by Adam Shandler
Perhaps you’ve flipped through the media guide or program of your favorite college team and noticed that one of its star players graduated from two high schools. Let it be known that these fellas weren’t looking for a master’s in auto shop or a PhD in Key Club but rather attended a prep school with a post-graduate basketball program.
Post-graduate basketball program. Yes, you read right. Consider it a 5-year program for high schoolers and, most of the time, in a part of the country far away from where that student grew up.
Ed Jones, a former shot-blocking standout and assistant coach at the University of Maine, is the first-year head coach of Maine Central Institute, a prep school situated in collegiate Pittsfield, Maine. Jones defines post-graduate basketball as “a team that is put in place at a prep school for students who, number one, need additional academic help, and number two, are looking for a little more basketball exposure that they feel they didn’t get while playing in high school.”
According to Jones, prep schools can sometimes be more appealing than a JUCO to a college-bound player because of the commitment of only one year (as opposed to two). In addition, a prep school grad will have more years of eligibility once they reach the college level. In most cases, players from prep schools will have at least three years in a college uniform.
Now, certainly prep-school post-grad programs are not without their critics. At issue is the notion that a player spends a year in prep school just to get his grades and boards up high enough to play college ball — something that he could not achieve in four years of high school. In other words, hiding out in high school another year so that a player can market himself as a college prospect.
But let’s not get all self-righteous here.
“How is it any different on the college level?” asks Jones. “At least here [the players] are in the classrooms and are forced to take the classes seriously. In college you’ve got guys that are just there to play basketball, who are only there a couple years, and they’re just trying to get to the next level. A lot of guys would never have the opportunity to play college hoops if there wasn’t a prep school program, so at least we’re giving them that opportunity.”
Hard to argue, coach, hard to argue. Especially with a guy who will not only coach hoops but also teach health classes, so Jones is entrenched in the MCI academic community. This will allow him to keep a more surveying eye on his players.
While the recruiting game for post-grad basketball can be a bit tricky, Jones takes a college mentality when applying the process. There is a scouting program, but sometimes kids just fall into Jones’s lap — a welcome byproduct of MCI’s rich academic and basketball tradition. (Much of that is thanks to former coach Max Good, who in three of his ten years at the school, coached the Huskies to a 73-20 record.) However, the first-year coach must also be wary of the kind of young man that joins his squad. There are criteria, after all.
“You want the highest quality person on your team. I don’t want to be up at night worrying if one of my guys is getting into trouble. The last thing I want to deal with is some knucklehead going out and doing something stupid. So I look for a player that is first, a good person, then a good student, and then a good basketball player.”
Post-grad programs are revolving doors for potential college standouts. Generally, one year is all you get — as a player and as a coach. One year to make it all work. To make that nucleus jell like it’s been playing together for four years. With limitations like this, it would seem impossible to build a tradition.
“Yes and no,” says Jones. “I think it’s all how you approach it. If you do things the right way and tell the kids what’s expected of them you could have a very good season. Every year has to be looked at as a rebuilding year because you’re dealing with twelve different guys each time. But if everyone agrees on the goals you can win games.”
Joining MCI with highly visible post-grad prep programs are the St. Thomas More School (Oakdale, CT), and Hargrave Military Academy of Chatham, VA.
Maine Central Institute has previously sent phenoms like Sam Cassell (Florida St./ Milwaukee), Caron Butler (UConn/Miami), and DeMarr Johnson (Cincy/Atlanta) to solid college and pro careers. And this year, there are six MCI grads taking to the Division I hardwood, including Kenton Paulino (Texas), Kevin Massiah and Daniel Rumph (Western Kentucky) and Jai Lewis (George Mason).
So are there superstars at MCI this year that we should be keeping our eye on? Anyone piquing the interest of D-I college or NBA coaches? Anyone USA Today is going to spoil with gushy adulation and feature articles?
Coach Jones is mum. “Nah. Why don’t we wait till the end of the season then you tell me. I always let you guys (the media) do the picking.”