Preseason 2020-21 FAB 50: Top 15 Teams!

We conclude our 2020-21 preseason FAB 50 National Team Rankings powered by Ballislife.com with an in-depth look at the nation’s top 15 teams. We began with teams No. 31-50 on October 25, continued with teams No. 16-30 on October 26 and now have published an in-depth look at the nation’s 50 best teams. Montverde Academy of Florida is the nation’s preseason No. 1 team for the sixth time as it seeks its sixth FAB 50 title in the last nine seasons.

All 50 teams are written up with explanations for why they were placed in these positions. Montverde Academy is in pole position to begin the season for the sixth time, as the Eagles look to capture a second mythical national title in four years. The only time Montverde Academy didn’t finish No. 1, when starting out No. 1, was in 2019 when the Eagles finished No. 4 after losing in the GEICO Nationals semifinals to eventual national champion IMG Academy. Academy-type programs that play an independent schedule continue to dominate the FAB 50. The COVID-19 Pandemic may widen the gap between the talent level of those programs and traditional public and parochial schools that play for state titles.

RELATED: Preseason 2020-21 FAB 50 (16-30) | Preseason 2020-21 FAB 50 (31-50) | Preseason Regional Top 20 Rankings | A Season Unlike Any Other | “In The Paint” Podcast: FAB 50 Edition (Episode 86)

(LISTEN to the “In The Paint” Show as Devin Ugland and Ronnie Flores break down the preseason FAB 50 with coaches Luke Barnwell of No. 3 Sunrise Christian Academy (Kan.), Allen Whitehart of No. 21 Milton (Ga.) and Jeff Kaufman of No. 37 Coronado (Nev.) by pressing PLAY below.)

Preseason 2020-21 FAB 50 National
Team Rankings Powered by Ballislife.com

By Ronnie Flores

(Final 2019-20 ranking in parentheses; *Indicates forfeit wins, forfeit losses not included; **Indicates forfeits and defaults not included; ***Indicates season cut short due to COVID-19 Pandemic; Look for preseason Region-By-Region Top 20 Rankings on Thursday, November 5 and for the preseason Mr. Basketball USA Tracker on Monday, November 23.)

1. (1) Montverde Academy (Montverde, Fla.) 25-0***
Key Players: SF Caleb Houstan 6-8 2021 (No. 9 247Sports.com, Ballislife Underclass All-American), PG Ryan Nembhard 6-1 2021 (No. 83 Rivals.com, Creighton commit), SG Langston Love 6-4 2021 (No. 23 ESPN.com, Baylor commit), SF Dariq Whitehead 6-5 2022 (No. 7 Rivals.com), C Jalen Duren 6-9 2022 (No. 2 247Sports.com, Ballislife Underclass All-American), PF DaRon Holmes 6-8 2021 (No. 36 Rivals.com, Dayton commit, Ballislife Underclass All-American), SG Jalen Hood-Schifino 6-5 2022 (No. 23 ESPN.com, Ballislife Underclass All-American)

Why This Ranking: Last year’s MVA team was not only the best of its five FAB 50 title teams, but with a winning margin of 38.9 ppg against a national schedule, one of the best high school teams of all-time. This year’s team may not have the pure firepower of that group, but based on our long-standing criteria of placing teams in the preseason rankings, the Eagles are a deserving No. 1 team. Montverde Academy plays the necessary schedule, and has the talent level and track record to be No. 1 until someone beats them. The last time MVA lost on the court, in the 2019 GEICO semifinals to IMG Academy, it turned out to be the difference in the Ascenders earning last season’s preseason No. 1 berth by a slim margin and prevented a wire-to-wire No. 1 finish, something the 2017-18 MVA team was able to accomplish. This year’s team returns four rotation players who played key roles on last season’s historically dominant unit, including Houstan (10.0 ppg, 3.5 rpg). The lone returning starter, Houstan is a vital piece to the Eagles’ championship aspirations who shoots it at a high clip and has grown both physically and mentally. Playing alongside 2020 Mr. Basketball USA Cade Cunningham (Oklahoma St.) and fellow first five All-American Scottie Barnes (Florida St.), Houstan made defenses pay for focusing on that duo and shot 53.1 percent from 3-point range and 61.7 percent from the field. If Houstan’s production doubles and he finds a way to keep his shooting percentages in those ranges despite the increased defensive attention, he’ll be a serious Mr. Basketball USA candidate and it will take a tremendous effort to beat this club. Whitehead (8.3 ppg, 2.7 rpg) has a tremendous combination of length and quickness and with his ability, should be one of the best defenders in the country. The Eagles’ coaching staff expects him to take a big step up. Nembhard (2.7 ppg, 3.1 apg) gives the Eagles I.Q. and toughness at the point guard spot, while Love (9.1 ppg, 2.6 rpg) is a dependable asset on both ends of the floor. He could lead the team in scoring and has shown marked improvement through the pandemic.
The Skinny: This year’s team may not reach the heights of last year’s team, but the good news for Eagles’ fans is it doesn’t have to. “In our 30 years of coaching together with Kevin (Boyle), we want to make sure guys can be the best versions of themselves,” Miller said. “We want to make sure we coach the current team we have to reach its potential. The primary goal of the nine guys on this team is to get to the level to compete for another national title.” It’s no secret Montverde Academy has been the nation’s dominant program over the past decade and that has raised the expectations for players the moment they step on campus. The multiple teams on campus (including post-grad) accelerates the learning curve for its elite high school team to be able to compete for FAB 50 titles and this year’s newcomers have a good understanding of the program’s expectations. “The competition level in our own environment is one of the reasons why players want to come here,” Miller said. “They want to replicate what we’ve accomplished.” Duren comes in highly regarded and with Holmes and Malik Reneau (6-8, 2022), the Eagles will be able to protect the rim, work the boards and finish at a high level. Hood-Schifino is a gym rat who doesn’t get the credit for being the shooter he is. He will provide tremendous firepower on the wing and Justice Williams (6-3, 2022), a teammate of Duren last season at Roman Catholic in Philadelphia, provides backcourt depth. Last year’s team loved to pass the basketball and the coaching staff is optimistic this unit will continue with that type of mindset because if the chemistry develops, it will be hard to beat. The Eagles were all set to participate in the City of Palms Tournament in Ft. Myers, Fla., along with six other FAB 50 ranked teams, including No. 2 IMG Academy, but now that tournament is off so a MVA-IMG showdown will have to take place at another event. Coach Boyle’s defending champions are scheduled to face No. 3 Sunrise Christian Academy at the Spalding Hoophall Classic in Springfield, Mass., on MLK Monday (January 18). Should Montverde Academy earn a berth to GEICO Nationals, the Eagles would enter that end-of-season event with a tourney record .800 winning percentage (20-5).

