High School Boys Basketball – Surveying the SCT Field
On the eve of the Shore Conference Tournament, the tune has changed among most people in the conference regarding just how open this year's tournament will be.
Early in the season, the sentiment was that there were no great teams and that any number of teams could take home the title. Now that the tournament is essentially here, the picture is a little bit clearer and there appear to be four teams that have a legitimate shot to win the tournament with a couple of wild cards in the mix.
While the four teams at the top are a step above everybody else, it is only one step separating those teams from the next crop rather than several steps, as was the case with CBA three years ago. There are a wide range of possibilities for the next 11 days and every player has a reason to leave their respective locker rooms Tuesday evening with a genuine belief that his team can advance at least one round.
It's now time to separate the pretenders from the contenders before the ball is thrown up. Here is a look at the field, starting with the teams that have the longest shot to win and counting down to the team with the best chance to win. The teams are separated into tiers and the number next to each is its seed in the tournament.
The following three teams have seen what a powerhouse team looks like and should be ready for their respective first-round games. That being said, all three face uphill battles in getting to the round of 16.
The Class B Central teams are going to be overlooked because they either have not played enough top teams or they have not won when they have played them. On the flip side, teams like Keansburg, Mater Dei and Keyport are all prepared to play their respective first-round games because all have played second-seeded Point Beach twice. With Keansburg going down to Pine Belt Arena to play a team with size, depth and athletic guard play, the Titans will most definitely pull out the Point Beach tapes and figure out what might work against the Mariners. Keansburg has the top players in Dan Markulin, Tyler Walters and Kason Preston to put a scare into Toms River North if the Mariners have an off shooting night, but depth could prove to be an issue against a balanced Toms River North team.
26. Mater Dei
Mater Dei's chances to beat Shore come down to whether or not playing the Blue Devils once during the regular season helps or hurts its chances. Shore beat the Seraphs 83-59 and while the Blue Devils are probably not playing as well now as they were then, they have the formula to win and the motivation to play well after losing to Holmdel by 26 points in their final regular-season game. Mater Dei should have a solid game-plan this time around, but in this case, with Shore coming off a loss, this is probably a bad draw for the Seraphs.
The Red Raiders are the best offensive team of the three B Central teams at the bottom of the seeding, but unfortunately for them, they are playing a team in Jackson Memorial that is as dedicated to defense as any in the Shore Conference. The hope for Keyport that it can play a similar game to the one the Red Raiders played against Point Beach on Thursday, when they hung around with the Garnet Gulls in a 69-59 loss. Jackson Memorial can be a streaky offensive team and if Keyport plays a good defensive game and can coax perimeter shots that do not fall, the Red Raiders have the scoring to put a scare into Jackson. If, however, Jaguars big man Eric Carter is heavily involved - as he has been in most of the Jackson's games this year - it will be a long day for Keyport.
Neptune and Christian Brothers Academy have had down years by their standards, but both are in the tournament and at home in the first round. In order for these teams to get on an SCT roll, each will have to go up against one of the two traditional powers in the Shore and pick them off while they are ripe for the picking.
18. Toms River South
With Keith Kirkwood back in the fold for Neptune, the Indians could be in for a long night because their team is so guard-heavy. Neptune itself has a good crop of guards, but now the Scarlet Fliers are somewhat settled, they have the guards to combat Toms River South's backcourt and the forwards to dominate down low. If there is a hope for Toms River South, it is that Neptune is not the traditional defensive juggernaut that it has been in the past and Toms River South has the guards to handle an up-tempo game that throws some pressure at them. If the Indians play a perfect game, they can beat Neptune, but with Point Beach awaiting the winner, the draw is challenging to say the least.
25. Jackson Liberty
While Toms River South deals with an unpredictable-but-talented Neptune team, Jackson Liberty must play a CBA squad that has consistently played its best basketball on its home floor. The Lions themselves have been an exceptional home team, so having to play on the road against a talented, deep team that is also much better at home swings the pendulum very heavily in CBA's favor. Jackson Liberty, however, does have talent and if the Lions put it together against CBA, they would have a chance to get to Brookdale, where Lakewood would likely be waiting for a rematch of a 53-50 thriller at Jackson Liberty.
Right Team, Wrong Time
These teams have decent draws on paper and are, themselves, good teams. The problem is that the timing of the match-up is not favorable and in order to advance, each will have to overcome more difficult circumstances. In one case, the circumstance is injuries and in the other case, it is the opponent getting over injuries.
22. Point Boro
If the Shore Conference Tournament started last week, Point Boro would have a better seed and a legitimate shot to get to Brookdale based on the way the Panthers were playing. One week later, the Panthers lost senior forward Kyle McGarry to a high-ankle sprain and slipped out of the top 20. The draw is not a bad one as St. Rose and potential second-round opponent Jackson Memorial are teams that Point Boro could play with on its best day, so Point Boro should not be completely dismissed. Still, whenever the Panthers do lose - whether in the first-round or in the final four - they will have to wonder what might have been.
