Boys Basketball – Quarterfinal Preview and Picks
Shore Conference Tournament Quarterfinals
Sunday, Feb. 19
At Pine Belt Arena, Toms River
This year’s Shore Conference Tournament Round of 16 field is a relatively predictable one considering Manasquan is the only round-of-16 road team to win on Thursday. That being said, this column has still been the place to be when it comes to finding out who will advance in the tournament, at least to this point. So far, yours truly is 15-1, with only Red Bank Catholic breaking up the perfect record thanks to its win over Neptune in the 16-vs.-17 game in the first round.
All that means, though, is that the tournament has mostly followed the seeds and whether or not the upcoming quarterfinals do the same remains to be seen. Mater Dei Prep and Ranney remain sizable favorites, but the other two games on Sunday are complete tossups. Sunday’s lineup at Pine Belt Arena will be entertaining enough based on the presence of state powers Ranney and Mater Dei Prep, but the showdowns between Freehold Township and Marlboro and Toms River North and Rumson will provide a nice mix of drama and entertainment.
Can either Middletown North or Manasquan pull off the big upset? Who advances out of the 4-5 and 3-6 games? Let’s take a closer look, shall we?
(2) Ranney vs. (7) Middletown North, 11 a.m.
If there is a team out there other than Mater Dei that should scare Ranney just a little, it is the team it has to play on Sunday. As I posited in my previous picks column, teams that can spread the floor with shooters have the best chance to stay with Ranney because the Panthers have demonstrated a penchant for giving up three-pointers and Middletown North will most certainly shoot three-pointers. The Lions will boast at least four shooters on the floor at all times and will spend most of the game with five players on the floor who can beat you from three-point range. They also have the possibly-super-human Rob Higgins at point guard to break down the defense and help generate some open looks. Between Higgins and Ranney’s entire starting lineup, this game is loaded with sophomore talent.
The reason the three-ball has not sunk Ranney more often this year is because not many teams can stop the Panthers from scoring. That is going to be the problem for Middletown North in this game: can the Lions shoot so well that their defense doesn’t have to play above and beyond what it has been or can the defense reach another level and back up just an above average shooting game? Middletown North’s defense has been decent at times and some of the high totals the Lions have allowed can be attributed to the fast pace at which they play, but Ranney still has two players in Bryan Antoine and Scottie Lewis who are virtually unstoppable in their own right. Antoine is likely to reach the 1,000-point mark for his career on Sunday, needing only 13 points to reach the milestone as a sophomore. It’s at least possible that between Antoine, Lewis and Higgins, there could be four future 2,000-point scorers on the floor on Sunday, as Lewis and Higgins are on pace to reach 1,000 early next season and Ahmadu Sarnor already has 1,000 after playing an extra year in Pennsylvannia as a charter school player.
The matchup to watch this game is the sophomore Sarnor against Higgins. For Middletown North to win the game, Higgins basically has to have his way with Sarnor, who while oft-overlooked, has been the reason why Ranney has gone from a young team with potential to a favorite to win this tournament. If Sarnor can bother Higgins, Middletown North will have a hard time getting going and Ranney should roll. On the other hand, if Higgins can get Middletown North into its offense by getting into the lane and the Lions defense can limit Sarnor’s impact on the offensive end, they will have a shot to stay close. It’s a really interesting matchup that could make for a close game and, if nothing else, a really fun, high-scoring game. The Pick: Ranney, 81-70
(3) Freehold Township vs. (6) Marlboro, 12:45 p.m.
Divisional rematches in the SCT can be hit-or-miss depending on how the two teams match up. You might get a pair of teams that played a lopsided regular-season series because one team is just a bad match-up for the other like Mater Dei vs. Ranney last year. There’s also the possibility that the two teams are evenly-matched, but take a while to feel each other out and end up playing a low-scoring, ugly game. That was the case in the 2011 and 2012 championship games, with Raritan beating Rumson in 2011 and Neptune beating Colts Neck in 2012 – with both games finishing up with scores in the low-40's and high 30’s. The best-case scenario is the Rumson-Manasquan game from a year ago that went to triple-overtime: while it wasn’t always a clean game, it had some great moments down the stretch.
This game has elements of all three scenarios. Freehold Township was the better team during the regular season and won both meetings between the teams. Both games, however, were close and showed that there is definitely an accessible route for Marlboro to win, which should inject plenty of drama and intensity in this game. It could, however, be a bit of a defensive slugfest and the drama could take a while to materialize. These teams know each other extremely well and both are defensive-minded groups at their core, so don’t be surprised if both teams struggle to get to 20 points by halftime and don’t crack the 40-point threshold until the final few minutes – which was the script Freehold Township’s 42-41 win over the Mustangs on Feb. 7.
