Boys Basketball – SCT Round of 16 Picks
A clean sweep by the home teams in the first round of the Shore Conference Tournament is rare, so for the seeds to stay true to form in a season that has seen so much parity is hard to fathom. Either the regular season played out just long enough to establish a pecking order, or the real fun is just about to begin.
Logic would dictate the latter, as this year has been marked by two teams – Christian Brothers Academy and Lakewood – distinguishing themselves while remaining fallible, and the next 12-to-15 teams beating each other up. It just so happens that the rest of the field is No. 1 CBA, No. 2 Lakewood and 14 more teams that have gone through the ups and downs of this wild Shore Conference season. With that in mind, this round of the SCT figures to be the wildest, if only because there won’t be any such thing as a surprise once the tournament shifts to Brookdale on Sunday.
The storyline to watch – if it is even observable – is how teams that played on Wednesday look 24 hours (and in some cases, a little less than 24 hours) later, particularly against rested teams. The snow on Tuesday gave the seven teams with byes even more of an advantage, but perhaps that advantage is mitigated by the fact that so many of Wednesday’s games were lop-sided. A few teams – Point Beach, Southern and Toms River South – had to sweat it out, but most of the first-round winners were clearing the bench early in the fourth quarter.
It is also possible a lack of opponent-specific preparation could come into play, which could make for some games that require a team to make adjustments on the fly. There are plenty of factors at play that should make Thursday more exciting than Wednesday, although the bar is not terribly high save for a couple games.
In the realm of prognosticating, the real question is, “Can I actually make some decent picks this time around?” The 7-2 record is deceiving considering Shore had no trouble thwarting another Marlboro upset bid, and while the Matawan pick over Point Beach wasn’t that far off, the score picks in the Southern and Colts Neck wins were. If there was a spread to pick against, I’m likely 5-4 at best. It’s almost as though this is basically a pointless exercise based on guessing random outcomes that we only keep running because it’s good for pageviews and bulletin-board material.
In any case, on to the bulletin-board material.
(10) Neptune at (7) Manalapan, 4 p.m.
The Scarlet Fliers just picked apart a Howell team that picked apart Manalapan for a game-and-a-half this season, so the road team might actually be the perceived favorite in this one, especially considering the name on the front of the visitor’s jersey. After starting the season 3-7, Neptune has gone 10-2 over its last 12 with only a loss to Plainfield and a three-point loss to Wall on the road. The Scarlet Fliers will now have to play a very physical, athletic team on the road less than 24 hours after beating Howell, which will challenge a Neptune rotation that goes eight or nine deep on most nights.
Manalapan should feel good about its ability to handle defensive pressure based on its two wins over Freehold Township, but Neptune’s size could ruin that sense of security. The Scarlet Fliers can match Manalapan’s athleticism at most positions and the Braves will face a defense that has been on a roll and can apply more pressure than any the Braves have seen to this point. Mike Venezia has been lights-out from the three-point line lately and could be a key to the Braves being able to crack this Neptune defense, especially since Kyle Mullen and Zach Misischia will have their hands full on the glass.
Neither team has really seen a team that is like the other; for Manalapan it’s because there aren’t any A North teams that use their athleticism on the defensive end like Neptune does, and for Neptune because Manalapan is just a very unique team in general due to its athleticism and balance. The short rest will favor Manalapan in what should be a physical game, but Neptune is arguably the most battle-tested team in this tournament.
The Pick: Neptune, 47-41
(14) Toms River South at (3) Freehold Township, 5 p.m.
The common mantra at this time of the year is “survive and advance,” which is just what Toms River South did in round one against rival Central. That game carries with it all of the elements of a rivalry game with the added stipulation of a postseason, win-or-go-home setting. The Indians made it through that storm and now will brave another one in the form of Freehold Township’s up-tempo attack. The Patriots beat Toms River South in the WOBM consolation final without leading scorer Tyree Wilson, but this game will have a much different feel now that this is a tournament setting rather than a mostly meaningless consolation game.
Freehold Township is coming off a loss to Manalapan in which the Patriots had no answer for the Braves’ advantage in size and strength – a common theme in two losses to Manalapan this year. That could end up being the kryptonite for the third-seeded Patriots, but that shouldn’t affect Freehold Township in this game given that Toms River South is also one of the smaller teams in the tournament. Tymere Berry had a big game in the loss to Freehold Township, so the Indians will need more contributions from the rest of the team on at least one end of the floor and likely both. It’s hard to bet against Berry with the way he has played this year, but this matchup seems to favor Freehold Township.
The Pick: Freehold Twp., 73-64
(16) Red Bank Catholic at (1) CBA, 6 p.m.