2. (5) IMG Academy (Bradenton, Fla.) 19-6***
Key Players: SF Jarace Walker 6-6 2022 (No. 6 247Sports.com, Ballislife Underclass All-American), C Moussa Diabate 6-10 2021 (No. 7 ESPN.com, Ballislife Underclass All-American), PG Jaden Bradley 6-2 2022 (No. 6 Rivals.com, Ballislife Underclass All-American), SG Tamar Bates 6-5 2021 (No. 69 Rivals.com, Texas commit), SF Jett Howard 6-4 2022 (No. 36 ESPN.com), SF Eric Dailey Jr. 6-7 2022 (No. 26 247Sports.com).
Why This Ranking: The Ascenders quickly rose up the ranks to challenge the likes of Montverde Academy and Oak Hill Academy for supremacy among elite independent programs. In a season wide open in terms of team expectations because of COVID-19, IMG Academy is a safe bet at No. 2 because of its blinding talent level and rugged schedule. The preseason No. 1 vs. No. 2 debate isn’t quite as close as last season, but fourth-year coach Sean McAloon has a prime opportunity to lead his program to its second FAB 50 title in three years with a roster with plenty of experience in high level games. Walker will lead this team on both ends with his explosive scoring ability, physicality and energy level. While Walker (8.8 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 5.3 apg, 1.5 spg, 1.5 bpg) leads the way defensively on the perimeter, Diabate has shown the ability to be the top defensive post presence in the country. His production will be key because clubs such as No. 1 Montverde Academy and No. 3 Sunrise Christian Academy have more post depth than the Ascenders. Dailey has plenty of experience in IMG Academy’s system since middle school and with USA Basketball, so his versatility as a wing and his big body on defense will make a difference for this club. Bates is a relentless scorer and puts tremendous pressure on defenses with his energy, while Howard is a big play-maker who can knock down the pressure perimeter shot. Louis Hutchinson (6-7, 2022), Ezra Ausar (6-7, 2021) and Gus “Bus” Yalden (6-8, 2023) provide depth and various offensive looks.
The Skinny: If you count McAloon’s first season when the team featured Silvio De Sousa (before he left for Kansas at the semester break), IMG Academy has consistently been one of the nation’s best teams and this season should be no different. We did peg IMG Academy as preseason No. 1 last season, and although No. 2 Montverde Academy went on to have one of the most dominant teams in high school history, IMG’s six losses were a bit deceiving. Its placement was public before Jalen Johnson (Duke) left the team early in the season. He had Mr. Basketball USA level ability, plus scoring point guard Jaden Springer battled injury. Despite those developments, the Ascenders were still the only team that could give Montverde Academy a close game in three attempts, a 63-55 setback in the City of Palms championship game. Of course, the prior season doesn’t considerably factor into the current one, but we’ve always factored in rankings history into our decisions among elite teams and more often than not that strategy has played out in our favor. If Johnson was part of the equation, we’d make the same decision again so it only makes sense to peg Montverde Academy as No. 1 this time around. Although the City of Palms Tournament has been cancelled and MVA and IMG were on a collision course to meet, don’t be surprised if the top two preseason ranked teams battle down the line. IMG Academy is scheduled to play in the Bass Pro Tournament of Champions (January 14-16) in Springfield, Missouri, where it could face No. 3 Sunrise Christian Academy. IMG Academy is tentatively scheduled to complete the “Springfield Double,” where it will travel to Springfield, Mass., to face Emoni Bates’ Ypsi Prep Academy on MLK Monday. To survive that schedule, IMG Academy will need to remain healthy and considering what transpired last season, the play of Bradley will be paramount. His feel for the game, ability to get others involved and run this team could be the X-factor. Bradley averaged 23.1 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 6.1 apg and 2.9 spg as a sophomore at Cannon School (N.C.) and has a chance to earn All-American honors should the Ascenders play up to expectations.

