ArizonaVarsity - NCAA visit could mean trouble for Hillcrest/Starshine Partnership
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NCAA visit could mean trouble for Hillcrest/Starshine Partnership

According to sources, Hillcrest Hoops may be in danger of losing its potential NCAA accreditation before the program has a chance to get off the ground.

Multiple sources confirmed that employees of the NCAA Eligibility Center paid an unannounced visit to the Starshine Academy campus on 3535 E McDowell Road in Phoenix on Monday. The visit came amid concerns that Hillcrest, the national powerhouse basketball program put together by one-time Westwind Prep Athletic Director Matt Allen and Westwind Prep Head Coach Nick Weaver, was not on track to meet the requirements that it would take to receive NCAA eligibility.

One source stated that when members of the NCAA's Eligibility Center interviewed Starshine Academy administrators and faculty, they were told that many players on Hillcrest's high school and post-grad basketball teams had been seen on campus as little as a single occurrence in the first 49 days of school. "Most of the teachers could not identify any of the basketball players," said one source, on condition of anonymity.

Hillcrest Hoops' website claims that through Starshine Academy, their players would be using Apex Learning systems, meant for fully-online or blended virtual/classroom experiences. According to the Apex Learning website, "courses with instruction provided by Apex Learning teachers have been approved by the National Collegiate Athletic Association as meeting the requirements for establishing the initial-eligibility certification status for high school student-athletes wishing to compete in college." While an explanation for the absences from in-person instruction could be explained by many of Hillcrest's basketball players enrolling in online versions of their courses, Arizona law requires that students in charter schools meet a prerequisite amount of "seat time," as district funding is, in part, determined by the amount of time a student is physically on campus.

One source familiar with the NCAA's visit to Starshine stated that certain players' course schedules were given to the Eligibility Center employees, who visited each class at the stated time those athletes were supposed to be in attendance, and not only could faculty members not account for the whereabouts of the student, some did not recall having that student in class at all.

Hillcrest entered into a partnership with Starshine Academy in hopes that Starshine's curriculum would meet NCAA eligibility requirements for Hillcrest's basketball players in the same manner that Henderson International School serves as an NCAA-approved educational outlet for Findlay Prep's basketball players. Apart from its partnership with Hillcrest, Starshine Academy has struggled to meet the state of Arizona's standards for alternative schools, receiving a "D" grade for the 2013-14 school year, and graduating 31% of its students within four years of their 9th grade enrollment- well below the state's average of 75%. One source stated that Starshine is in the midst of restructuring to help preserve its charter and accreditation with the state of Arizona, although online records show Starshine's AdvancED accreditation running through 6/30/2019.

According to one source, with Starshine Academy having its own academic issues to worry about, Hillcrest Hoops bringing additional academic worries, as well as reported conflicts between the two organizations' staff members, has been an unwelcome burden.

Hillcrest Hoops' roster has been constructed from a glut of nationwide talent, including Rivals' #1 player from the class of 2018, Marvin Bagley III. Bagley III transferred from defending state champion Corona del Sol after his freshman year join his younger brother Marcus, this after Bagley's father Marvin Jr. accepted a job as Associate Coach of the Post-Grad basketball team. Hillcrest also added Rivals' #4 player in the class of 2017, DeAndre Ayton in early October. Other notable players on the roster include Gilbert Christian transfers Dontez Thomas and Jaden Lee, and Julian Payton, son of NBA great Gary Payton. Hillcrest also has the ability to land international talent using F-1 visas, which helped them with Senegal-born Ousmane Ndim, a 16-year-old, 6-11 center who arrived at Hillcrest over the summer, but has since moved on.

If the NCAA Eligibility Center deems that Hillcrest's practices thus far, as well as the state of its partnership with Starshine Academy, justify a refusal to grant accreditation, the options of the players who remain with the program shrink from looking for a collegiate program to represent beyond high school, to seeking an international route while biding time before they can become eligible for the NBA Draft. The international option worked for Emmanuel Mudiay, a star point guard for the now defunct Prime Prep, who spent a year in China before being selected 7th overall in this years' NBA draft. The international route can also carry plenty of risk, however, as one-time can't-miss prospect Jeremy Tyler has shown. Tyler skipped his senior season in high school to play internationally, and after two years of on-and-off play abroad, Tyler was picked in the second round of the 2011 NBA Draft by the Charlotte Bobcats. In the time since, Tyler has been associated with eight NBA teams, has been waived four times, and spent the majority of 2014 playing in China.

A message left for Matt Allen, President of Hillcrest Hoops and associate principal of Starshine Academy went unreturned. Allen served as principal of Westwind Prep during their ascent as a basketball program, as well as the ensuing period in which the Arizona Interscholastic Association revoked Westwind's membership (over what they told the media were late payments to the association), and the NCAA ruled that Westwind's curriculum and coursework were not up to NCAA standards. Several of Westwind Prep's players that had transferred in from other programs, such as Zylan Cheatham and Connor MacDougall, were forced to transfer out, appeal to the AIA for eligibility to play basketball, and make up their junior year taking night courses.

An attempt to reach out to Byron Jackson, listed on Starshine Academy's website as the school's Athletic Director, revealed that he had resigned from that role in July of this year, and is no longer affiliated with the charter school.

Part of Starshine Academy's stated purpose as an alternative school is "To help kids save themselves as fast as they can." If Monday's visit from the NCAA results in the refusal to approve Starshine's coursework for the Hillcrest Hoops players who came from all corners of the earth to partake in what Hillcrest states is a commitment "to the success of our students throughout their educational and athletic experience," then it might be time for these kids to start saving themselves somewhere else.