Prep Profile - Vermont Academy
After a decade of extreme growth, the Vermont Academy basketball program is taking the next step this season under head coach Alex Popp as they join Class AAA of the NEPSAC.
The ascension comes on the heels of advancing to the final four of the Class AA play-offs in four of the last five years, winning a NEPSAC championship in 2016, and producing a long line of individually talented players including Bruce Brown, Simi Shittu, Jordan Nwora, and many more.
This year’s group may not feature any one dynamic star, but has a deep and talented roster that should be immediately competitive in AAA while simultaneously building a bridge towards success in future years.
The Wildcats return a solid core of veteran leaders with the senior tandem of Jake Cook and Bijon Sidhu along with the junior duo of Nana Owuso-Anane and Josh Bascoe. Cook, who signed with LIU last week, is a high-level athlete but also a testament to VA’s player development program after drastically improving his skill-set in recent years. Sidhu came to Vermont from the state of Washington last year and immediately developed a niche with his toughness, high-motor, and versatility on both ends of the floor.
Owusu was one of the most pleasant surprises in New England’s class of 2021 last year. With extremely long-arms and excellent defensive instincts, he exceeded all expectations and quickly established himself as a key piece of VA’s foundation. With his offensive game now making consistent strides, he’ll be looking to establish himself as one of the best juniors in the region this year. Bascoe, a fellow Canadian native, is a highly skilled guard now in his third season in Saxtons River. He is a high-level shot-maker but equally talented with his ability to create space and change speeds off the dribble.
California native CJ Jones made an early arrival in New England last June when he joined his future teammates for the NEPSAC scholastic events. The trip proved to be well worth it as he helped himself as much as any player in either event and went on to earn numerous division I offers in the process. Ultimately, he decided on Boston University where he should be capable of making an immediate impact. First though, he’ll be a key for this year’s Vermont squad as his perimeter size, shot-making, and feel for the game are all major assets.
Raphe Ayres is a similarly big, skilled wing who will add additional shot-making and floor-spacing to the line-up this year. 6-foot-8 forward Blake Whitelaw should be able to offer consistent rotation minutes along the frontline while Andy Christos is a late-bloomer who provides another big wing with the potential to play multiple positions.
Iowa native Tyler Andrews is a well-built and very athletic 6-foot-5 wing in the class of 2021 who excels in transition and has the tools to evolve into a high-level defender while local product Nate Gryczka is another valuable piece in the middle of the line-up.
Popp’s squad features several talented underclassmen, some of whom will be asked to make immediate contributions this season. Tops among them is Chisom Okpara, a high-profile prospect in New England’s sophomore class who has the physical strength and body type to be able to hold his own in a league that regularly features 19-year olds while also being able to offer some playmaking from the forward positions.
Fellow sophomore Keyonte Beals is a big, southpaw guard with a lot of playmaking potential and a high long-term ceiling. Ty Higgins provides a potent shot-maker in the class while freshman guard Omela Mudogo will benefit from competing against this crew on a daily basis and figures to be an important part of the program’s future.
This is a squad that will be defined by their balance more than anything else. While there may not be a dynamic individual talent like Brown, Shittu, or Nwora to put the group on their back, the flip side of that coin is that they’re not overly reliant on any one player and consequently built to overcome the adversity that injuries or foul trouble can sometimes cause in the winter.
Their depth is valuable, especially with the amount of size and interchangeable parts they have in the middle of the line-up, while they also project as a solid shooting team around Jones, Bascoe, and Ayres.
The bottom line is that while they may be new to Class AAA, they should be expected to be right in the midst of the league from day one as they’ve been a program capable of competing with the best in New England for recent years and are now, to their credit, willing to take on the best prep school programs both New England and the country have to offer.