3. (3) Sunrise Christian Academy (Bel Air, Kan.) 22-3***
Key Players: SF Kendall Brown 6-8 2021 (No. 11 247Sports.com, Baylor commit, Ballislife Underclass All-American), PF Zach Clemence 6-9 2021 (No. 35 Rivals.com, Kansas commit), PG Kennedy Chandler 6-1 2021 (No. 12 Rivals.com, Tennessee commit, Ballislife Underclass All-American), SG Gradey Dick 6-6 2022 (No. 27 ESPN.com, Ballislife Underclass All-American), PG Willie Lightfoot 5-11 2022 (No. 121 Rivals.com), C Kenny Pohto 6-9 2021 (No. 142 247Sports.com), PF Jaylon McDaniel 6-7 2022, C David Oyona 6-10 2023.
Why This Ranking: The Buffaloes’ talent and experience could make them party-crashers in the race for the 2020-21 FAB 50 national title. In 2019, coach Luke Barnwell’s program earned its first GEICO Nationals appearance and were primed for a run at the 2020 tourney championship before the onset of COVID-19 canceled the event. This team has the talent, and perhaps just as important, the motivation, to show it has what it takes to seriously compete for the FAB 50 crown. It begins with Brown, a Mr. Basketball USA contender after averaging 13.3 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 2.3 apg and 1.7 spg as a junior. According to Barnwell, the Baylor commit is focused and an underrated shooter. Clemence is a versatile scorer and Barnwell loves the fact Pohto (who has been with the program three years) can also knock down the outside shot. The Buffaloes can go big with its “shooting bigs” or slide Brown to the four-spot and utilize Chandler and Lightfoot’s strengths together in a smaller lineup. Barnwell praises Chandler for his I.Q. and feel and he’s also capable of putting up big scoring numbers, if necessary. After all, he averaged 22.2 ppg, 4.3 apg and 2.6 spg for a Briarcrest Christian (Tenn.) club that advanced to the TSAAA Class AA, D2 state title game and spent time in the FAB 50. “Hopefully we develop into a group that plays together unselfishly and we’ve meshed well so far,” Barnwell said.
The Skinny: Many veteran observers felt last year’s Sunrise Christian unit, which opened up at No. 12, was the second most talented in the country behind Montverde Academy, but the rankings dictated a No. 3, not a No. 2 final ranking based on the common opponent factor (the Buffaloes lost to Hamilton Heights Christian Academy and Wasatch Academy beat that club). Top to bottom, this team is more talented than last year’s and it remains to be seen if any other of the true elites can say the same. Dick, who averaged 20.4 ppg as a sophomore at Wichita Collegiate (Kan.), is big enough to make shots over defenders and this club is so talented there may be games where he won’t have to score in double figures to be effective. As if that isn’t enough, strongman Deiman Reyes (6-8, 2021) comes in from Veritas Prep in Southern California and provides physicality and toughness, while Fred Payne (6-2, 2023) will get better everyday in practice while awaiting his chance to contribute. We strongly considered placing this team at No. 2, but the same reason why we started Montverde over IMG in 2019 and the Ascenders over the Eagles in 2020 is the reason why we place Barnwell’s club in this spot. Whereas Montverde and IMG Academy have won the past three GEICO Nationals crowns, Sunrise Christian Academy has only participated in the event once, in 2019 when it lost to eventual champ IMG Academy in the first round, 65-50. Ironically, Barnwell felt as if his team was jelling at the right time to make a GEICO Nationals run before last season abruptly ended. For Barnwell’s returners, this season is almost an extension of last and he hopes that motivation rubs off on the newcomers. “The last time we were together, we had a 5 a.m. workout then later that day Rudy Gobert got it and the whole world changed,” Barnwell said. “The next time we were together was the first day of school this season. There was no closure and it does feel like unfinished business.” That business includes the “Springfield Double,” as the Buffaloes will play at the Bass Pro Tournament of Champions in Missouri (where it could meet No. 2 IMG Academy) before facing top-ranked Montverde Academy at the Hoophall Classic on MLK Monday. Sunrise is also tentatively scheduled to face No. 14 Minnehaha Academy on Dec. 19, in addition to playing in a league for independent clubs. The league’s games will take place as part of pre-existing events with eight teams, seven that should be FAB 50 ranked. That means Sunrise Christian Academy could have as many losses as last season and still be a much better team, provided all the league games are completed. It also increases the likelihood that the eventual FAB 50 national champion will not finish undefeated.

4. (11) Paul VI (Fairfax, Va.) 27-8***
Key Players: SF Trevor Keels 6-4 2021 (No. 14 247Sports.com, Ballislife Underclass All-American), PG Dug McDaniel 5-10 2022 (No. 46 247Sports.com), SF Tyler Coleman 6-5 2021 (Towson commit), PF Jack Jensen 6-5 2021, SG DeShawn Harris-Smith 6-3 2023 (No. 45 247Sports.com).

Why This Ranking: The Panthers have the talent and pedigree deserving of this FAB 50 spot as the No. 1 team from the powerful Washington Catholic Athletic Conference (WCAC). It was a close decision to place them in this spot over WCAC rival DeMatha Catholic, but with four players returning with starting experience and nine returning lettermen, coach Glen Farello’s club is once again serious FAB 50 contenders. It begins with Keels, one of the nation’s best scorers who had a fantastic junior campaign, averaging 17.5 ppg and 4.5 rpg against national level competition on almost a nightly basis. In a conference where it’s quite difficult to win a road game, having its best player (Keels is already a two-time All-Met selection) at your disposal could make all the difference. Farello (480-194) also has the luxury of an experienced lead guard in McDaniel, who has stepped up in many big games and will help ease the loss of two-time All-Met selection Jeremy Roach (Duke). If McDaniel can consistently produce to the level anywhere near Roach did, this team will be in excellent position to win the conference crown because its front court players have improved.
The Skinny: For the second consecutive season, the Panthers will begin at No. 4 in the FAB 50, but this time around Paul VI is the WCAC favorite, as opposed to last year when DeMatha edged them and came in at No. 3. Our preseason forecast turned out to be accurate, as the Stags won the conference by three games and won the tournament championship over the Panthers, 70-56, so that may be a good sign for Paul VI. Front court play is key, as Coleman is a terrific rebounder, can play on the wing or defend down low and is an invaluable piece for Farello. Jensen scored in key spots last season and can be counted on down the stretch in games. Harris-Smith can spell both guard spots and gives the lineup flexibility, depending on the matchups, while Kris Mickens (6-4, 2022) is a highly regarded transfer who can put the ball in the hole. Front court depth will be provided by varsity newcomers Darren Harris (6-5, 2024) and Garrett Sundra (6-7, 2024). From a FAB 50 standpoint, the 2015-16 season was the last time Paul VI was unranked in the preseason and it overachieved in both 2017-18 and 2018-19 from its preseason position, so it will be interesting to see how this club fares from the WCAC pole position. The Panthers had a fine 2019-20 season, but the reason it didn’t finish in its preseason range was the high number of overall losses. That scenario will be a bit different this season because the uncertainty surrounding COVID-19 will keep the Panthers from playing in the same amount of high-profile showcases and tournaments it normally does. That means less wiggle room to earn a high final ranking with more than five losses. With Keels, its overall personnel and recent track record against FAB 50 ranked foes, this team will be in FAB 50 title contention as long as the front court produces to the expected level.

