Boys Basketball – Breaking Down the SCT Field
The Shore Conference Tournament tips off Tuesday and 24 boys teams are gunning for a trip – in some cases a surprise trip – to the quarterfinals at Pine Belt Arena and perhaps even beyond. Of course, some teams have a much better chance to make noise than other and a lot of that has to do with the draw.
Below is a list of all 24 teams ranked from least likely to reach the semifinals on Feb. 22 to the most likely team to win it.
Victims of the Bracket
18. St. Rose
Unfortunately for the Purple Roses, it’s just not shaping up to be their year. They had to face the top two seeds in the tournament twice, they dropped a pair of competitive games to Point Beach, they are stuck in the toughest section of the NJSIAA tournament and here they are in one of the least enviable positions in the field. On the bright side, St. Rose is perfectly capable of winning a first-round road game at Long Branch. If they clear that hurdle, however, Ranney will be waiting in the round of 16.
17. Red Bank Catholic
The Caseys might have had an opportunity to climb into the top eight but losses to Long Branch and CBA relegated the B North tri-champs to a first-round road game against a tough Neptune team. Like St. Rose, Red Bank Catholic certainly has a first-round win in them, but that would only earn the Caseys a shot at the No. 1 team in the tournament.
15. Long Branch
While Long Branch is essentially stuck in the same quicksand that St. Rose is, the Green Wave has flashed hints of brilliance this year that might be enough to bother Ranney in a potential round-of-16 game. Of course, Long Branch will have to win a game before it earns the privilege, but if the Green Wave can secure a trip to Ranney, they have the kind of athleticism and upside that might match up well with the Panthers in some spots.
Before this week, Neptune appeared poised to land the No. 7 seed after having played every opponent on its schedule tough other than Freehold Township. The Scarlet Fliers, however, have now lost four straight and went from what appeared to be a comfortable top-right seed to one of the toughest draws in the tournament. The silver-lining for Neptune is that it has a starting five that might fare well in a potential matchup against Mater Dei in the round of 16. That might end up being more of an inconvenience for the Seraphs rather than any kind of advantage for Neptune, but if nothing else, it would be a rather intriguing matchup that early in the tournament.
Potential Cinderella Stories on quarterfinal Sunday
The Green Dragons did enough damage in their non-divisional schedule to comfortably qualify for the tournament, but their record against quality competition does not inspire much confidence in their ability to win a first-round game. Brick does, however, have talent and roster versatility that could make the Dragons more dangerous than their resume might suggest and their draw (Manasquan) at least gives them a fighting chance to reach the quarterfinals, even if they are a longshot.
21. Donovan Catholic
As recently as last week, the Griffins looked like they were skidding to the finish of the season, but they have some renewed hope after beating Point Boro for the second time this season to cap the week. The bad news for Donovan Catholic is the first-round draw: CBA is playing much better than a No. 12 seed and going to the Academy for a postseason game is always a challenge. While both Donovan Catholic and CBA are completely different teams from a year ago, the Griffins should feel confident knowing that last year’s group went into CBA and nearly pulled off a big state tournament upset. Although any subsequent game would be difficult, at least the Griffins would theoretically avoid the top two seeds over the first three rounds.
Many of the same concerns that Brick will have going into the tournament are concerns that Matawan shares, but the Huskies at least have a close loss to Rumson as proof that they can stay with a top team. The draw also is not so bad considering they will start off against a Colts Neck team without much postseason experience followed, potentially, by a Middletown North team that relies heavily on the three-point shot.
The Hornets enter the tournament with just one win over an SCT qualifier, so the prospects of them getting past Lakewood in the first round might be somewhat bleak. On the flip side, Holmdel – as usual – has shown a lot of toughness this year by grinding its way back to the SCT despite losing every starter from a year ago. If they can goad Lakewood into a bad shooting night, the Hornets will have a shot to advance and the road beyond the Piners could be a lot worse.
Although Barnegat does not have much in the way of eye-opening wins during the course of the season, the Bengals should like their chances. They drew a first-round opponent (Central) that has a loss to a non-tournament team (Toms River South) and survived recent close calls against Jackson Memorial and Brick Memorial. Barnegat has also faced their potential round-of-16 opponent, so another trip to Rumson shouldn’t scare the Bengals.
Among this group of teams, Ocean appears to have the best combination of draw and ability to make an actual surprise run through the tournament. The draw is not totally ideal because a first-round win over Point Boro would mean a trip to Freehold Township, but Ocean has a mix of shooting, size and athleticism that will make any opponent have to work. If there is a team outside the top 14 situated to win two games, it very well could be Ocean.
From Slump to Sleeper?
14. Point Boro
Point Boro enters the tournament off a second loss to Donovan Catholic but has a decent draw. It would be fair to call the first round game between Ocean and Point Boro a tossup game, which means the two teams probably have similar odds of reaching the later rounds of the tournament. As the No. 14 seed, Point Boro would not be as big a shock to go deep as the teams listed ahead of them, but getting past Freehold Township would make for a pretty surprising story.
The Golden Eagles have had some trouble putting teams away ever since they beat Ridge on Jan. 28 for their eighth straight win. While most coaches would like to have some momentum entering a tournament, it’s more peace of mind than predictive. Central could very easily work out the kinks and roll into Rumson on Thursday as a very dangerous opponent. Since the Golden Eagles will avoid both Mater Dei and Ranney until the semifinals, they could be considered a sleeper to show up in the semifinals.
