The Youth Basketball Program Behind These 9 Elite March Madness Athletes

By Melissa Wickes
March 20, 2024
6 min

Brandon Wheeless—co-owner of the Skill Factory, a sports skill and development organization specializing in high quality, custom sports coaching—may be working with youth athletes these days… but he is no stranger to the excitement of March Madness.

In fact, he and his co-founder Rob Johnson, played for Norfolk State University when the team pulled off one of the biggest upsets in NCAA tournament history—beating the Missouri Tigers 86-84 in the 2012 tournament.

This was never a sure thing, though. When Brandon and Rob got to Norfolk State in 2010, they were a middle-of-the-pack team with low expectations. But their hard work, collaboration, and grit as a team allowed them to accomplish more than they had ever thought possible before.

Brandon Wheeless celebrating Norfolk State’s victory against Mizzou in the 2012 NCAA tournament. 

Brandon and Rob’s hard work on the court as Spartans throughout their Division I basketball careers paid off—and it’s no surprise they have seen so much success off the court as well. Rob began coaching with the Skill Factory, and soon enough the duo saw an opportunity to purchase it and take the programming to the next level. 

The Skill Factory strives to develop the whole athlete with the ultimate goal of playing at the highest level possible. Brandon and Rob both know just how much you get from playing sports at an elite level, and they want to bring that same experience to the kids in his community.   

And guess what? It’s working. 

In this year’s March Madness tournament, nine players who played at the Skill Factory qualified for this year’s tournament, including:

Jay Pal (Left) – San Diego State; Mark Freeman (Right) Morehead State

Beyond that, the Skill Factory has had over 60 former athletes go on to play Division I basketball, and 120 play college basketball at any level. They’ve also seen a number of players go to the NBA and the CBA—with elite NBL players like Jaylin Galloway having come out of their programs. 

So, what’s their secret?

Start ‘em Young

To recruit players when their parents are beginning to make decisions about their athletic journeys, the Skill Factory holds camps in various markets, targeting middle schools. In some areas, they hold programming for even younger kids. 

Academy Model

A sports academy takes a training facility to the next level, allowing players to learn from the guidance of specialized coaches year-round. TSF recruits high school players to be a part of their year-round academy, and offers some scholarships to help facilitate. TSF’s Academy is modeled after the elite sports academies overseas like Valencia Basket Club and BC Barcelona, says Rob. 

“Programs at TSF start as young as 7, 8 years old and then we identify high schoolers who want to take it full time,” he says. “If they want to train full time, we have academic programs so they can do that.”

Teams even travel internationally to play with academies across the world and increase exposure to all different levels of talent. 

Professional Exposure 

TSF also provides opportunities for their players to play pickup and do drills with professionals. 

Houston Rockets’ James Harden at a TSF pickup game.

“So you’re truly training as a pro in the ninth or tenth grade. When it’s time to be compared to your peers, you’re lightyears ahead,” says Brandon.

This exposure includes going head-to-head with their coaches. 

“We’re at the age group where we can really be the top tier older brother, we’re still out on the court playing with them,” says Brandon. “Even if you have an ESPN Top 100 Kid, our entire coaching staff has played DI or above. So, they’re exposed to the levels they haven’t even reached yet. As blessed and gifted as you are right now, there are still three or four levels you need to go up.” 

Trae Young, Atlanta Hawks, at a TSF pickup game.

Solid Partnerships

Youth sports is a relationships business—and a big part of what has allowed TSF to facilitate such stellar programming is the partnerships they have built along the way. 

For example, TSF is a proud member of the Jr. NBA Flagship Network—which is 18 best-in-class youth basketball organizations that share the Jr. NBA’s vision for how the game should be taught and played at the grassroots level. This brings their programing to the next level because they adhere to NBA and USA Basketball Youth Basketball Guidelines, implement coach licensinging requirements, and provide resources to educate coaches and parents.

Similarly, TSF’s partnership with LeagueApps has leveled up their game as well. 

“When I spoke at the NextUp conference last year, I made connections that came from having so many subject matter experts in one room. Whether we’re from the same sport or a different one, we have some of the same goals and can bounce ideas off of one another. It sharpens your iron,” he says. “There is a level of savviness that you have to have to be successful in sports and the relationships that LeagueApps has been able to create helps with placement, notoriety, getting our kids seen, and reaching our goals.” 

Brandon speaking at NextUp 2023—the Youth Sports Management Conference, on a panel about Facilities Management.

Passionate Coaches

The level of play doesn’t stop at the NCAA—in fact, Isaiah Collier, a USC Guard who once dribbled on TSF paint, is projected to be a top 10 NBA Draft pick this year. 

Coach Rob Johnson with Isaiah Collier (9th Grade)

Isaiah began playing with TSF in the seventh grade.

“Mentally, he was one of those guys that just kind of had it. I remember being at his award ceremony when he won Player of the Year in high school. It’s fun to watch these journeys and to help them reach their full potential.” says Brandon.

Rob recalls Isaiah’s tremendous talent, work ethic, and “humble confidence” from a young age. 

“He knew his end goal was to get to the NBA and he was willing to do what it takes to get there,” says Rob. 

 “Some of them are spoiled at home, some of them come from families that are not as blessed. We have this wide range of mentalities come to a program and when they get ready to go to college, everybody’s on the same page, says Brandon. 

At TSF, the coaches work to prepare players for every scenario beyond the exes and ohs—how to deal with success, pay attention to the details, struggles, slumps, and how to let your work ethic determine what type of player you are. 

“We teach them how to go through an 8-month season where you’re accounted for everyday in a program where all of your teammates will play college ball. Practices are competitive,” says Rob. “We just want them to be ready for what’s next.”

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