5. (4) DeMatha Catholic (Hyattsville, Md.) 29-3***
Key Players: SG Jordan Hawkins 6-5 2021 (No. 48 247Sports.com, UConn commit), SF Tyrell Ward 6-5 2022 (No. 82 Rivals.com), PG Rodney Rice 6-4 2022 (No. 54 247Sports.com), SG Jacoi Hutchinson 6-2 2023 (No. 20 247Sports.com).
Why This Ranking: We are splitting hairs between WCAC powers Paul VI and DeMatha, as both teams have a plethora of lettermen returning. One team has to be in front of the other, however, so we decided to put the Stags one spot below as the No. 2 team from the conference. Although coach Mike Jones has three starters and two other lettermen returning, it won’t be easy to replace what All-Met Player of the Year Hunter Dickinson (Michigan) and Earl Timberlake (Miami) gave last year’s club up front. Paul VI has its best player back and a veteran point guard, but don’t count out the Stags’ chances of winning the 42nd WCAC crown in the program’s storied history. Jones is really high on his roster’s versatility and he has a go-to player in Hawkins, who could challenge Paul VI’s Trevor Keels for WCAC and All-Met Player of the Year honors. Rice is a talented newcomer from Bullis (Potomac, Md.) who can run the point at a high level, while Ward is a big guard who also contributes up front with his long frame and athleticism. Jerrell Roberson (6-9, 2022) is the main cog up front and got valuable experience last season that should pay huge dividends this season. There is plenty to like about this team’s versatility. “We have really good guard play and most of the roster can play multiple positions,” Jones said.
The Skinny: The Stags have the personnel to win the WCAC crown and Jones wants his team peaking at the right time. Ironically, last year’s WCAC title game victory over Paul VI was the 500th career win for Jones (against 120 losses) since taking over for the late Morgan Wootten in 2002-03. DeMatha will be gunning for its fourth consecutive 30-win season and could reach it if players such as cat-quick guard Elijah Hawkins (5-9, 2021), Hutchinson and fellow tenth-grader Ben Woodward (6-2, 2023) find their roles. A.J. Swinton (6-7, 2024) looks like the front court star of the future. “Many returners will have larger roles, but like everyone else, I’m a bit concerned about not having the normal time to prepare and mix the newcomers with the veterans,” Jones said. Although coaches in the DMV have played the wait-and-see game in terms of their restrictions in playing a complete schedule, DeMatha is expected to compete at the Kevin Durant MLK Classic, the Peachtree Corners Invitational in Georgia, at Hoophall West in Arizona (January 28-30) and at the Hoophall Classic vs. No. 15 Camden (January 18). From a national perspective, DeMatha and Paul VI have to show they can compete at a FAB 50 championship level because on paper there is a gap between the top three teams and the WCAC powers in terms of front court size and depth. Since weekly national rankings began in 1975-76, this program has finished in at least one credible poll 30 times. This season, the Stags will be competitive at a high level and a major FAB 50 factor once again.

6. (39) West Oaks Academy (Orlando, Fla.) 28-7**
Key Players: PG A.J. Neal 6-1 2021 (No. 124 Rivals.com), SG Wesley Cardet 6-6 2021 (No. 54 247Sports.com), PF Matthew Bewley 6-9 2023 (No. 8 247Sports.com, Ballislife Underclass All-American), PF Ryan Bewley 6-9 2023 (No. 14 ESPN.com), SG J.J. Harris 6-3 2021.

Why This Ranking: With a few of the traditional independent FAB 50 powers in flux, we’re going a bit out on a limb at this spot with the Flame, who have the talent and play the schedule to develop into a major FAB 50 title contender. Coach Kenny Gillion has at least eight players with D1 ability, including ringleader Neal (14.6 ppg, 6 apg), a three-year standout and returning all-Sunshine Independent Athletic Association (SIAA) choice. “A.J. will leave as West Oaks’ all-time leading scorer and brings back lots of experience,” Gillion said. The Flame did lose junior big man Fray Nugumbi to transfer, but they’ll have plenty inside with Mo Sabiu (6-8, 2022) and Abdou Adiaye (6-10, 2023). What really could make this a special team is the newcomers from Northeast (Oakland Park, Fla.): the Bewley twins, Cardet and Harris. Cardet (15 ppg, 9 rpg, 5 apg) had a terrific summer, is a major mismatch problem with the body of a big NFL receiver and is capable of 30-point nights. Harris (11 ppg) is the team’s best shooter and can play the game above the rim, according to Gillion. Matt Bewley is a bit more advanced than his brother Ryan and both are bigger and stronger since the onset of COVID-19. The twins could really thrive in the up and down style the Flame play and Gillion feels Matt could develop into a top five player in the national class of 2023 after averaging 19 ppg, 12 rpg and 3 apg as a freshman.
The Skinny: There is little doubt this is one of the most talented teams in America, but the chips have to fall in the right place in order to maintain this ranking. Last season, the Flame earned national acclaim by ending the 23-year home winning streak of FAB 50 power Oak Hill Academy, but they were up-and-down and lost some games on the Grind Session and the SIAA title game. They will have to win the SIAA crown this time around in order to maintain a ranking this high, especially if another team in the talent-laden conference is not ranked in the Top 25 by the end of the season. The biggest problem could be building chemistry and keeping all the talented players content with their playing time. Jahsean Corbett (6-6, 2021) missed most of last season with injury, but is a mismatch nightmare who makes the wing guards interchangeable. Jordan Shorter (6-5, 2021) will push the starters, Ray Robinson (5-11, 2021) is a catalyst who will make Neal an even more dangerous player, while talented Justin Neely (6-5, 2021) is a late roster addition from Miami Senior (Fla.). “We basically started four guards last year, but we’ll be much bigger and still be able to get up the floor,” Gillion said. The Flame will take part in at least two stops of the Grind Session, which will consist of talent-laden, independent programs playing in bubble type situations at various stops across the country.

