run. Every tournament was great.
Ghazi noted that the event ran for three consecutive days in La Porte, Indiana, home of La Lumière, where they sold out a 2,000-seat auditorium.
“It really reflects college basketball,” said Donnie Wilkie, tournament director of the Culligan City of Palms Classic, a national men’s basketball tournament played annually in Fort Myers.
Ghazi said players quickly bought into it, with each NIBC weekend having the feel of a “mini-GEICO”.
“For the athletes, it also went very well because they had a platform where other people recognized what it was, and they had the chance to shine more than in individual matches” , Ghazi said.
Sunrise Christian’s Gradey Dick, a Kansas draftee, was the NIBC’s top scorer in the 2021-22 season, averaging 17.5 points per game.
In the Class of 2022 recruiting rankings, Dick was consistently outside the top 10 in 2021. Now he is in the top 10 of the latest ESPN100 rankings and was recently named Gatorade National Basketball Player of the Year. .
Judah Mintz of Oak Hill, committed to Syracuse, scored the third-most points in the league, averaging 16.8 points per game. He compared it to when he played in the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference with Gonzaga College High School in DC
“The intensity and the talent every day and the consistency of the league was very different from most leagues in the country,” Mintz said. “I’m from the WCAC so it wasn’t a big shock for me. Only the platform it gives players can change the trajectory of where you are going.
CONTINUED: Oak Hill four-star combo guard Judah Mintz commits to Syracuse against DePaul, NC State, Wake
The increased exposure of NIBC could be particularly critical for gamers with the emergence of NIL for college athletes.
“They’re looking to build their own brand at the high school level and a platform, being on TV and playing nationally, helps elevate their status, following and appeal to potential advertisers,” said Ghazi. “I also think the NIBC, for these athletes, provides them with a recognizable platform beyond their schools.”
The NIBC is NIL neutral, which means high school students can benefit from it depending on their state’s policy. It is currently banned in Florida, but there are other states with member schools, such as New York, where it is allowed.
Ghazi expects the league expansion to continue between 12 and 16 teams. AZ Compass Prep’s latest announcement represents the conference’s westernmost expansion, while Long Island Lutheran is a major recovery in the New York-New Jersey market.
Long Island Lutheran head coach John Buck described it as an “incredible opportunity” for his players and the school.
“We’re excited about what’s to come,” he said. “We know it won’t be easy. It’s definitely a big change from general high school basketball to basically a super league.
It was a huge honor for AZ Compass Prep to be accepted, according to head coach Ed Gipson. He is delighted that his players are showing their talent on a bigger stage.
“It’s something we strive for – wanting to be at this level and playing with other top programs,” he said. “For us, we worked for that.”
Teams invited to NIBC must be a full-time, in-person academic institution, and the school must control and manage the basketball program, according to Ghazi.
There are some areas they will be looking to improve – NIBC doesn’t have the budget for home and away games like a college basketball conference, but they are looking to balance schedules and mix up the games for next year.
For example, Oak Hill suffered three losses at the start of the season – suffering losses to Montverde, Sunrise Christian and IMG in the span of three days.
Wilkie noted that it will be rarer to see teams with unbeaten records following the NIBC.
READ: Longtime Oak Hill coach Steve Smith’s career ends in loss to Link Academy
However, Oak Hill head coach Steve Smith, who retired from the GEICO Nationals after 37 years coaching the Warriors, believes the league is pushing the sport forward.
“It’s the best of all worlds for high school basketball,” Smith said. “These guys are all trying to get to college and get to the pros as fast as they can anyway. Times have changed.”
And Smith would know better, because Oak Hill, under his tenure, provided an influential blueprint for many high-profile prep programs across the country today.
“Everything about these games really seems to be setting these kids up for the next level,” Wilkie said. “There is no downside to that. You just have to understand that high school basketball is now different than it was in 1982, or different when Steve Smith started at Oak Hill, and he helped push that mothball down the hill, and now it is a gigantic rock.
— Greg Hardwig, Dennis Maffezzoli and Alex Martin contributed to this report.
Follow sportswriter Dustin Levy on Twitter: @DustinBLevy. For additional Southwest Florida sports coverage, follow @newspresssports and @ndnprepzone on Instagram.