Prep ‘basketball factories’ blooming in Arizona desert

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Just a couple of years ago, Arizona high school hoops fans paid little attention to the various basketball “academies” springing up around the country, those prep schools started for the specific purpose of developing the nation’s elite basketball players.

Since then, these ‘basketball factories’ have been sprouting here in the desert like blooms on a succulent cactus.

The latest to field a men’s national team, Bella Vista College Prep, is the third since Hillcrest Academy started the trend in time for the 2015-16 season.  Bella Vista, which was founded in 2004 as a middle school and is now a K-12 with a 50+ enrollment, also has boys’ and girls’ varsity teams that participate in the Canyon Athletic Association, a league set up for charter schools.

The new national team will begin play this season, looking for national showcases and contests with other similar academies around the country.

Hillcrest gained instant recognition when Marvin Bagley III transferred from Corona del Sol High School in Tempe to the basketball school and became the foundation of the new program in its inaugural season.  The 7-footer was rated as the No. 1 prospect in the Class of 2018.

Bagley left after one season, but Hillcrest replaced him with the top prospect in the Class of 2017, DeAndre Ayton. That 7-footer, who will be playing for the University of Arizona Wildcats this year, led Hillcrest to a 33-6 overall record and won the 2016-17 Grind Session to earn a top-10 finish in the national rankings.

This past season also saw the start of the state’s second prep basketball factory, Aspire Basketball Academy.  Aspire set up a national team and a post-graduate team and partnered with Bella Vista to cover the academic side of the program.  Hillcrest is partnered with Precision High in south Phoenix to provide NCAA-certified coursework for its players.

Aspire, however, lasted just one season before picking up stakes and moving to Louisville, KY.

That made room for the new national program that will also be run out of Bella Vista in north Scottsdale – and coached by Kyle Weaver, the former coach at Hillcrest Prep.  Weaver coached the Hillcrest national team for its first two seasons and his brother, Nick, served as athletic director at the school.

Kyle was dismissed after last season with no public explanation, but Nick Weaver remains at Bella Vista.  Try to follow the bouncing ball, folks…

Kyle Weaver’s new team will likely include a player or two that had no interest in following Aspire to Kentucky and wanted to continue playing in Arizona.  But he has acknowledged his program won’t be ready to compete with teams like Hillcrest right away as he begins looking for players with talent – from Arizona and around the country – that he can develop and take to the next level.  Foreign players would also be welcome, he says.

Those players will need to come up with the $21,000 that will cover their tuition and housing during a year at Bella Vista – and have a solid foundation in academics.

While both of these basketball academies are working through the constant state of flux that comes with starting something new, there may be yet another plot twist to throw into the mix.  Bella’s athletic director, Don Brown, reportedly has plans to start a women’s national team.

Considering that the talent level in girls’ high school basketball in Arizona has reached a level in recent years to make it competitive in national tournaments, this just might be the right timing for Brown’s idea.