Dangerous Teams, Tough Odds
10. Colts Neck
With so many new varsity players, Colts Neck was always expecting to be a project for most of the year. After losing some close games to other A North postseason teams, the Cougars have come on lately with wins over CBA and Neptune. They have played good enough competition that they will be ready for almost any challenge, but Colts Neck would have to find a way past Ranney in order to get to the semifinals. That probably limits their upside in this tournament, but a trip to the quarterfinals shouldn’t surprise anyone.
Many coaches who saw Manasquan in the preseason thought they could be the best public school team in the Shore Conference this season. Injuries have put a damper on that pursuit, but the Warriors are beginning to get fully healthy and not a moment too soon. They lost competitive games at Rumson and Middletown North and will be much healthier on Thursday than they were when they lost to Point Beach in early January. If Manasquan can get past Brick and Point Beach, they have a scorer (Devin Jensen) who can give Mater Dei issues, as well as some length, depth and shooting.
8. Point Beach
The Garnet Gulls earned a bye in the first round, so that alone gives them a better chance to make a run than Manasquan. It’s not a huge difference, though, and Point Beach has to be at least a little uneasy about likely having to beat Manasquan for a second time and if they are successful, likely a third meeting with Mater Dei. Point Beach has already took the Seraphs to the wire once, so the Gulls would be an underdog with an actual chance to pull off a big upset.
Peaking at the Right Time
The Piners have flown under the radar to some degree this year, but as has been commonplace in recent years, they head into the SCT as the B South champs. If there is one encouraging sign for Lakewood, it’s that the Piners are getting better as the season goes and have been tested plenty of times thanks to a strong non-divisional schedule. They also have the benefit of a pretty good draw, which will include a trip to Marlboro if Holmdel can’t win in Lakewood. The road to the semifinals from this portion of the bracket will likely run through Freehold Township as well and on a good day, Lakewood can likely give the Patriots a run for their money.
7. Middletown North
We’re getting to the part of the list in which the draw means less than the team. Middletown North does not have an especially good draw, but the Lions do have the pieces to give Ranney or Mater Dei trouble. The Lions can put five shooters on the floor and they have improved on the interior over the course of the season as well. Throw in the fact that sophomore Rob Higgins has been playing as well as any player in the Shore since he returned from a wrist injury, and Middletown North should be take quite seriously as a team that has a fighting chance against one of the favorites.
Final Four Material
A lot of the factors that make Middletown North dangerous also apply to CBA, except the Colts got a much better draw despite being seeded five spots lower. That doesn’t, however, mean it will be easy. The Colts play Donovan Catholic in the first round and, with a win, would play a Toms River North team that beat CBA during the year, 57-51. Throw in a potential quarterfinal matchup with Rumson, and it’s a difficult collection of games, but it does avoid the big two until the semifinals. For a young, up-and-coming CBA squad, it’s not out of the question to expect a long run.
After catching their breath with a first-round bye, Marlboro will gear up for a likely meeting with Lakewood, which will be a serious test. Marlboro has been competitive with Freehold Township in two meetings and the Mustangs are well-rounded enough that they should hang around against any opponent – especially with a one-man press break like P.J. Ringel.
5. Toms River North
CBA’s seeding puts Toms River North in a tough spot as the Mariners try to reach the SCT semifinals for the third straight year and fourth time in five years. CBA played Toms River North very tough at the Boardwalk Showcase and the Colts are playing markedly better right now. The good news for Toms River North is that they are still one of the more senior-influenced rosters in the field and will be playing every one of their SCT games in their gym until the championship at Monmouth University.
4. Rumson-Fair Haven
Toms River North might have an edge once the tournament reached the quarterfinals, but Rumson’s road to the semifinals is a little more manageable considering the Bulldogs don’t have to face a team like CBA. Central might be just as tough, but the Golden Eagles have not been playing their best basketball over the last two weeks. Rumson is like Middletown North in that they can win any game with their slashing and shooting, plus the Bulldogs will not have to play any of the top three teams until the semifinals.
3. Freehold Township
When it comes to the question of which public school has the best chance to reach the championship game, there is plenty of room for debate. With that being said, Freehold Township is as proven as a team could want to be heading into the postseason and looks like the most complete public school roster. A scare against two-win Manalapan to end last week may have to serve as a wake-up call for the Patriots, but considering the game meant very little in the division title picture, it’s not quite the level of a red flag.
1. Mater Dei Prep
The defending Shore Conference champions are the No. 1 seed in the tournament for the second straight year and appear poised to defend their title at Monmouth on Feb. 25. The Seraphs beat Ranney last week and secured a share of the Class B Central title by beating St. Rose and Point Beach later in the week. Senior Elijah Barnes is 28 points from reaching 1,000 for his career, so there is plenty of reason to follow the Seraphs in the early rounds. A matchup with Neptune in the round of 16 would not be a cakewalk and Point Beach and Manasquan in the quarters can also pose a threat.
If the tournament were seeded on Monday morning instead of Sunday afternoon, Ranney probably would have been No. 1 on the strength of its win over Newark East Side Sunday night. The Panthers were sloppy in last week’s loss to Mater Dei, but still had the ball with a chance to tie it in the final seconds. The drama in this tournament will surround whether or not one of the underdogs can take Ranney or Mater Dei into the final minutes with a chance to shock one of the giants. If the answer is no, then the real drama starts on Feb. 25 with a Ranney-Mater Dei rubber match for the SCT crown.