The Caseys snapped out of a four-game funk by hammering Manchester Wednesday, a result that suggests they might be ready head over to CBA and give the No. 1 seed in the tournament a run for its money. Red Bank Catholic goes as its shooting goes and the Caseys got their shooting on track on Wednesday – led by Joe Montano’s five threes. The three-point shot will have to be the equalizer for Red Bank Catholic against the Colts, who have plenty of shooting in their own right.
Since suffering a lop-sided loss to St. Anthony, CBA has coasted through the season without a hitch, other than a three-point loss at Freehold Township. For a group that came up a game short of winning the Shore Conference Tournament last season and has spent its offseason and regular season dreaming of a redemption run, Thursday’s game should represent a sort of new beginning. If Red Bank Catholic comes in slashing and hitting threes, CBA will be in some trouble if the Colts can’t answer. Ultimately, the Colts should be able to take advantage of their size, and even if RBC has a big day behind the arc, the Colts are arguably the most potent offensive team in the conference and should be able to find whatever scoring they need.
The Pick: CBA, 69-61
(15) Point Beach at (2) Lakewood, 6:30 p.m.
If this game ends like the first meeting between the teams, it will be a classic SCT finish. Although the Piners beat the Garnet Gulls at the buzzer in early January, neither team was in top form that afternoon and both should be sharper with a trip to the SCT quarterfinals on the line. Point Beach is fresh off its two best games of the season – starting with a win at Toms River North that effectively earned the Garnet Gulls a home game in the SCT, which they then won, 59-54, over Matawan on Wednesday night.
Point Beach’s draw at No. 15 does Lakewood no favors either, as the Piners must now deal with a talented Gulls squad that is just starting to put it all together and has already pushed Lakewood to the max once this year. Junior Jimmy Panzini gave Lakewood fits in the first meeting and although he said Wednesday he is only playing at about 80 percent health after recently returning from an ankle sprain, he still put up 20 points in the first-round win over the Huskies. Throw in a recent surge by senior Jesse Hill and improved play from junior Mike Rice and Point Beach is trending in the right direction.
Lakewood lost twice in an eight-day span to two non-Shore teams (Teaneck and Newark West Side) but handled Point Boro, Barnegat and Manchester during the week to seal the No. 2 seed. Lakewood all but eliminated everyone else other than Panzini and Hill as a scorer during the first meeting and then found the offense to bring it home. The Piners also won despite Sean Barksdale scoring no points, and with the junior coming off a 20-point game against West Side, it’s hard to see Lakewood leaning too heavily on just a couple of scorers without Barksdale getting into that mix. This game is a toss-up and while Point Beach is looking more and more like the hot team, Lakewood is no slouch either.
The Pick: Lakewood, 55-53
(13) Shore at (4) Toms River North, 6:30 p.m.
These are two teams with the arrow pointed in opposite directions. Toms River North barely got by Jackson Memorial on Friday and then could not hang with Point Beach the next day. Shore, meanwhile, beat a solid Red Bank team at home on Saturday and whacked Marlboro by 26 points behind a 41-point performance by Dan Largey. What’s more for Shore is that the Blue Devils rolled through the first round without a big game from Kevin Bloodgood, who could be a big factor Thursday if the Mariners end up focusing their attention on Largey.
Toms River North should have a mostly-healthy Pat Marinaccio back in the lineup after a three-week absence due to an ankle sprain. He played sparingly in the Point Beach loss but is ready for regular action during the SCT, which gives the Mariners a versatile player to add back into their deep rotation. Toms River North has often gone as the shooting of sophomore Mike Nyisztor goes, and it is likely the Blue Devils follow him around with senior Jack Byrne in some capacity to make sure he does not break the game open with one of his hot streaks from behind the arc. The problematic thing for Mariners opponents is that when they are clicking, Nyisztor can simply be a decoy while the rest of the team scores only for Nyisztor to emerge late to hit a big shot or two when the team needs it.
Players like Matt McCarthy and Billy Deerin will be key for Shore because they will have to match-up against the likes of Jordan Craig and Ted Thelemaque, quality athletes who can also score. With Marinaccio back, Toms River North has more weapons than Shore, but the Blue Devils still have good enough weapons to take down the Mariners. With the game in the arena setting and Marinaccio back in the lineup, the Mariners have the edge, but another shooting night even close to the one Largey and Shore had on Wednesday will spell doom for Toms River North.
The Pick: Toms River North, 51-47
(12) Southern at (5) Wall, 6:30 p.m.
A poor night at the free-throw line was nearly Southern’s undoing Wednesday night, as Donovan Catholic nearly made the Rams pay for shooting 18-for-35 from the line in a Southern win. Peyton Wejnert had a quiet 11-point game and made just one field goal while shooting 8-for-16 from the line in his first action since suffering a sprained ankle on Feb. 7, and Southern still managed to get by upset-minded Donovan Catholic.
