Despite producing eight Division I signees since 2000 and winning 20 games or more in all four seasons under current head coach Justin Harden, until recently the basketball program at The Rock (Gainesville, Fla.)
was still known primarily for its curious name.
It's not a reference to the brand of basketballs, the professional wrestler or insurance and investment giant Prudential. The name belongs to a non-denominational Christian church in Gainesville, which opened a school in 1995.
Seventeen years later, The Rock's basketball program has risen to national prominence under Harden and a talented international cast that features players from Cameroon, Denmark, Senegal and the Republic of Central Africa.
The Lions (31-4) are ranked No. 10 this week in the MaxPreps Academy Top 10
and hope to close out a big season by winning the Sunshine Independent Athletic Association tournament this week in Jacksonville.
It's probably no coincidence that The Rock has perhaps its most high-profile prospect to date in 7-footer Joel Embiid
. One of three players from Cameroon on the roster, Embiid is headed to Kansas and was recently selected to play in the prestigious Jordan Brand Classic.
"He's been a big addition for us," Harden said of the Montverde Academy transfer. "He was already starting to get some notoriety and attention (before transferring) but was afraid he wasn't going to play a lot of minutes with Dakari Johnson and Devin Williams there."
Embiid tallied a team-high 18 points in the Lions' biggest win of the season — a 54-44 win over No. 1 prospect Andrew Wiggins and Huntington Prep (W.Va.) on Feb. 23. That victory, paired with a 62-58 triumph over perennial power Arlington Country Day (Jacksonville) earlier in the month, made The Rock impossible to ignore in the national rankings.
Senior Glenn Feidanga
and junior Mitchell Wilbekin
— the younger brother of Florida Gators junior guard Scottie Wilbekin — are also capable of stepping up as the go-to guy for the Lions.
Feidanga, a 6-foot-8 forward from the Republic of Central Africa, scored 31 in a recent victory over Oldsmar Christian. Wilbekin led The Rock with 19 in the win over Arlington Country Day.
Wilbekin's father, Svend, preceded Harden as The Rock's head coach and brought Mitchell up to the Lions' varsity roster as a seventh grader.
"He's been around so long we run into people who say, 'He's still on your team?' Mitchell has been great for us and like his brother he is a high major player," Harden said.
Along with the hometown Gators, Baylor, Georgetown, Stanford, Texas and Virginia are among the schools of note involved in his recruitment.Christian Benzon
of Denmark, Freddy Bitondo
of Cameroon and Pape Diatta
of Senegal are also key contributors for The Rock.
Harden hopes to strengthen The Rock's connection to Africa by getting a first-hand look in the coming years.
"I would love to go back there and see. What we know of Africa is dirt streets and no shoes," Harden said. "A lot of it is not that way and from what my kids say it's more similar than we think."
Another Cameroon native, 6-7 wing Alain Chigha
, was expected to play a key role this season but complications stemming from an ankle surgery have essentially wiped out his senior campaign.
"He is the glue and heartbeat of our team," Harden said. "The four games we lost I have no doubt he would have helped us win."
Chigha returned to the Lion lineup for senior night against Elevation Prep (Sarasota) and provided yet another memorable moment for the program this season.
"Alain started but missed a couple of shots and we pulled him because it was a tough game for us," Harden said. "We tried to stretch the lead before I put him back in.
"He gets back in and Benzon drives, throws ball over to Alain and soon he releases it, everything slowed down like a movie. The ball swished through and there was just an eruption of sound. It was a special moment in our gym's history, one that I will never forget."
It's unlikely that all the big wins and special moments will go to Harden's head. Two young sons at home keep him grounded.
"We come back from beating Andrew Wiggins and Huntington Prep and our youngest son Elijah has a double ear infection and I'm changing his poopy diapers in the middle of night," Harden said.The Rock under Justin Harden2009-10 –