Rahmir Barno (above) had 18 points as Imhotep Charter beat Sankofa Freedom on Tuesday evening. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
Imhotep head coach Andre Noble wasn’t thrilled about his Panthers’ effort against Sankofa Freedom.
“Our whole team wasn’t accountable today,” the 20th-year head coach said after the Public League matchup Tuesday night at ‘Tep. “Didn’t guard. You can’t play like that and win championships.”
That Imhotep had just beaten Sankofa 58-49 to run its record to a perfect 10-0 on the season was unaddressed in Noble’s postgame comments. But that’s the standard the program’s only head coach has set over his two decades there, with seven state championships and eight Pub titles since joining the league in 2004-05.
“We play like that,” Noble added, “we ain’t winning nothing.”
Imhotep’s expectations remain sky-high no matter who’s on the roster and who isn’t, but there’s no doubt that this is the least-experienced team Noble has had in quite a few years. Last year’s group, which was in the PIAA 4A quarterfinals in hopes of a fourth straight state title when COVID shut things down, featured forward Elijah Taylor, now a freshman at Notre Dame, plus Kamrohn Roundtree, now at Harcum College.
This year’s Panthers have no seniors on the roster, and the five Noble sent out for the opening tip against Sankofa included two sophomores and a freshman. The junior class is strong, with shooting guard Naji Reid hitting four 3-pointers for 17 points against Sankofa, and classmates Shakur Smith, Ronny Raphael and Mo Abdullah all contributing in significant roles.
The two sophomores, however, look like the Next Big Things to come out of the gym at 21st and Godfrey: Justin Edwards and Rahmir Barno.
Both played quite a bit as freshmen, flashing plenty of potential along the way. Now they’ve moved into the starting lineup, where they’re key pieces for Noble and the Panthers as they hunt for more trophies and another banner to hang on a gym wall quickly filling up with them.
Edwards is one of the most physically promising prospects you’ll see in the 2023 class, a 6-foot-7, 175-pound wing with a plus wingspan and hopes of growing a couple more inches before it’s all said and done. A lefty with a smooth outside shot, he’s still developing his ball skills and ability to create for himself, but operates well out of the high post, utilizing a spin move several times Tuesday to get to the hoop and draw contact; he finished with 11 points and 13 rebounds in the win.
Barno is the opposite in many respects: a 5-foot-11, 155-pound lead guard, he’s not the type to immediately catch your eye during warmups, but once the game gets going, it’s clear how much talent is there. A confident and skilled ball-handler, Barno was constantly getting past his man or through double-teams and into the lane, where he was equally adept at kicking out to shooters, dumping off to cutters, and getting to the rim. He led all scorers with 18 points against Sankofa, with six assists.
“They got a lot of experience [last year] and getting a lot of experience, they’ve made another stride this year,” Noble said. “They’re definitely better this year, they worked hard in the offseason and they’re better, they know what to expect a little bit more than the previous year.”
Justin Edwards (above) is a 6-7 wing with tremendous upside. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Both have grown up wanting to play in the Public League. Edwards’ mother, Ebony Twiggs, was a standout at University City and played at Cheyney University, and Edwards said she often talks about her glory days in the Pub and beyond.
“She’d brag and tell me how she was always good, and how she’d cook me when she was my age,” he said, adding “It’s an honor just to put on the jersey, just to play for a Pub championship, state championship.”
Everybody on the Imhotep roster is younger than the program itself, a fairly new phenomenon for Noble and his staff. Barno and Edwards have only known a world where Imhotep Charter is one of the ‘it’ programs in the Public League, where putting on that Panthers uniform carries some extra weight.
“It’s special, just because of the accolades and stuff that Imhotep’s been through, it’s definitely special,” Barno said. “I think they try to get the best out of you and push you to be better than what you are, that’s what it’s mostly about. They care for you outside of basketball as well.”
Noble’s coached quite a few high-level Division I players during his tenure (especially in the last 10 years), from Taylor and Donta Scott (Maryland) to Fatts Russell (Rhode Island), Dahmir Bishop (Xavier/Saint Joseph’s), David Beatty (South Carolina/La Salle), and more. He knows what it takes to manage two young talents who are going to be receiving a whole lot of collegiate attention in the near future.
“I just try to be demanding every day, try not to have space for them that we don’t have for everybody else and hold them accountable,” he said.
For Edwards, that future is already arriving. DePaul became his first offer during last season, and Virginia Tech and Seton Hall followed this fall. That’s quite an opening trio for any high school prospect, especially one who’s just realizing his true potential.
But for those schools to still be around a couple years ago, there’s still much progress to be made. Noble knows that as much as he’s getting out of his young talents, there’s plenty more production to be had.
“He’s got to be a better defender,” Noble said. “He’s got to take charges, wall-ups, same thing with Rahmir. And they’re trying, so it’s not like they’re not hearing us or falling on deaf ears, it’s just the consistency of being good at it.”
Barno has yet to receive any college attention, but that’s likely to change this offseason, assuming the NCAA allows coaches out for the July live recruiting periods; there haven’t been any visits or live events (with D-I coaches in attendance) since the pandemic began, and the NCAA already announced that the 2021 spring live weekends won’t be happening, either. The two are teammates with Team Final, which plays on Nike’s Elite Youth Basketball League (EYBL) circuit, and their 16U games will see plenty of high-major coaches on the sidelines.
Before then, they’ve got five more regular-season games with Imhotep before the postseason hits. Instead of a typical Pub tournament involving dozens of teams from across the league’s five divisions, Noble said this year’s tournament will be “13 or 14” teams, played at the same time as the PIAA state tournament, with Pub games scheduled on PIAA off days.
It’ll be the biggest test yet for the Panthers, who haven’t lost a state playoff game since March 15, 2016. Since the PIAA reorganized from four classifications into six, no other boys’ team has won a 4A title.
“We just talked, yesterday or the day before, about their legacy,” Noble said. “When we get to playoff time, that’s what you’re really worried about, what you’re trying to cement. Are you going to put a banner up there with those really, really special teams, or you can’t focus good enough to put that many wins together in a playoff environment, when guys are really giving everything?
“And that’s what we’re telling them, we have to get ready for that because it’s going to get harder. How hard we’re playing, everyone’s going to turn it up when we get to the playoffs, for districts, if we get to states, and for the Public League. And all those teams with those banners up there, they did that.
“It doesn’t matter if you don’t have a senior or you’re young, no, are you good? That’s what we’ve got to answer.”