7. (8) St. Frances Academy (Baltimore, Md.) 38-4*** 
Key Players: PF Julian Reese 6-9 2021 (No. 73 ESPN.com, Maryland commit), PG Byron Ireland 6-1 2021, SG Jonathan Lamothe 6-4 2023 (No. 36 247Sports.com), SG Kyrie Staten 6-1 2021.
Why This Ranking: The Panthers have the talent, pedigree and play the national schedule necessary to challenge the top FAB 50 title contenders. After posting a sub .500 park four years ago, coach Nick Myles’ program has won three consecutive Baltimore Catholic League titles and rates as the favorites once again. Reese is one of the best power forwards in the country and will be the go-to player on the interior. One of four double-digit scorers on last year’s balanced team, Reese (10.6 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 3.5 bpg) will increase his numbers and help create opportunities for others with his presence. Ireland (7.6 ppg, 3.2 rpg) stepped into a starting role and showed terrific scoring ability, while also being able to play off the ball offensively and providing help on the boards. Staten (9.7 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 2.5 spg) provides scoring pop and terrific on-ball defense. Myles expects a breakout season from Lamothe (4.2 ppg), who rates as one of the best tenth-graders in the country.
The Skinny: The Panthers lost plenty of firepower in Ace Baldwin (VCU), Jamal West (South Alabama) and Grid-Hooper Jordan Toles (LSU), but with three returners with starting experience and 10 returning lettermen, the three-time BCL champs deserve to be Charm City’s top-ranked team until somebody beats them when the chips are on the line. St. Frances Academy did defeat No. 6 West Oaks Academy last year, but lost a bit more so we’ll slot the Flame in front of them for now. “I love our combination of size, athleticism and depth,” Myles said. Backcourt depth is provided by the likes of Rynell Bert (6-2, 2022), who put up multiple 20-point games for Baltimore Dunbar last season, and Cortez Johnson (6-5, 2022). Toles’ toughness will be missed, but SFA has another Grid-Hoop stud in the wings in Maximum Lockett (6-9, 2023). As if that isn’t enough, Derik Queen (6-7, 2024) is expected to develop into a top national prospect in his class. SFA may play a few less big-time games vs. FAB 50 ranked foes than last year because of COVID-19, but it’s tentatively scheduled to play in the Kevin Durant MLK Classic (January 16-18) and in the non-traditional bracket of the Beach Ball Classic in South Carolina (December 26-31) with the likes of West Oaks Academy, No. 19 Hamilton Heights Christian Academy and No. 27 Combine Academy.

8. (7) La Lumiere (La Porte, Ind.) 23-3*** 

Key Players: PF Treyton Thompson 6-10 2021 (No. 114 Rivals.com, Minnesota commit), PG J. J. Starling 6-3 2022 (No. 53 247Sports.com), C Vince Iwuchukwu 6-11 2022 (No. 25 Rivals.com), PF Kebba Njie 6-9 2022.
Why This Ranking: The Lakers have the talent to contend for another GEICO Nationals berth, which would be the program’s eighth and begins in the rankings range of recent seasons. Coach Patrick Holmes’ club opened up at No. 10 in 2017-18 in his first year at the helm, then No. 6 in 2018-19 and No. 9 last season. LaLu had an underclass dominated team, but lost point guard Denham Wojcik and Kamari Lands to transfer and talented wing Jeremy Sochan decided to remain in Europe for 2020-21 amid COVID-19 concerns. Those transfers and the lack of an experienced star causes the Lakers to drop a tad, but don’t fret as LaLu will field a talented team capable of competing with the best FAB 50 teams. The player movement means the team will go from perimeter-oriented to an interior-dominated unit, led by Thompson, who can stretch the floor with his improved ability to shoot the ball. Holmes calls Iwuchukwu a budding star who draws comparisons to former LaLu star Jaren Jackson Jr. (Memphis Grizzlies). When the team goes to its “Jumbo Package,” Rocco Muratori (7-2, 2021) will be a factor with his strength and space eating. Njie is known for his teamwork, can block shots and make an impact with his 7’3 wingspan. There is plenty to like about this roster, as long as someone steps up to lead the backcourt.

The Skinny: The last team other than La Lumiere to begin at No. 1 from the Midwest Region was Jalen Brunson-led Stevenson (Lincolnshire, Ill.) back in 2014-15. LaLu went from a young team last year to having another underclass-dominated club because of the impact of COVID-19, so the play of Starling and Ryan Mabrey (6-3, 2022) will be key. Starling shoots the ball at a high clip, while Mabrey is an elite shot maker and excels off the dribble. Darion Smith (5-5, 2022) can come in and handle the ball, while backcourt depth is provided by Jamaal Phatty (6-5, 2023), a talented German import. “We have six newcomers that will be major contributors and it will be a bit of an adjustment with the new guys, but I like our progress so far and our talented front court will allow us to rebound and protect the rim at a high level,” Holmes said. Players have an opportunity to earn playing time, and that should bode well against a competitive schedule that includes a busy January and February at the Jack Jones Classic, Mac Jelks Invitational, Flyin’ To The Hoop, Kevin Durant MLK Classic and Bob Kirk Invitational. LaLu is scheduled to play No. 11 Wasatch Academy at the Hoophall Classic and if nothing else, this young team will develop into a battle-tested club by the end of the season if a new league for independent FAB 50 powers gets off the ground. LaLu is 7-6 all-time at GEICO Nationals and has reached the title game on three occasions.

9. (BB) Archbishop Wood (Warminster, Pa.) 22-5***
Key Players: PG Rahsool Diggins 6-3 2021 (No. 44 Rivals.com, UConn commit, Ballislife Underclass All-American), PG Jaylen Stinson 5-11 2021 (James Madison commit), SF Marcus Randolph 6-5 2021 (Richmond commit), SF Daeshon Shepard 6-6 2021 (La Salle commit).

