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January 20, 2009

St. Benedict's has a special pair of players

MORE: RivalsHigh100 Hoops Rankings | Top 150 prospects for 2009

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. It was 5 a.m. on a spring day in 2007 when Myck Kabongo and Tristan Thompson, two young basketball players from Ontario, Canada, jumped into a rental car with their coach from the Grassroots Canada basketball program. Coach Ro Russell and the two prospects embarked on a seven-hour drive to St. Benedict's Prep in Newark, N.J.

Kabongo, a 6-foot-2 point guard born in Zaire and raised in Toronto, Ontario, didn't know much about the school - other than it had produced an NBA guard.

"I knew it had J.R. Smith [of the Denver Nuggets]," Kabongo recalled. "I was like, 'They must have a good coach. I want to play at that level.' "

The coach was Dan Hurley, son of legendary St. Anthony of Jersey City, N.J., coach Bob Hurley and a former standout at Seton Hall. Dan Hurley has built his own national prep powerhouse not far from his father's.

Upon arriving to meet Hurley, Kabongo and Thompson worked out for the coach with several players. Included in the group was Samardo Samuels, now at Louisville, and Gregory Echenique, now at Rutgers. The Canadians excitedly returned home that night with a new vision for their future.

The players later made a second trip to St. Benedict's with their families, traveling in two Dodge caravans, before the parents ultimately signed off to send their children to play for Hurley.

"[Our parents] knew what was best for us," Thompson recalled. "Back in Canada, basketball's not good and we wanted to get better at it. So we said come to the States, get exposure and get better."

Added Kabongo: "We ended up here and it was blessing. It's a real good school. It gets you ready for the next level. Coach Hurley is a real good coach. You can't ask for more."

Kabongo and Thompson first met when both played on opposing teams in the Ontario Basketball Association, Kabongo for the Toronto 5-0 and Thompson for the Brampton Blue Devils.

"He was just killing our guards," recalled the 6-8 Thompson, a junior who tallied game highs of 20 points and 13 rebounds as St. Benedict's, No. 4 in the RivalsHigh 100, downed No. 46 Marietta (Ga.) Wheeler 77-67 Monday at the Hoophall Classic. "Since then we started a relationship.

"It's an important relationship to us because we're trying to be the best one-two punch in the world."

They are in their second year together at St. Benedict's, a school with 550 students located in the heart of Newark, one of many rough inner cities in New Jersey. St. Benedict's says its goal is to combine rigorous academic study with an emphasis on building a community whose members are responsible to one another for developing virtue, character and talent. More than 60 percent of the students receive financial aid to help pay the $8,000-per-year tuition.

More than 60 students are from 23 other countries, and the basketball team alone features players from Latvia, Lithuania, Cameroon and Canada. A year ago, it also had players born in Jamaica (Samuels) and Venezuela (Echenique).

It's an important relationship to us because we're trying to be the best one-two punch in the world.
Tristan Thompson, on his relationship with Myck Kabongo.

"You see different kinds of people, different nationalities, different cultures," said Kabongo, who has an energetic, outgoing personality.

The Gray Bees have become a perennial national power under Hurley, who compiled a 179-17 career record entering this season. A year ago, they finished No. 2 in most national rankings (behind St. Anthony).

A highly demanding coach, just like his father, Hurley has a reputation for being very hard to reach. His father said it once took him eight days to return a message left at the school. Yet college coaches across the land seek his players because they know they will come prepared for college. Six Big East schools currently have St. Benedict's graduates on their rosters.

"Danny runs his program like a college coach," Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said. "He knows what it takes to win. He knows the effort he's going to demand. And if you don't give it, you're not going to play. If you don't give it, you're going to get thrown out of practice. If you don't give it, you'll get kicked out of the school. Unfortunately that dose isn't passed out enough at the high school level.

"He has talented players, obviously, at St. Benedict's. But the reason we all flock there to try to get recruits is because we know we're going to get a guy that's been in a system where he's being dealt with the same way you're going to deal with him when he gets to your [college] program. And that makes a big difference in the adjustment for some players."

