The NJSIAA Tournament tips off this week and the season-long question that has been on many minds will finally be answered: Is this really a down year for the Shore Conference? The absence of Christian Brothers Academy and Neptune at the Conference Tournament semifinals has many claiming that yes, the talent pool is indeed thinner, and yet looking over the entire NJSIAA field, there is a strong possibility that three Shore Conference teams are playing for a group title on Sunday, March 10 at the Louis Brown Athletic Center in Piscataway.

Senior Brandon Federici (32) will miss NJSIAA tournament, a huge loss for Colts Neck that opens up the whole Central Jersey Group II bracket. (Photo by Cliff Lavelle)

Here is a brief look at the nine brackets that include at least one Shore Conference team.

Shore Teams in the Field: No. 5 Jackson Memorial, No. 8 Manalapan, No. 11 Freehold Township, No. 15 Brick Memorial
The Favorite: No. 1 East Brunswick
Sleeper: No. 7 Trenton
The Lowdown: It is not unusual for a sleeper team to emerge out of this bracket, but that does not look like a very strong possibility this year. East Brunswick has two wins in three games against South Jersey, Non-Public A favorite St. Joseph Metuchen and its only losses are to top-10 teams in the state per the Newark Star Ledger - the rival Falcons, St. Anthony and Roselle Catholic, all of which were competitive.

Jackson Memorial has shown it can compete with top teams this season and the Jaguars beat the Bears in last year's tournament. Jackson would probably give the top-seeded Bears problems in some spots, but surviving No. 4 North Brunswick and upsetting East Brunswick are both tall orders, especially on the road. Manalapan, meanwhile, relies a lot on its ability to shoot the ball, so a hot-shooting night might scare the Bears should Manalapan get by Hunterdon Central. The Braves have played a tough enough schedule that they will not be intimidated by going into East Brunswick.

On the bottom half of the bracket, No. 2 Hillsborough is the favorite to get to the final, but no. 3 Rancocas Valley has been just as good this season. No. 7 Trenton Central is a team that can get put points on the board behind dynamic guard Rasheed Wallace, while fellow Colonial Valley Conference and sixth-seeded West Windsor-Plainsboro South is also playing well lately and could reach the final.

Another sleeper to watch is No. 10 Montgomery, which could do real damage if it gets by Trenton at Tornado Alley in round one.

Finals Prediction: No. 1 East Brunswick over No. 3 Rancocas Valley. The Bears came together at the end of last year and stumbled on the road against Jackson Memorial. East Brunswick may have to grind it out against either Jackson or rival North Brunswick, but the Bears are on a mission this year.

Shore Teams in the Field: No. 1 Colts Neck, No. 6 Ocean, No. 7 Neptune, No. 8 Wall, No. 10 Middletown North, No. 12 Middletown South, No. 14 Jackson Liberty
The Favorite: No. 7 Neptune
Sleeper: No. 10 Middletown North
The Lowdown: News came down Monday morning that Colts Neck senior and leading scorer Brandon Federici will miss the entire state tournament with a severe groin injury he suffered in a 39-point loss to Roselle Catholic on Saturday. With Federici, Colts Neck would have been the clear favorite to win its first ever sectional championship, but now the bracket is as wide open as any involving a Shore Conference team. The obvious beneficiaries are No. 8 Wall, and No. 4 Princeton and No. 5 Lawrence, which becomes the favorite on its side of the bracket with the injury to Federici.

No. 2 Woodbridge is a quality team that has not proven much in the way of beating quality opponents. The Barons will have to play either Neptune or Middletown North in the quarterfinals, both of which have played much tougher schedules than Woodbridge. The strange part about is Neptune and Middletown North might now be the two best teams in the field and are playing in the first round.

The quartet of No. 3 Northern Burlington, Jackson Liberty, Ocean and No. 11 Nottingham are all very evenly-matched and could very well produce a double-digit sectional semifinalist. There was not an obvious sleeper in the top-half of the bracket prior to the Federici injury, but now a team like No. 12 Middletown South could make a run if it can get the ball rolling with a first-round upset of Lawrence.

Finals Prediction: No. 1 Colts Neck over No. 10 Middletown North. No. 5 Lawrence over No. 10 Middeltown North. The injury to Federici opens up the bracket to just about every team, Colts Neck included. The Cougars might be able to game-plan their way to the final, but with so little time to prepare without their leading scorer, it probably will be too little too late. At this point, throw a dart at the board and see what comes up.