Why This Ranking: The Vikings have all the ingredients to be one of the top teams in the East Region and challenge for the FAB 50 title if all the pieces fall into place. With an all underclass roster, coach John Mosco’s club dropped some close games early in the season, including an incredible seven-overtime, 130-128 setback to FAB 50 contender Paul VI of Virginia before losing to a Roman Catholic team in the Philadelphia Catholic League semifinals it beat during the regular season. The Vikings’ season was cut short because of COVID-19 and after losing in the PIAA Class 5A title game in 2018-19, this group has plenty of motivation. It begins with Diggins, the returning PCL Player of the Year who averaged 20.3 ppg, 5.3 rpg and 4.8 apg. He can initiate offense or lead the team in the scoring department, if necessary. Stinson (a returning first team all-PCL choice) is a combo guard who excels on defense and is known for his competitive streak. Randolph is a prototypical wing who loves to attack off the dribble, while Shepard is a high-flyer that can change a game with a thunderous dunk and is capable of averaging over 15 ppg. Both Shepard and Randolph were second team all-league choices as juniors.
The Skinny: This talented and motivated team hopes to get all its key games (with COVID-19 looming) in because its ceiling is high. Last year, the Vikings started at No. 35 in the FAB 50, but didn’t close out games like it needed with the backdrop of blowing a nine-point lead in the state title game when Diggins, Stinson and Randolph were sophomore starters. That shouldn’t happen to a senior-oriented group and that experience gives them a boost in this year’s preseason rankings. “We return all five starters that played a tough schedule and are battle-tested,” Mosco said. “We had our season cut short and have something to prove.” The fifth starter is unsung Grid-Hooper Muneer Newton (6-5, 2021), an inside forward good enough to play low D1 basketball and unafraid to take big shots even though he doesn’t look to score. Sixth man Rob Jackson (6-5, 2021) also plays football and is an even better prospect on the gridiron. He gained valuable experience that will help this year’s team in its big games. Wood is scheduled to play in the Beachball Classic in South Carolina after Christmas with the likes of No. 18 Moeller, No. 21 Milton, and No. 24 John Marshall, among others. Mosco’s veteran group is scheduled to face No. 29 St. Raymond at the Hoophall Classic and is also scheduled to meet No. 15 Camden at that event. If Wood can close the big games and score enough inside to keep elite teams honest, it will be a memorable season.

10. (25) Bishop Gorman (Las Vegas, Nev.) 29-3
Key Players: PG Zaon Collins 6-1 2021 (No. 37 ESPN.com, UNLV commit, Ballislife Underclass All-American), SG Will McClendon 6-4 2021 (No. 37 247Sports.com, UCLA commit), SF A.J. Storr 6-6 2021, SF Darrion Williams 6-6 2022.
Why This Ranking: The Gaels have been a staple in the FAB 50 for a decade and this could be the season it all comes together for veteran coach Grant Rice. In 2014-15, a Gaels team with four future McDonald’s All-Americans started out No. 4, but didn’t have the point guard play to sustain that position. Last year, the Gaels began at No. 5, but lost their two best big men to transfer after the preseason FAB 50 release and shooting guard Noah Taitz (Stanford) wasn’t available all season due to injury. This season, expectations are not quite that high, but with continuity and a healthy roster this is the Gorman team that could ultimately be the best of the lot. It begins with Collins, one of the nation’s best lead guards at manipulating the outcome of tight games and giving teammates confidence. “Sauce” averaged 14 ppg, 8 apg, and 3 spg as a junior and as long as he remains healthy Gorman has a chance in any game. McClendon (16 ppg, 5 rpg, 4 apg, 3 spg) is an ace defender and like Collins a four-year contributor. McClendon is the team’s returning leading scorer and is a bit streaky on the outside, but when he’s on Gorman is tough to beat. Jonathan Braggs (6-3, 2021) hit double figures plenty of times last season, but his scoring average could go down with the presence of Storr, a Kankakee, Ill., transplant who attacks rims with a vengeance and can knock down the open shot. Williams is another transfer (Capital Christian in Sacramento, Calif.) whose play-making ability on or off the ball will keep him on the floor. Simply put, Rice has plenty of versatile weapons at his disposal.
The Skinny: The Gaels are the odds on favorite to win their tenth consecutive NIAA state title but the overall competition this year will be the best it’s been during that run, with No. 48 Desert Pines, Jaden Hardy-led Coronado and Liberty (both of nearby Henderson) all with legitimate state title aspirations. With a state crown this year, the Gaels will break the reported national state title winning streak record held by now defunct and four-time FAB 50 champion St. Anthony (Jersey City, N.J.) between 1983-1991. “I really like my top seven or eight guys,” said Rice (503-102), who won his 500th game last season during the post-season. “Darrion is such a smart player and (Ryan) Abelman is shooting it as well as anybody I had. They’ll really help us.” Ryan Abelman (6-4, 2022) is Rice’s sharp-shooter, Daniel Rouzan (6-8, 2021), a load inside, returns to the program after one year in Southern California and will be key inside during national level games. Future stars Jase Richardson (6-1, 2024) and Ryder Elisaldez (6-0, 2024) provide depth and scoring punch. As a result of COVID-19, Gorman will not host the Tarkanian Classic as a high school tournament and will open its season in January. The Gaels are scheduled to play two games at Hoophall West in Phoenix after participating in the Bass Pro Tournament of Champions in Missouri (January 14-16) along with the likes of No. 2 IMG Academy, No. 3 Sunrise Christian Academy and No. 26 Pace Academy.

11. (2) Wasatch Academy (Mt. Pleasant, Utah) 27-2***
Key Players: PG Nolan Hickman 6-3 2021 (No. 30 247Sports.com, Kentucky commit, Ballislife Underclass All-American), PG Richard Isaacs Jr. 6-2 2022 (No. 24 247Sports.com, Ballislife Underclass All-American), PF Robbie Armbrester 6-6 2021 (Houston commit).
Why This Ranking: This independent power has the right ingredients to make another strong run at GEICO Nationals. Last year, they were entered as the event’s No. 2 seed before the event was wiped out because of the onset of COVID-19. New coach Paul Peterson (an assistant under previous coach David Evans) has a mainstay back in Isaacs (14.2 ppg, 2.2 rpg, 5.6 apg) and three other lettermen returning for last year’s team. “Pop Pop” is a deep range shooter who can also get in the key and finish around the basket. He’ll be complimented nicely in the backcourt by Hickman, who averaged 17.3 ppg, 3.8 apg and 1.8 spg while shooting 38 percent from 3-point range for a Eastside Catholic (Sammamish, Wash.) team that advanced to its state playoff semifinal. Armbrester comes from Therrell (Atlanta, Ga.) and is one of the most underrated forwards in the country. He’s too strong for most wings, too agile and athletic for most bigs and is highly motivated after missing the majority of his junior season with a wrist injury. Peterson is a bit concerned about depth, but his three main cogs and ability to use them in multiple lineups makes this team a legitimate threat to earn another GEICO Nationals berth.
The Skinny: The Tigers had a terrific 2019-20 season, finishing No. 2 in the FAB 50 behind an all-time Montverde Academy club. They were eager to prove they were a great team, too, and not one whose key wins were at the right time. Sunrise Christian Academy finished No. 3 and does deserve to begin the season ranked higher because of its overall personnel, but it was the Buffaloes’ defeat at the hands of Hamilton Heights Christian Academy (Wasatch Academy beat that team) that allowed the Tigers to finish a spot higher in last year’s FAB 50. Another reason Wasatch begins a few notches lower than other recent GEICO Nationals participants is its 0-3 all-time at the event. So what do the Tigers have to do to get over the hump against top foes? “The keys for the front court will be how much they involve their teammates to keep the floor spread and their ability to use pick and roll to their advantage,” Peterson said. Fousseyni Traore (6-7, 2021) compliments Armbrester inside with his bruising style while the lineup is rounded out by Brennan Rigsby (6-2, 2021) a holdover from last year who can knock down shots or stun foes (and crowds alike) with his bounce. Wasatch Academy, was one of those top-ranked teams scheduled to participate in the City of Palms Classic, but with that tournament off the shelf two big tests at the Hoophall Classic in Springfield, Mass., just got bigger. The Tigers are scheduled to face No. 8 La Lumiere and No. 12 Oak Hill Academy. Wasatch will also compete at Hoophall West in Phoenix later in January and the results of the games at those two events will count towards standings in a newly-formed eight-team league of independent powers provided it gets off the ground.