Now, the Rams will have a shake off the rust and take on a Wall team that is on a roll. The Crimson Knights appeared to be out of magic after enduring a stretch of five games in 13 days in which the Crimson Knights went 2-3. The three losses included blowing a 13-point fourth-quarter lead to lose to Red Bank by seven at home, a 17-point road loss to Central and a home loss to a 3-16 Long Branch team. One of the wins was also an overtime win over a 5-15 Ocean squad. Since that five-game stretch, however, Wall has won five straight by beating Matawan, Red Bank Catholic, Neptune, Colts Neck and Mount Olive – with the first four wins delivering the Crimson Knights their first outright division title in 41 years.
Brendan Barcas has led this recent Wall hot streak, and he will be have to be the focus of Southern’s defense. Barcas is Wall’s advantage in the game, but Southern has the length and the athletes to match Wall at every other spot on the floor, plus a size advantage to boot. If Wejnert can keep getting to the foul line, he will eventually start knocking down shots. Wednesday was anything but a pretty win, but the Rams managed to survive a rough outing and have been adept at bouncing back from lackluster performances this season.
Other than stopping Barcas, Southern’s main concern could be that it will be away from home, where the Rams are unbeaten this year. The personnel is good enough to get out of Wall with a win, but can the Rams overcome a shaky round-one performance, an underrated Wall defense and the road blues? This is the year to strike for both of these teams and Southern has been knocking on the door for the last couple of seasons.
The Pick: Southern, 58-54
(11) Rumson-Fair Haven at (6) Red Bank, 6:30 p.m.
The second installment of the Battle of Ridge Road 2015 has Rumson going back to Red Bank Regional looking to avenge a two-point loss to the Bucs in which the Bulldogs left the floor thinking they should have won the game or should have at least sent the game to overtime because of what they saw as a controversial no-call to end the game. The coach of each team is adamant that his squad did not play its best game in the first meeting and, offensively speaking, the shooting numbers suggested as much. It was an intense, lower-scoring affair for two teams that can put up points in a hurry and open things up.
The key to Red Bank’s win was its ability to limit Rumson standout guard Brendan Barry, who managed only 10 points on 3-for-9 shooting and did not touch the ball on the game’s final possession with his team trailing by two points. Red Bank employed a diamond-and-one defense that was able to shadow Barry and also extend out to Rumson’s shooters while also protecting the rim. Eddie Hendrex had a big game for Red Bank on both ends and figures to be a key player off the bench again.
The bottom line for Rumson is it will have to shoot better. The Bulldogs were ice cold from the three-point line and could not make Red Bank pay for focusing so much attention on Barry. On the flip side, Red Bank leading scorer Sadiq Palmer was not at his best either and could be just as likely as Barry to step up in this second meeting between to the two teams.
It’s easy to see both teams playing better this time around, and with neither team losing by more than eight points this season, it is pretty much guaranteed to be close. Rumson is due to win a close game, but this Red Bank team is awfully hard to bet against when the stakes are this high. The Bucs have been incredible in tournament settings over the last calendar year and that can’t be ignored.
The Pick: Red Bank, 58-57
(9) Colts Neck at (8) Manasquan, 7 p.m.
Lloyd Daniels surprised the Shore when he laced up and took the floor for Colts Neck’s opening-round win over Pinelands on Wednesday. Just one week earlier, he was in a walking boot due to a sprained ankle that he suffered in a Feb. 5 win over Red Bank Catholic and was expected to miss the Shore Conference Tournament and possibly even time in the NJSIAA Tournament. Instead, he played limited minutes Wednesday and scored 12 points for a Cougars squad that has actually fared well in his absence with its frontcourt fully healthy.
A healthy frontcourt is a necessity to run with Manasquan, which boasts a long, physical front-line duo in Ryan Jensen and Kyle Bradshaw, both of whom had double-doubles in a first-round rout of Asbury Park. The Warriors have yet to really hit their offensive stride, so in order to advance to the quarterfinals for the fourth straight year, they will have to continue to dig in defensively against a Cougars team that has several ways it can attack.
The matchup of guards – Jack Sheehan for Manasquan and Chris O’Reilly for Colts Neck – will be one to watch, and whether or not Daniels can have a significant impact on the game will be another factor. Colts Neck’s front line is not as offensively inclined as Manasquan’s, but it is athletic enough and long enough to be a load on the glass and in the paint defensively. If Daniels and O’Reilly both shoot well, that will be a lot for Manasquan to handle if the Warriors don’t bring their shooting shoes. While logic says Colts Neck has the match-up advantage based on how each has played recently, something tells me Manasquan has another level that we have not seen a whole lot of this year.
The Pick: Manasquan, 54-48