Boys Basketball – Boardwalk Preview: Mater Dei Eyes Its Biggest Test Yet
Hoop Group Boardwalk Showcase
Saturday, Jan. 7
At Collins Arena, Brookdale Community College
Game 3: No. 1 Mater Dei Prep vs. Patrick School, 3:20 p.m.
Saturday’s Hoop Group Boardwalk Showcase game between the No. 1 team in the Shore Sports Network top 10 and the No. 1 team in the NJ.com Top 20 could have easily been a rematch of last year’s NJSIAA South Jersey Non-Public B sectional championship game. Instead, it is a test of legitimacy for one and another stop on the warpath for another.
Mater Dei Prep saw its dream season end at Gill St. Bernard’s in last year’s South Jersey B semifinal – a game that, if the Seraphs pulled it out, would have propelled them to their 27th win and a sectional final appearance against Roselle Catholic just one year after the school was bracing for a closure.
Of course, in this alternate universe, it could have been the Patrick School – Mater Dei’s opponent at Brookdale Community College on Saturday – awaiting the Seraphs in the finals of the loaded South Jersey B bracket. Roselle Catholic outlasted its rival in the other sectional semifinal, 67-54, and went on to beat Gill St. Bernard’s in the championship game.
Flash forward to Saturday, which will feature two teams impacted by their respective semifinal losses and looking to finish off their own tales of redemption. For Mater Dei, Saturday is a chance to solidify the program’s arrival as not just the new standard within the Shore Conference, but a contender at the Tournament of Champions level. That was, after all, one of the stated goals of second-year coach Ben Gamble when he took over prior to 2015-16: to become a nationally-regarded program that competed for Tournament of Champions titles.
“We always think we’re the best team,” senior Elijah Barnes said. “We think we’re going to come out and win championships and do what we have to do. Everybody else, if they want to doubt us, that’s up to them.”
Barnes seemed ambitious at this time last year following a win at the Dan Finn Classic – which was headlined by a game between the Patrick School and St. Anthony – but his words sounds more prophetic now.
“Our goal is to be headlining events like this one day,” Barnes said at the time.
“One day” has come quickly for Mater Dei thanks to its banner 2015-16 season, but Saturday will represent a challenge that Gamble has not faced at Mater Dei to this point. The Seraphs beat a number of quality non-public programs along the way last season – CBA, Trenton Catholic, St. Joseph Montvale and St. Peter’s Prep among them – and lost their two games to Pope John and Gill St. Bernard’s by a combined six points.
This Patrick School team, however, is a different beast. The Celtics are the No. 1 team in N.J., No. 9 nationally according to Max Preps, are loaded with Division I and potential Division I talent that includes plenty of size, and also have former Rutgers head coach Mike Rice on the sideline. In addition to an army of skilled guards that includes seniors Marcus McClarry, Jamir Harris and Jordan Walker, the Patrick School boasts a front line that includes 6-foot-9 senior Bul Ajang, 6-11 senior Nick Richards and seven-footer Buay Koka. Ajang and Koka are both signed on to play at Tulane next season, McClarry will play at Monmouth and Harris is headed to Minnesota. Walker is not committed, but is coming off a 31-point, seven-assist performance against Linden and has Division I programs courting him.
Richards was the most sought-after recruit on the team and chose Kentucky in early November. He is the kind of physically imposing front-court player that high school teams cannot typically stop given the athleticism he displays along with his size.
With all of the senior talent on hand and the bitter taste of last year’s loss to Roselle Catholic still fresh, the Patrick School is a team on a mission. Despite a pair of out-of-state losses early in the year, the Celtics appear primed for a big season in N.J. after already disposing of Linden and Hudson Catholic in the early going.
For the Celtics to make it three wins in three tries against top 10 teams in N.J., they will have to go through a guard-heavy Mater Dei attack that boasts more size and depth than it had a year ago. Senior forward and Princeton signee Elijah Barnes is off to a strong start to his senior year and has been able to play on the wing more than he did last year, when he was the tallest player on the roster. This year, the Seraphs have 6-8 big men Adam Afifi and Rajae Muhammed on the roster and both will likely be more vital on Saturday than in any of Mater Dei’s first seven games given the size on the other side.
“I don’t want Barnes to be the tallest guy on the floor,” Gamble said. “It’s an adjustment for everybody. I don’t think we’re anywhere near the same point this year that we were at the same point last year.”
Mater Dei’s guard play has again thrived this year despite the loss of NyQuan McCombs and Kyle Elliot to graduation. Elijah Mitchell has been the team’s most versatile player on both ends, while juniors Kenny Jones and Yasin Pretlow have been its two best offensive players in the backcourt.
Pretlow adds another dimension to the Seraphs as well: he was on the Roselle Catholic team that beat the Celtics twice last season, albeit in a much more limited capacity than role he plays with this year's Mater Dei team.
Although they are 7-0, the Seraphs have had to work out some kinks with two new starters and five new regular members of the rotation. Once Holmdel transfer Kyle Cardaci is eligible, Mater Dei will have up to 11 players for Gamble to call upon, and even without Cardaci on Saturday, he will have 10 with whom to mix and match in search of a winning combination.
If Mater Dei can find one, the Seraphs will be on the map, just as Gamble and Barnes had hoped.