12. (9) Oak Hill Academy (Mouth of Wilson, Va.) 37-3***
Key Players: SF MJ Rice 6-6 2022 (No. 10 ESPN.com), PG Caleb Foster 6-3 2023 (No. 24 247Sports.com), SF Jalen Ricks 6-6 2021, PF Jalen Reed 6-8 2022.
Why This Ranking: The Warriors’ youth and lack of veteran, elite talent is noticeable, but that’s only against their own standards of the past 35 years. They will field a contending team with depth, but there are only three seniors on the roster. It’s an unusual position for veteran coach Steve Smith (1,178-80), but he hopes it turns into a positive…while his team climbs in the rankings. It looked like he was going to have more star power when junior guard Zion Cruz and Dior Johnson enrolled over the summer, but they left the program in early October and that left Smith looking to fill his roster and gain some continuity by the first scrimmage with Hargrave Military Academy on October 22. The talented Foster may be eased into the lineup because he didn’t begin practicing until October 8, and with the Oak Hill campus’ strict COVID-19 related quarantine protocol it wasn’t a full-contact practice. Foster will be complimented by A.J. Williams (6-0, 2021), the team’s best shooter who will make defenses pay should opponents zone up. Xavier Brown (6-1, 2022) averaged 16.3 ppg and shot the 3-pointer at over 41 percent at Jamestown (Williamsburg, Va.) and is known for his intensity and I.Q., as the son of a coach. Camryn Carter (6-2, 2021) provides backcourt depth and Tyler “Tybo” Bailey (6-2, 2024) is a future star and will be fighting for quality minutes. Rice will be the go-to scorer and should he perform close to the level All-American Cam Thomas did the past two years, there is no reason why this team can’t be a serious GEICO Nationals threat by the end of the season. “M.J. is a vocal leader and has stepped up since Dior and Zion left,” Smith said. “He’s our best player on paper, positive with teammates, unselfish and aggressive on the floor. We’ll run things for him and have the ability to shuffle guys in and out at a six to eight minute clip. We should be a good defensive team.”
The Skinny: With no elite star or senior core that has been a staple of its teams over the years, Oak Hill looks like a fringe FAB 50 title contender. This is the lowest preseason ranking for Smith since his 1988-89 team started unranked and that comes on the heels of last year’s team beginning No. 8, which was the lowest in that time span until now. Last year’s team finished right in that range, so it’s a good omen for this group because the pressure that the top three preseason ranked teams come in with won’t be there. Keep in mind, this program has finished No. 1 or No. 2 an incredible 15 times (eight FAB 50 titles). “It’s been a long time since I had this young a team,” Smith said. “I’m excited to coach this team. I like it’s makeup, the depth we have and the other top teams are probably going to overlook these guys a bit. After our first three guys, there’s not a drop-off to our next five to six guys. I think we’re going to be really good.” Rice, Foster and Ricks (who gained valuable experience last season when Jamari Sibley was injured) are the three players Smith mentioned, while Reed will be tough to keep out of the lineup. He can play both forward spots and was a point guard two years ago before a late growth spurt. Ricks and Reed create matchup problems and if Smith wants to go big, he has Luke McEldon (6-9, 2022) and Judah Egbo (6-8, 2022) at his disposal. McEldon is a traditional below-the-rim space eater while Egbo (a teammate of Brown last year) is a 220-pound undersized post player that can jump out of the gym and provides high energy. Oak Hill plays some early games and then has December off while the campus is closed. The Warriors will come back in January and begin the meat of their schedule, which is likely to include the proposed eight-team independent league played at stops such as the DC Hoopfest, the Hoophall Classic, Hoophall West, the Montverde Academy Invitational and the Bob Kirk Invitational in Cumberland, Maryland. Oak Hill will not be at each stop of the league, but if the league is completed, it will be a vaunted slate of games for each participating team.