Shore Teams in the Field: No. 1 Lakewood, No. 2 Manasquan, No. 6 Holmdel, No. 7 Long Branch, No. 8 Point Boro, No. 14 Rumson-Fair Haven, No. 15 Matawan
The Favorite: No. 1 Lakewood
Sleeper: No. 7 Long Branch
The Lowdown: Fresh off its first Shore Conference Tournament final since 1991, Lakewood now turns its attention to winning its second sectional title in the last four years after coming up one win short last year. Like it did last year when Neptune won the Central Jersey Group III section, Lakewood could see a Shore Conference opponent in the final. That opponent would most likely be Manasquan, which beat Lakewood in last year's SCT quarterfinals and hung tough with the Piners in a sectional semifinal loss at Lakewood. Long Branch also looms as a dangerous team in the section, especially after giving Manasquan a scare in the SCT round of 16.

Manasquan could see Long Branch in the quarterfinals, but will first have to get through No. 15 Matawan, which advanced to the SCT quarterfinals as a No. 24 seed by knocking off Christian Brothers Academy on the road. No. 3 Ewing is the main threat to an all-Shore-Conference final, but the Blue Devils do not have the same fire power that they did last year when they reached the Tournament of Champions.

Finals Prediction: No. 2 Manasquan over No. 1 Lakewood. There is something to be said for hunger and Lakewood's belly is a little fuller after winning the Shore Conference Tournament. Manasquan showed it is a confident team against the Piners after two postseason dogfights last year. Surviving a potential quarterfinal game against Long Branch and a potential semifinal against Ewing will not be easy for Manasquan, but if the Warriors get to the final, they will have the chops to win it.

Point Beach's P.J. Kineavy (left) and Lakewood's Tyrice Beverette met in the Shore Conference Tournament final and now each of their teams is the No. 1 seed in their respective brackets. (Photo by Bill Normile)

Shore Teams in the Field: No. 1 Point Pleasant Beach, No. 4 Shore, No. 8 Keyport, No. 9 Keansburg
The Favorite: No. 1 Point Beach
Sleeper: No. 4 Shore
The Lowdown: Point Beach suffered a bitter defeat in the Shore Conference Tournament final to Lakewood in which the normally-high-scoring Garnet Gulls scored only 33 points on 27-percent shooting. For the last four seasons, Point Beach has had aspirations of a Group I title, but has not been able to get over the hump. This is the Gulls' best chance to hang a banner and despite a couple of tough teams in the field, Point Beach is in prime position to win its first sectional title in school history.

Shore has a manageable path to a semifinal showdown with Point Beach and the Blue Devils have the kind of roster that is tough for a lot of teams to handle. On a good night, Shore has eight players who can shoot and handle the ball, which could give Point Beach problems. Bound Brook might be a better bet to make the final than Point Beach is considering its draw. No. 2 Burlington City is 23-2 against a weaker schedule than what Bound Brook and Point Beach have played, but is on the short list of teams that could win the section, but if it comes down to Point Beach and Bound Brook - as most expect it will - Beach would be the favorite.

Finals Prediction: No. 1 Point Beach over No. 3 Bound Brook. Beach and Bound Brook are equally capable, but the home-court advantage pushes the Garnet Gulls over the top and into the state semifinals, assuming they can survive a dangerous Shore team in the semifinals.

Shore Teams in the Field: No. 4 Toms River North, No. 8 Southern, No. 16 Toms River South
The Favorite: No. 1 Atlantic City
Sleeper: No. 15 Washington Township
The Lowdown: Atlantic City had a charmed run through Group IV last season, ripping off comeback after comeback on its way to the Tournament of Champions. Over their last 48 games over the last two seasons, the Vikings are 46-2 with both losses coming against national power St. Anthony. The Vikings' road to the sectional final is lined with potential Shore Conference opponents, starting with Toms River South in the first round. Southern has a tough first-round game against No. 9 Williamstown for a chance to make the trip to Atlantic City, while No. 4 Toms River North looks like a team ready to win two home games against quality competition. The Mariners are deep, athletic and experienced, so they will not be a pushover for Atlantic City or anybody else. If there is one concern for Toms River North, it is their struggles in the half court against good defensive teams, a problem the Mariners had in an SCT semifinal loss to Lakewood.

On the bottom half of the bracket, No. 3 Shawnee appears to be the class of the collection, with No. 15 Washington Township being dangerous as a tested team among a number of beatable opponents.

Finals Prediction: No. 1 Atlantic City over No. 3 Shawnee. The Vikings have a more polished team than they did last year and while the pressure is on this time around, Atlantic City is the clear favorite.

Shore Teams in the Field: No. 7 Central, No. 9 Lacey
The Favorite: No. 2 Camden
Sleeper: No. 9 Lacey
The Lowdown: The Shore Conference has come close to winning this section in each of the two seasons and has been in the final in the last three years. After Point Boro lost to Kingsway by double-figures in the 2010 South Jersey III final, Manchester and Lacey lost in consecutive finals by one possession. Last year, Lacey's senior-heavy team made a run to the SJ III final last and hosted a young Camden squad with a real shot at its first ever sectional championship. Camden came through with a 42-40 win, its third straight win by one possession. The Panthers are back as a No. 2 seed with a resume that stands above the others in the section and have to be considered the favorite.