For the first half of its win over Lakewood on Thrusday, Marlboro did not look like a team ready to beat Freehold Township, but then the Mustangs started making shots and looked like a team that could threaten anybody. That’s really all it comes down to with Marlboro – they shoot the ball from the perimeter pretty frequently and if it goes in, they are tough to beat because they consistently defend, rebound and turn teams over. Once Marlboro gets some open shots to go, it opens up penetration for P.J. Ringel and the post for Dylan Kaufman, who are the two players who can best create their own offense.
On the other end, Freehold Township, has been somewhat inconsistent of late, at least as inconsistent as a one-loss team in a tough division can be. The offense has come and gone some in the last couple of weeks, but the defense hasn’t faltered. Marlboro is not an easy team to score on inside, but Freehold Township has been able to do that in both games. The Patriots are going to have to hold off Marlboro’s shooting once again and with the matchup being so close, any above-average shooting performance can win the game. Marlboro has not really hit its offensive peak yet this year, but the Mustangs showed what it looks like in the second half against Lakewood on Thursday. Riding that wave, with a bunch of seniors hungry to take down a rival, it’s going to be hard for a very capable Freehold Township team to keep Marlboro at bay. The Pick: Marlboro, 47-44.
(1) Mater Dei Prep vs. (9) Manasquan, 2:30 p.m.
The first game of Sunday’s lineup will feature the Shore’s leading scorer (Rob Higgins) facing off against one of the two powerhouse teams in the conference, and this game will feature second-leading scorer Devin Jensen going up against the other Shore power. Jensen is the lone starter back from last year’s Manasquan team, which came up one win shy of earning a shot at Mater Dei in the Shore Conference Tournament final last year. The Warriors will be playing in their sixth straight SCT quarterfinal, which is the longest active streak of any team in the Shore Conference. They have not, however, been to an SCT final since 2005 and in order to get there, Manasquan will have to go through the defending SCT champs.
Mater Dei has played at the peak of its powers lately, evidenced by a 78-35 mauling of a Red Bank Catholic team that beat Manasquan the last time the B North foes met. It’s worth noting RBC was down a starter against Mater Dei on Thursday, but it should give a pretty good idea about what Manasquan is up against on Sunday. For the Warriors to have a chance, they will have to find a way to coax the Seraphs into a bad shooting day. It may work in Manasquan’s favor that Mater Dei has shot the ball so well lately – perhaps the Seraphs come out firing from long range and are just off, which could leave the door open for Manasquan to hang around if it can make shots of its own. If Mater Dei, however, can keep getting open looks and getting into the paint on the backs of players like Elijah Barnes, Kenny Jones, Elijah Mitchell and Yasin Pretlow, Manasquan will have problems.
The Warriors have a couple of things going for them. They have some size to throw at Mater Dei and most of those players with size can step out and hit a three-pointer. Manasquan is also healthier than it has been all year, so using past games as evidence of anything is probably a fool’s errand when it comes to the Warriors. They also have the best pure scorer on the floor in Jensen, who is likely to see a heavy dose of Mitchell – the Seraphs’ best all-around defender. It’s a long shot, but Manasquan is enough of a wild card given their newfound health to make this game intriguing. If the Warriors can find a way to win, they would have to be favored to earn that elusive trip to the championship game. It’s a real possibility, but it’s still a longshot. The Pick: Mater Dei, 65-51
(4) Rumson-Fair Haven vs. (5) Toms River North, 4:15 p.m.
Sunday’s festivities finish up with the 2015 SCT champs taking on the host Mariners in what should be the most evenly-matched game of the day. On one side is a program that has an SCT title in its recent history, albeit one that came on the back of now-graduated Brendan Barry. On the other is a program that is seeking to reach its fourth SCT semifinal in five years, which is a feat that no other program can boast. Toms River North has been as prepared as a team can be for the quarterfinal round and with the senior trio of Jaden Rhoden, Mike Nyisztor and Darrion Carrington on hand, the Mariners should be considered the favorite in this game despite the lesser seed.
When considering the resumes of both teams, it’s hard to argue against Rumson. Both teams went unbeaten in their respective divisions, but Rumson has wins over Point Beach, Manasquan and Marlboro, as well as a three-point loss to state power Roselle Catholic. Toms River North, meanwhile, has wins over St. Rose, Point Boro, Colts Neck, Cherry Hill East and Wildwood Catholic, which is solid, but does not quite measure up. If strength of wins is the only thing that matters, then Rumson has the edge, which also explains why the Bulldogs are the higher seed.
On the court, however, Toms River North has plenty of reason to be confident. The Mariners have three senior standouts on the floor against a Rumson team that boasts mostly juniors in its lineup. Toms River North has also picked up its shooting lately, having hit nine three-pointers in the first half alone against CBA on Thursday. Throw in that Toms River North will be playing on its home floor and the shooting advantage alone is reason to believe in the Mariners. This game is the toss-up of the day, but Toms River North’s core has proven itself in this round of the tournament and the athleticism and shooting suggests the Mariners are the favorite, especially in their home gym. The Pick: Toms River North, 61-55
Manley’s Round of 16 Record: 8-0
Manley’s 2017 SCT Record: 15-1