13. (13) Long Island Lutheran (Glen Head, N.Y.) 22-3***
Key Players: SG Rafael Pinzon 6-5 2021 (St. John’s commit), PG Jayden Pierre 6-2 2022 (No. 109 247Sports.com), PF Drissa Traore 6-7 2021 (St. John’s commit), SF Kacper Klaczek 6-8 2021.
Why This Ranking: For the fourth consecutive season, LuHi is a major FAB 50 factor and opens as the top-ranked team from New York state. The program will miss crafty point guard Andre Curbelo (Illinois) and forward Zed Key (Ohio St.), but with six returning lettermen and a host of talented newcomers, coach John Buck’s team rates as the early favorite to capture the New York Federation Class AA title. Pierre, a transfer from Elizabeth (N.J.), will take over lead guard duties and excels at covering ground, getting into the lane and finishing with either hand. Pinzon can play on the ball or off it and at his size is a mismatch waiting to happen. Traore brings plenty of firepower to the front court for a team that can attack offensively both inside and out and can overwhelm most teams with its size.
The Skinny: Last season, LuHi opened at No. 20 and was looking to defend its Class AA title when COVID-19 wiped out the New York Federation Tournament of Champions. Until an in-state foe beats the Crusaders in a meaningful playoff game, they deserve to begin the season as the Empire State’s top-ranked club. “We have depth at each position with multiple scoring options offensively,” Buck said. “The team can go nine to 10 deep and is long and athletic.” Among the veterans, Paul Jordan (6-6, 2021) is a wing who can really stroke the ball while Ryan Dunn (6-5, 2021) is a big guard who should be much improved. Jayden Reid (5-8, 2023) means this team can go small with Pinzon sliding down to the three. If Buck wants to go big, he can rely on his newcomers, particularly Jaxon Koroll (6-10, 2022) a talented big man from Canada who works hard on defense. Finley Sheridan (6-8, 2022) is another sweet-shooting forward who is receiving D1 interest and gives this team even more versatility. If Pinzon develops into that go-to scorer that Key was last season, this team shouldn’t miss a beat, as long as COVID-19 doesn’t wipe out key games. As of now, LuHi is scheduled to participate in the Arby’s Classic in Bristol, Tenn., at the end of December, the Metro Classic in New Jersey in February and at the Hoophall Classic in Massachusetts, where it will face highly regarded Chaminade of St. Louis, Mo.

14. (15) Minnehaha Academy (Minneapolis, Minn.) 25-3***
Key Players: C Chet Holmgren 7-0 2021 (No. 1 247Sports.com, Ballislife Underclass All-American), SF Prince Aligbe 6-6 2022 (No. 56 Rivals.com), PG Hercy Miller 6-2 2021.

Why This Ranking: The Red Hawks have arguably the best player in the nation, a strong enough supporting cast and some out-of-region showdowns to justify their preseason positioning. Holmgren is that player and he’s a bonafide Mr. Basketball USA candidate after posting junior season averages of 14.3 ppg, 9.9 rpg and 4.9 bpg, including 12 blocks in a monster win over California power Sierra Canyon at the Target Center. With Holmgren’s defensive prowess and presence, the Red Hawks have a chance in each game. They lose Jalen Suggs (Duke) and his 2,945 points to graduation, but Aligbe has the chance to develop into a star in his own right. He averaged 10.6 ppg and provided excellent rebounding and defense and will be counted on to put up big scoring totals. Miller (8.4 ppg) is a talented guard who excels in transition and is capable of knocking down the big shot. With Suggs gone, he’ll have to pick up the slack as a playmaker and distributor. There is plenty to like about this team, and last year’s experience should help during crunch time of big games.
The Skinny: Minnehaha Academy begins behind La Lumiere in the Midwest Region because of Holmgren’s star power. It doesn’t mean the Red Hawks don’t have their work cut out for them to remain in the Top 15 and they can’t afford any in-state slip ups if they expect to move up. Coach Lance Johnson is frank about the outlook of this year’s team. “Our weakness is losing Jalen (Suggs) and our strength is we will be very good without him. We are long, fast and athletic, but need to develop a bench.” The top role players for Johnson are point guard Donovan Smith (5-9, 2022), shooting guard Isaiah Davis (6-3, 2021) and Chase Carter (6-6, 2022), who follows in Suggs’ footsteps as a Grid-Hoop stud while providing interior toughness and physicality. The Red Hawks have a scheduled early test on December 19 versus No. 3 Sunrise Christian Academy and are also scheduled to face No. 28 Houston and No. 15 Camden in potential nationally televised contests.

15. (18) Camden (Camden, N.J.) 29-1***
Key Players: PG DJ Wagner 2023 (No. 1 247Sports.com, Ballislife National Freshman Player of the Year), PF Taquan Woodley 6-7 2021 (Penn St. commit), PF Jerome Brewer Jr. 6-7 2021.

Why This Ranking: The Panthers burst onto the scene last year, winning their last 25 games before COVID-19 cut short their quest to capture the New Jersey Tournament of Champions title. Camden has the tools to capture the program’s first TOC crown since 2000 because of the presence of Wagner. The nation’s top sophomore played with poise and took charge when needed on a team with key veterans, averaging 18.5 ppg, 2.0 rpg and 1.5 apg. Wagner has grown a few inches and has the capability to dominate games, but he’ll have to find his mark as a distributor, too, because defenses will be focused on him. Devin Benson (6-0, 2021), a lefty guard who can keep defenses honest, excelled in key playoff moments off the bench last season. Cian Medley (5-11, 2023) knows how to get to the free throw line as a penetrating guard and is the team’s returning leader in assists and steals.
The Skinny: “The High” last won a TOC crown when Wagner’s father, 2001 Mr. Basketball USA Dajuan Wagner, was a junior and he’s not the only reason to get excited about coach Rick Brunson’s team. With Lance Ware off to Louisville, there are some question marks but New Jersey’s other top teams also have to replace plenty. That means Camden begins as New Jersey No. 1, six spots behind Archbishop Wood, which beat the only team the Panthers lost to (Roman Catholic of Philadelphia). Woodley (8 ppg, 10 rpg) is a force inside with his ability to block shots and is known as a good interior passer. Brewer has good versatility and can score, so if he fills the void created by Ware’s graduation, Camden will be in terrific position to finish what it wasn’t able to last season. Camden romped over its Olympic Conference Competition, but there will be playoff tests against the likes of No. 30 Roselle Catholic. The Panthers are also scheduled to take on No. 14 Minnehaha Academy, in addition to major tests against No. 25 Simeon and No. 5 DeMatha Catholic at Hoophall Classic.

RELATED: Preseason 2020-21 FAB 50 (16-30) | Preseason 2020-21 FAB 50 (31-50) | Preseason Regional Top 20 Rankings | A Season Unlike Any Other | “In The Paint” Podcast: FAB 50 Edition (Episode 86)

Note: The FAB 50 powered by Ballislife.com is a continuation of the National Sports News Service ratings that began in 1952. These were the first national high school rankings and the late Art Johlfs of Minnesota compiled them. They were compiled for many years by the late Barry Sollenberger of Phoenix, who merged them into the FAB 50 21 years ago.

Ronnie Flores is the national Grassroots editor of Ballislife.com. He can be reached at ronnie@ballislife.com. Don’t forget to follow him on Twitter: @RonMFlores

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