Pittsburgh was in to see ‘22 Zion Cruz from Hudson Catholic (NJ) today.
With two returning guards, including Noah Farrakhan (1) and two incoming big men, IMG is looking to rise in the national rankings and contend for a national title. Photo courtesy of Johnny Esfeller, IMG Academy
A strong finish to last season has IMG Academy hoping for more consistency in 2018-19 after coach Sean McAloon’s first season saw the Ascenders finish 23-4 overall and close out the year with 11 straight victories. They finished 23rd in USA Today’s Super 25 national high school rankings.
IMG coach Sean McAloon
“We were on an upward trajectory, and our guys seemed to have figured things out,” McAloon said. “We were almost sad to see the season end because we were on a roll.”
If any of that late-season momentum carries over, it will only bolster a team that boasts a core of top college prospects and has goals of winning a high school national championship next spring.
Even with one key cog transferring out, IMG remains among the most talented teams in the nation -- at least on paper -- thanks to a pair of returning guards and two incoming big men.
“It’s definitely a four-person group, that along with a heavy load of role guys they’ll have on the roster next to them, they’ll have a chance to compete with the best nationally,” said Corey Evans, a national basketball analyst for Rivals.com.
Editor's note: Shortly after interviews were completed for this story, Prep Circuit's Pat Lawless was one of the first to report Dior Johnson, from Saugerties Senior (Ulster County, N.Y.), is transferring to IMG this season. Johnson is considered the top point guard prospect in the 2022 class.
Guard Jahmius Ramsey announced his transfer to Oak Hill Academy (Va.) in early August, but IMG’s backcourt should not lose a step with Josh Green and Noah Farrakhan returning. They are complemented by five-star big men Armando Bacot (Trinity Episcopal, Va.) and Jeremiah Robinson-Earl (Bishop Meige, Kan.), and the group is helping set high goals this season for the Ascenders.
Shooting guard Josh Green Green averaged 27.8 points, 7.7 rebounds, 2.8 assists per game last season, but his leadership may be the key to the Ascenders' success this year. Photo courtesy of Johnny Esfeller, IMG Academy
“I think the only thing on our minds, as it should be, is a national championship,” Green said. “I think we have a really good shot at winning it all. I think we just need to all buy into our school and trust our coaches and everything like that, trust each other on the court, and we can go as far as we want.”
Green, a 6-5 shooting guard and a five-star recruit rated 11th in the class of 2019 by 247 Sports’ composite rankings, averaged 27.8 points and 7.7 rebounds per game last season while chipping in 2.8 assists per game.
I think the only thing on our minds, as it should be, is a national championship. I think we have a really good shot at winning it all.
Noah Farrakhan averaged 10.2 points, 2.5 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game playing at point guard in 16 NIKE EYBL and five Peach Jam games this summer for his AAU team, Nike Team Florida. Photo courtesy of Johnny Esfeller, IMG Academy
In 16 NIKE EYBL and five Peach Jam games this summer for AAU team Nike Team Florida, Farrakhan averaged 10.2 points, 2.5 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game playing the point. The 6-1 guard is a four-star recruit and rated in the top 100 players in the class of 2020 by 247 Sports.
IMG had quality guard play a year ago, and it should be even better now that the team has talented big men to open up the game for Farrakhan and Green.
Expectations are high for Bacot, committed to UNC, and Robinson-Earl, committed to Villanova, as they hope to shore up the interior for IMG, which is where the Ascenders lacked consistency a year ago, Evans said. Talented big man Silvio de Sousa graduated early to enroll at the University of Kansas for the spring semester, leaving the squad short on experience inside the paint.
The two incoming transfers provide the team with plenty of height at the power forward spots. The 6-10 Bacot and 6-9 Robinson-Earl are rated as five-star, top-30 prospects in the Class of 2019 by 247 Sports’ composite rankings.
“Their roster was already pretty solid from a talent dynamic, definitely not lacking,” Evans said. “When you add two guys that can score in a variety of manners: facing the bucket, back to the bucket; Bacot’s one of the best rebounders in America, Robinson-Earl’s one of the best frontcourt defenders in America.”
Bacot won a Division I state title in Virginia in 2017, and as a junior, last season averaged 24.5 points and 11.5 rebounds per game. In his final game at Trinity Episcopal, a state semifinal loss, Bacot scored 45 points.
Bacot also played for Team USA this summer, winning gold at the FIBA U18 Men’s Americas Championship. In 24 games, he averaged 11 points and eight rebounds for his AAU squad, Team Takeover, in the EYBL as they won the Peach Jam this summer. His versatility should help an IMG team that McAloon said will thrive on its ability to do many things offensively.
“It allows you to take advantage to whichever mismatch you may have, either close to the basket or away from the basket,” McAloon said of bringing in Bacot. “[He’s an] unselfish player; he passes well, defends his position well, rebounds. Just brings multiple facets to the game. Makes the game easy.”
Robinson-Earl helped Bishop Miege (Kan.) win the last three Class 4A titles in Kansas and averaged 22 points and eight rebounds last season as a junior. Robinson-Earl also played on Team USA’s U18 gold-medal winning squad.
“Just to have that presence in the paint is going to be a lot better for the team,” Green said. “I like to create around the basket and just create in general for my teammates. Me being able to have two big men who are very good and fundamentally very good is not only going to help my game, but just overall push the pace of the game and getting them more involved.”
Armando Bacot transferred to IMG this season, and his size (6-foot-10) and ability to do so many things in the paint should help make his teammates better. Photo by Bri Lewerke, Prep Circuit
That balance and versatility has IMG eying a national title. The Ascenders last played in the DICK’s High School Nationals tournament in 2017, losing their opening game as the No. 2 seed. Evans said Farrakhan, Green and Robinson-Earl are all multi-positional players, so the Ascenders should be able to mix and match lineups freely.
McAloon also said the players’ flexibility is a benefit.
“It just means you can attack different ways, it’s not just one way,” McAloon said. “It’s different things. You can go small, you can go big, you can go quick. Better shooting, better rebounding. It allows you to do different things. If something’s not working, fall back on something else.”
Producing professional-caliber individual talent is not an issue for IMG, which saw postgraduate program alumnus Anfernee Simons get drafted 24th overall by the NBA’s Portland Trail Blazers this June. But talent alone does not make a winning team. It might be up to the returning players to help integrate the newcomers and get IMG where it wants to be by season’s end.
“I think just knowing who they are as kids and individuals, and how they’re more about the team thriving than themselves first, I think that’s going to be reflected in the wins and losses,” Evans said of the Ascenders’ big four.
McAloon has seen his returners grow into better leaders through the summer, and he knows the value of that guidance on a team facing a challenging schedule and high expectations from coaches and fans.
Leadership and teamwork may be all the talent-laden Ascenders need to climb in the national polls and capture a title.
“They don’t have to do much more than they did last year, they all had really good years,” McAloon said.
It’s a position Green understands.
“You can have all the talent you want in the world, but at the end of the day, it’s going to come down to relying on each other as teammates and as coaches,” he said. “So I feel that if we buy into what everyone can do and trust each other on the court, there’s no team in the nation that will be able to match us.”
Pittsburgh was in to see ‘22 Zion Cruz from Hudson Catholic (NJ) today.