Hammonton is the No. 1 seed in the section and is in a similar situation to the one Lacey was in last year: quality team with a modest schedule that will play all of its games at home.
One of the teams Hammonton may have to beat is Lacey, which could be poised for a deep run despite losing five starters from last year's team. In the end though, Camden appears poised to repeat as it attempts to build upon its run last year.

Finals Prediction: No. 2 Camden over No. 1 Hammonton. The Panthers have been there before, having gone through the bracket as a No. 11 seed last year with a young team. There is no obvious threat to Camden, so if the Panthers avoid any hiccups, a repeat could be in order.

Shore Teams in the Field: No. 14 Manchester
The Favorite: No. 2 Middle Township.
Sleeper: No. 1 Haddonfield
The Shore Lowdown: How is a No. 1 seed a sleeper? Because No. 8 seed Willingboro is 11-1 since adding Westampton Tech transfer Shaun Russell in January and have also added in-season transfer Awwal Reid, an athletic 6-foot-6 junior who is also from Medford Tech. With the new talent, the Chimeras figure to be Middle's toughest competition, but that does not mean Haddonfield is not capable of living up to its No. 1 seed.

The Bulldawgs have a strong tradition in South Jersey and despite not playing the schedule of Middle or even Willingboro, they can beat anybody in the bracket, especially considering they will be at home for as long as they are around. As far as Manchester goes, the Hawks have a good shot to make a run if they can play like they did this past week in wins over Manalapan and Neptune.

Senior guard and scoring machine Mason Jones will try to make it three straight 30-point games against Medford Tech and junior Elijah Cain, who also has two 30-plus point performances this season.

Finals Prediction: No. 2 Middle over No. 8 Willingboro. Willingboro is as hot as any team in the bracket, but Middle is far and away the most battle-tested team.

Shore Teams in the Field: No. 6 Christian Brothers Academy, No. 9 Red Bank Catholic, No. 12 Monsignor Donovan, No. 14 St. John Vianney
The Favorite: No. 2 St. Joseph-Metuchen
Sleeper: No. 8 Holy Spirit
The Lowdown: The top story-line in the South Jersey Non-Public bracket is that the top two seeds in the section are coached by brothers Bob and Dave Turco. Bob has quickly transformed Notre Dame into a state-level program in his three seasons, while Dave and St. Joseph -Metuchen are coming off one of their best seasons ever last year, when the Falcons reached the Tournament of Champions semifinals. On pure talent, few teams have the fire power that St. Joe's has, led by seven-foot junior and University of Kentucky recruit Karl Towns.

The Falcons should be able to handle its side of the bracket, which includes No. 3 St. Augustine, No. 6 CBA and No. 7 Bishop Eustace. CBA is the Shore Conference's best bet to make a run, but the Colts are still a little on the young side and have been ordinary away from their home gym. No. 8 Holy Spirit could give Notre Dame a tough game, especially since the Irish have played some close games this season.

Finals Prediction: No. 2 St. Joseph-Metuchen over No. 4 Paul VI. No. 1 Notre Dame is a top-20 team in the state according to the Newark Star Ledger, but Paul VI is capable of knocking off the Irish. These predictions need some upsets, so Paul VI is the pick. Even if Paul pulls off the first one, the second one against St. Joe's is a longshot.

Shore Teams in the Field: No. 7 St. Rose, No. 14 Mater Dei, No. 15 Ranney
The Favorite: No. 1 Patrick School
Sleeper: No. 3 Wildwood Catholic
The Lowdown: The three Shore Conference teams in this section are used to playing Shore Conference power Point Beach twice a year and South Non-Public B offers as many as five teams that are as good or better than the Garnet Gulls. St. Rose has a chance to win its first-round game at home against a quality Rutgers Prep team, but would then have to travel to No. 2 Roselle Catholic, which just beat Colts Neck 84-45 and will likely overpower Ranney in the first round.

Mater Dei, meanwhile, draws a Wildwood Catholic team that is a bit of an unknown because it does not play in the North Jersey basketball hotbed with the likes of the Patrick School, Roselle Catholic, Marist and Gill St. Bernard's. Any of those North Jersey teams could get hot and win the section, with Gill, Roselle Catholic and Patrick looking like the cream of the crop.

In years past, St. Anthony's toughest game of the season was the North Non-Public B final, but with so much competition in South Jersey this year, the Friars will have to get through a very tough opponent to clinch yet another sectional title.

Finals Prediction: No. 5 Gill St. Bernard's over No. 2 Roselle Catholic. With so many state-ranked teams in the field, this bracket could go a lot of different directions. Here's guessing Gill revs it up for another run this season.