How COVID-19 launched an elite national high school basketball conference, which will include Wasatch Academy

Tigers are among eight teams that will compete in the National Interscholastic Basketball Conference.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Xavian Myles of South County high tries for a basket at Jaxon Kohler of Wasatch Academy puts on the pressure as the two teams compete during a recent tournament in Orem. Wasatch Academy is ranked No. 2 by MaxPreps. The Tigers have joined an elite, national prep basketball league called National Interscholastic Basketball Conference.

The COVID-19 pandemic had stalled high school spring sports around the country. It wasn’t immediately clear if fall sports and winter sports would happen, either, leaving many programs scrambling and imaging contingency plan after contingency plan.

Some elite basketball programs around the country had a dilemma. Wasatch Academy, for example, thought about playing a region-only schedule to limit travel and thus avoid exposure to the coronavirus.

But due to the team’s independent status with the Utah High School Activities Association, that course of action would mean a dearth of games when that season rolled around in winter.

So Wasatch Academy and a few other basketball programs thought of a solution: a conference that would consist of high-level competition in several bubble environments that included regular testing of the athletes and coaches. The season was largely successful, with six of the eight teams completing the conference season.

That idea turned into what will now be the National Interscholastic Basketball Conference, which will include Wasatch Academy and five other prominent programs, and start play in the 2021-22 season. It’s considered the first conference of its kind in regard to high school basketball.

“I think the benefits are tremendous in terms of moving forward,” said Ty Kennedy, director of basketball at Wasatch Academy. “We’ve been playing a pretty high-level, high-caliber schedule every year. This just makes it a little more legitimate.”

The other schools are Oak Hill Academy from Virginia, La Lumiere School from Indiana, IMG Academy and Montverde Academy from Florida, and Sunrise Christian Academy from Kansas. Two other schools will be part of the group, but those are yet to be announced.

Kennedy said while the initial number of teams stands at eight, expansion is possible in the next few years.

Playing an independent schedule means the Tigers cannot contend for a region or state championship like the majority of schools in Utah. But with the NIBC, a conference title is now up for grabs.

Rashid Ghazi, a partner at Paragon Marketing Group, will work as the commissioner of the NIBC. The six schools have combined to win the previous eight national high school championships, with Montverde responsible for five of them.

Wasatch Academy is ranked in the top 10 in several rankings, including the MaxPreps Xcellent 25 (No. 8). But in some ways, the program in Mount Pleasant is just getting started.

“We feel fortunate to be invited to the table,” Kennedy said. “We still kind of see ourselves as growing and kind of developing our program still.”

Many former players from the six named schools of the NIBC currently play in the NBA. Cade Cunningham, who is expected to be the No. 1 pick in this summer’s NBA draft, is an alumnus of Montverde.

“What this conference can do for our school and our players is tremendous in terms of growth, development, exposure and preparation, not just for college,” Kennedy said. “Essentially, this could be the doorstep to the NBA.”

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