Vince Walden had left IMG Academy only three years earlier, but in 2015 he was back for another job interview, sitting down with the academy officials to think about the future of IMG’s boys basketball program and what sort of role Walden might have in it.
He had left Bradenton on good terms in 2012 to take a job as an assistant coach at Liberty, so he felt confident enough to ask a question of his own during the interview: “What,” he asked, “is your expectation?”
Walden’s first stint at IMG was dotted with NBA-quality players such as Ricky Sanchez and Dwight Powell, even if the Ascenders never cultivated the depth to truly become one of the best teams in the nation. But there was a new basketball facility on campus and the rapid ascension of IMG’s football program was turning the academy into more of a household name. He foresaw a similar trajectory for the basketball program, given additional resources.
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“They wanted to grow the program,” Walden said. “Obviously, they have grown it in football and wanted to do the same in basketball.”
Now, in Walden’s second season, the Ascenders have been invited to Dick’s Nationals, which serves as an unofficial national championship tournament. Play begins Thursday at Madison Square Garden in New York. With a 28-1 record, IMG is the No. 2 seed behind La Lumiere, Indiana; Walden has achieved at least part of the mission.
They wanted to grow the program. Obviously, they have grown it in football and they wanted to do the same in basketball.
Vince Walden, IMG Academy head coach
The Ascenders began as simply another strong Florida team. They leaned on a heavy international influence with a crop of players who likely will play either Division II or III basketball with one notable exception.
Back in 2014-15, Emmitt Williams was a promising freshman at Lehigh cutting his teeth with Each1Teach1, Amar’e Stoudemire’s Amateur Athletic Union program. At one tournament, Williams caught Walden’s eye with his blend of size and athleticism. It took some persuading, but eventually Williams transfered to IMG.
Now, the junior forward is ranked No. 7 in the Class of 2018 by 247sports.com’s composite rankings.
“I never knew about this school,” Williams said, “and when I first came here I fell in love.”
The Ascenders filled the roster with highly touted prospects during the offseason. Silvio de Sousa, an Angolan power forward, is regarded as one of the 25 best juniors in the country. Power forward Isaiah Stokes, a four-star senior from Memphis, Tenn., signed with Florida. Keyontae Johnson, a junior wing from Norfolk, Va., is a three-star in the 247sports composite.
22Combined stars in 247sports.com’s composite rankings for players on IMG Academy’s roster. Players are rated on a scale of five stars, and Trevon Duval, Emmitt Williams and Silvio de Sousa all possess the maximum amount.
Everything this season, though, begins with Trevon Duval, a 6-foot-3 point guard with machine-gun handles and track-star speed. DraftExpress.com projects him as the No. 7 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft. NBADraft.net pegs him fifth.
“I knew once we got one good player, other good players will start coming in and I just knew this was going to happen,” senior guard DeAndre Osuigwe said.
Who: Boys (8 teams) and girls (4 teams)
What: Single-elimination tournament
When: March 30-April 1
Where: Madison Square Garden
Boys field: La Lumiere (Ind.), IMG Academy, Montverde (Fla.), Findlay Prep (Nev.), Oak Hill (Va.), Shadow Mountain (Ariz.), Greensboro Day (N.C. ), Wasatch (Utah)