Brewster Academy in league of its own
N.H. prep school and pipeline to Div. 1 hoops programs is once again a NEPSAC favorite
WOLFEBORO, N.H. -- Mitch McGary and JaKarr Sampson grew up in the Midwest. McGary blossomed into a basketball star in Chesterton, Ind., while Sampson was doing the same at LeBron James' alma mater, St. Vincent-St. Mary in Akron, Ohio.
While they had the game to attract attention from top Division I programs, they did not have the grades. So the two of them made the same decision independently after their junior year in high school to relocate to this resort town on the shores of Lake Winnipesaukee and attend Brewster Academy.
Neither player had ever heard of the school. McGary never saw it until he set foot on campus for orientation. Neither was prepared for the brutal winter of 2010-11, which was as snowy and cold as the winter of 2011-12 has been warm and dry. Neither would rather be anywhere else.
Now, two years later, McGary and Sampson have improved their academic record while also being key players on what may well be the best prep basketball team in the country. That is not a misprint. Or an exaggeration. The country.
Brewster is 28-0 as it heads into the New England Prep School Athletic Council (NEPSAC) playoffs, which begin Wednesday at Endicott College in Massachusetts. The following week comes the national prep tournament in Connecticut. Brewster will be favored to win both of them and, frankly, McGary and Sampson will be crestfallen with any other outcome. They've come too far, as individuals and basketball players, to settle for anything less.
"I am hoping we can run the table because it would be awful tough to lose when it really counts,'' Sampson said last week, one day after the team completed its perfect regular season with a victory over Bridgton Academy. "Last year we went 31-3, but we lost in both of the tournaments because we weren't focused, and that has motivated us this time around. I think we're more focused."
Added McGary, "Our coach told us no one has gone through the league undefeated in 14 years, so already this is a big accomplishment. To finish undefeated would be a huge achievement for us."
Brewster plays in the top division (AAA) of NEPSAC. Its roster is filled with future Division I commits -- five at present. Sampson, who visited Kansas last weekend, is still undecided. He had originally committed to St. John's, but now is also considering Kansas, Baylor, Florida, Providence and Louisville. He was first-team All-NEPSAC last season.
Two other Brewster players have committed to Xavier, which already has a pair of Brewster players on its roster. Another has committed to Florida State, and forward T.J. Warren, who has committed to North Carolina State, has been chosen to participate in the McDonald's High School All-American game, a first for the Brewster program.
McGary has committed to Michigan but also has drawn the attention of the National Basketball Association. While commissioner David Stern does not want NBA scouts in high school gyms, he cannot stop them from evaluating the 6-foot-8 McGary, a postgrad student who could declare for the 2012 draft because he will be 19 at draft time and because his high school class (2011) is one year removed from the draft.
At least three NBA teams have scouted McGary in non-high school settings. Meanwhile, college coaches have swarmed the Smith Center on the school's picturesque campus. Kentucky's John Calipari, North Carolina's Roy Williams, Duke's Mike Krzyzewski and Florida's Billy Donovan each have made three trips to see the team.
NCAA regulations prohibit the coaches from commenting on a prospective player or on the program, but Leo Papile, the former director of player personnel for the Boston Celtics and one of the true sages of prep basketball, is under no such constraint. Papile has spent more than 30 years coaching prep all-star teams in the Boston area and is on a first-name basis with Brewster coach Jason Smith and everyone else in NEPSAC and beyond.
"This is the best high school basketball competition in the country,'' Papile said, pointing to the presence of fifth-year postgrads at several schools. "You can't really compare it to conventional high school basketball. If you matched up Brewster against the state champ from any state, it would be a classic mismatch. Vegas wouldn't even sanction it."
Papile also saluted the program at the Tilton School, which boasts Nerlens Noel, a 6-foot-10 center who ESPN ranks as the No. 1 recruit in 2012. Noel has yet to select a school, however, because he is trying to get reclassified so he can graduate this spring. He originally was in the Class of 2013 (Kentucky is hot on his tail). There's also a top-flight program at New Hampton, which has a player -- Noah Vonleh -- who Papile says could well be the best sophomore in the country.
All of these schools are within 45 minutes of each other in New Hampshire's Lakes Region. All three will be in the national prep school championship tournament in Connecticut. All three have had numerous alums on Division I rosters; Kansas' Thomas Robinson, a likely top-five pick in the 2012 draft, went to Brewster, where he was a teammate of KU point guard Naadir Tharpe. Former UNC star and NBA first-round pick Rashad McCants attended New Hampton. Noel could well be one of the top picks in the 2013 draft.
"Who would have ever thought you'd have all this talent in the hills of New Hampshire?" Papile said. "They all play at a very high level and they are not the diploma mills you read about. These kids go to class and do the work. And no one has done a better job of blending academics and basketball than Brewster."
Brewster won the national prep title in 2010, but Smith thinks this unit may be even better. The 2010 team lost five games, but, as Smith noted, "We lost two games in overtime, one in double overtime and another on a buzzer-beater.
"Still, I think there's a little more depth this year. We have four kids who are here for a second year and that's a little unusual,'' Smith said.
Indeed, the Brewster team is pretty much built from the ground up every year, which makes it a challenge. Occasionally there will be the kid who enters Brewster in ninth grade and improves to the point where he can practice with the varsity and maybe get into some games.
But by and large, the team is your basic one-and-done all-star team, drawing kids from all across the country to polish their games and transcripts before college. There are seven postgrads on this year's Brewster roster.
Brewster's powerful reputation is now such that Smith often calls fellow NEPSAC coaches because the school doesn't have enough room for all those hoopsters who want to attend. Smith could, he said, field an entire team whose families would happily pay the annual $48,000 bill for room, board and tuition.
"Seven or eight years ago, I was beating the bushes for players,'' said Smith, who is an associate admissions director at Brewster. "I still spend a lot of time on the phone, on e-mail, using social media. But the school's reputation now pretty much sells itself. The number of overall applicants is up significantly. The number of basketball inquiries is through the roof."
Brewster has 290 boarding students and roughly 75 day students, Smith said. The website says 100 percent of the students move on to four-year colleges. Among its notable basketball alumni are Robinson, Craig Brackins (now with the Philadelphia 76ers) and Jeff Adrien, the former Connecticut star who had a brief stint with the Los Angeles Lakers.
The top level of NEPSAC, which consists of eight teams, including Brewster and New Hampton, plays college rules. There are 20-minute halves. There is the college 3-point line. When kids leave Brewster, they already are familiar with the nuances of the college game.
Sampson and McGary laughed when asked about possibly facing each other next season in either Ann Arbor or wherever Sampson ends up. But the odds are pretty good that Brewster alums will bump into each quite frequently during the college season. There were 35 of them on Division I rosters in the 2009-2010 season. Six more are set to join the D-I ranks next season.
McGary said he isn't remotely ready for the NBA and is looking forward to playing at Michigan with Glenn Robinson III, an Indiana high school teammate at Ann Arbor and the son of former NBA star Glenn Robinson. Sampson said he is grateful for his two years at Brewster, adding, "I think if I had gone to St. John's and never come here, I would not be nearly as well off as I am now."
There's only one thing that would make their prep-school experience even better: to finish the two postseason tournaments the same way they finished every game this season -- with victories. Anything less simply will not do.
Peter May is a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com.