Father Edwin Leahy is the school's headmaster, and he believes that the academic, mental and physical requirements for the basketball program should be so tough that they intentionally discourage those kids who think it will provide a quick and easy route to college.

"I decided that if we're going to have [basketball], we're going to push it to a level where you have to be able to play for Hurley," Leahy said. "Hurley does the rest. If you don't have the average, you don't play. If you don't perform on a level that you're going to be able to go to a college and play, you don't play for him. Instead of having to deal with the lunacy with 300 kids, Danny just has to deal with the lunacy with 15 or 20 of them.

"It's encouraged kids to get involved in other activities and discover that they're good at something that they never realized they were good at because the only thing they were exposed to was basketball in the cities."

While not everyone succeeds under Hurley, Thompson and Kabongo have thrived, in the classroom and on the court.

"Academics is really key," Thompson said. "Some schools don't really challenge you academically, but here it's built for you to succeed. So it really challenges you, pushes you to get the best out of you."

Thompson said Hurley, who teaches "World History" from the Renaissance to the beginning of slavery, is "the hardest teacher I've ever had here."

On the court, Thompson, a long, athletic leaper who made a verbal commitment to Texas as a sophomore, is averaging 18.8 points and 9.0 rebounds.

"He's obviously one of the better players in his class in the country," Hurley said. "With him he'll just keep getting better because he loves to play. Physically he's not like Samardo or Gregory, who were already physically dominant at the high school level. Once he makes strength gains, he's going to be a real outstanding player. Right now he's got some 4 skills, some 3 skills. He's starting to shoot it a little more consistently."

Added Russell, the Grassroots Canada coach: "He could be the best ever to come out of Canada because at such a young age he's been at such a high level in terms of his competitiveness and his versatility. To be at St. Benedict's and get that exposure, he's doing everything he needs to be the best player he can be."

Nearly a year after Thompson committed to Texas, Kabongo followed suit. He made the announcement last week on his 16th birthday. He chose Texas over Wake Forest, Kansas, Villanova and other schools because of his connection with Longhorns coach Rick Barnes.

"I had a good relationship with Coach Barnes," said Kabongo, who is averaging 9.5 points, 4.8 assists and 3.1 rebounds. "I called other coaches, but I didn't really feel the connection with them as much as I did with Coach Barnes. Those guys are like family now. I can talk to Coach Barnes about anything."

Kabongo and Thompson, friends since childhood, will forge ahead together in college.

"Obviously, Tristan, too, is a little bit part of my decision," Kabongo said. "I looked at it as, if Tristan's not there, do I want to go to Texas? And the answer was yes, so it's like a bonus me going there and playing with my brother Tristan.

"And the style of play fits me perfectly, up-and-down, pick and roll, and they're known to get their point guards ready for the next level, D.J. Augustin and T.J. Ford, so that was a big part of the decision, too."

Kabongo, who needs work on his outside shooting and defense, has already drawn comparisons to Steve Nash, the most famous Canadian ballplayer of all time.

"That's the two-time MVP," Kabongo said. "He put Canada really on the map. To be compared to him, it's unbelievable. Just being compared to Steve Nash is really an amazing thing."

Hurley likes the fact that Kabongo is a natural leader with an "infectious" personality who communicates well with his teammates.

"Myck really understands how to play," Hurley said. "He's a tremendous passer. You've got to have this extra quality of just being able to get it done and he's got that. He's just a very well-rounded kid. He's a highly intelligent guy. His personality is kind of an infectious thing. ... He's the type of college basketball player that you can sell to the public because he actually has some thoughts and expresses himself positively without any of the negative stereotypes."

Kabongo and Thompson have big goals. They want to lead St. Benedict's to the title in the inaugural National High School Invitational to be held at Georgetown Prep in Washington, D.C., in early April. And they hope to continue their winning ways in Austin.

"We're going to win a national championship there like we're trying to do this year at St. Benedict's," Thompson said. "We're halfway there. We're going to focus in and get the job done."

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