20. Middletown South
The Eagles have already beaten their first-round opponent during the regular season and even did so on the road. Getting through Southern in the first round is not only within the realm of possibility, it's a distinct possibility. Middletown South did catch Southern during the start of its four-game swoon without second-leading scorer Zach Policastro, so Tuesday's game at Southern will be tougher this time around. If Middletown South knocks off Southern again, Colts Neck awaits and Middletown South has had no such luck against the Cougars. It is not hard to envision Middletown South winning at Southern, but it is difficult to figure out a way for the Eagles to beat the tournament's No. 4 seed in the next round.
Right Time, Wrong Team
This team is playing its best basketball of the season, but drew a team also playing extremely well and would have to play the most dominant team in the Shore Conference over the last two weeks if victorious.
19. Brick Memorial
With a healthy roster and players emerging in the rotation, Brick Memorial is putting it all together at the right time. Brick Memorial is one of the most balanced offensive teams and the Mustangs are always one of the hardest working teams in the field. The problem, as it is with most teams that lose early, is the draw. Long Branch has had its issues with consistency, but at its best, the Green Wave are one of the eight-or-so best teams in the field. Brick Memorial could catch Long Branch on a bad day, but then the Mustangs would have to play Manasquan, which is playing as well as any team at the Shore since losing to Rumson-Fair Haven in December. The road is, of course, very difficult from Brookdale forward, but any team that can beat Long Branch and Manasquan in consecutive rounds is good enough to keep going.
Coming Out Swinging
These teams will play a very tough first round game for the right to play at very tough road games, one of the toughest places to win in the Shore Conference.
The Wall-Middletown North first-round game is probably a coin flip, but the Crimson Knights do not profile as a team that is ready to go into Lakewood and win. Wall has been a strong team on its home floor (8-2) and Middletown North does rely a lot on its outside shooting. With an improved defense and a young core of sophomores gaining confidence, Wall has a good chance to hold serve at home and advance, but having to play Lakewood in the Piners' gym is a tough task for any team. Then again, the Crimson Knights have been at their best when there is a lot at stake, so a Cinderella run is not out of the question.
17. Middletown North
The Lions are not necessarily a road favorite at Wall on Tuesday, but the Lions have played one of the toughest schedules in the conference and are more equipped to go into Lakewood and stun the No. 1 seed. The No. 17 seed was probably a little below where the Lions should have been based on the strength of schedule, but they do rely a lot on how they well they shoot the ball. If Middletown North can get hot for a week, they could make some serious noise, especially considering CBA - which the Lions beat 51-32 in the last meeting - would be the likely quarterfinal opponent.
The Rams are finally back at full force and when they have had their full roster at their disposal, they have proven to be a good team. To get to a second-round game at Colts Neck, Southern will have to get through a Middletown South team that already won at Southern. In Colts Neck, Southern would face a team that has the length and athleticism to take the Rams out of their offensive game while also scoring the ball effectively from the perimeter against Southern's size. Southern has the talent to be a scary team, but this is not a good draw for the Rams.
Sneak In, Sneak Through
These teams barely got into the tournament, but each got favorable draws that allow them an opportunity to get on a run.
23. Freehold Township
Middletown North has been a better team than Freehold Township all year and the Lions also have the better roster, but a lot this tournament is all about the draw and that's where Freehold Township caught another break, on top of the one that allowed the Patriots into the tournament at 10-11. The Patriots have already beaten Manalapan once and if they can do it again, they will likely play a Shore team that is floundering a bit at the moment. The potential opponents line up to be Manalapan, Shore and Point Beach, and the latter of those two teams are going through their worst stretches of otherwise great seasons. With an underrated big man in John Horrigan, some athleticism and depth, and good fortune, Freehold Township has the look of a potential dark horse to make it Brookdale.
The Spartans got derailed by a mid-season swoon following a 7-2 start and are just starting to shake free of it. It's hard to say whether or not Ocean is actually playing well enough to take advantage of its draw because the teams the Spartans have beaten over the last two weeks have been non-tournament teams. If Ocean is close to its best basketball, the draw is favorable enough to exploit because Holmdel has been up-and-down all season and the Spartans won at the Hornets Nest in last year's SCT first round. After Holmdel would be Toms River North on the road and the Mariners, while consistently good all year, have played some close games on their home floor, including their only two losses. The Spartans were in a similar spot last year and lost to No. 5 Jackson Memorial after upsetting Holmdel as the No. 21 seed, so getting back to a second-round road game against the Class A South champs is not only possible, but it is with recent precedent. Ocean just hopes that it can keep going this time.
The Huskies did not have the resume of wins to get out of the 20-to-28 range of seeds, but there are not many teams in the conference that have been more competitive on a game-to-game basis than Matawan. They have not lost a game by more than nine points and they handled Wall by 19 points in the second meeting between the two teams. In Red Bank Catholic, Matawan faces a team that has been very good in close games and has been similarly solid in staying close with good teams. While Matawan is younger than RBC, its sophomores are game-tested and they won't back down against either RBC or CBA. Playing Lakewood on a neutral court is much better than having to go to Lakewood, so if Matawan can get to that game, the Huskies would have to like their chances.
From A Central Middle Class to Shore Royalty?
Class A Central has been one of the better divisions in the conference all season, so finishing in the middle of the division standings might just be masking the potential of these two teams to beat some of the Shore's best.
The Hornets took a first-round loss to Ocean in last year's tournament and while that was a very different group of players, this group surely remembers well enough that playing a home game is no guarantee in the first round. Last year's team quickly learned its lesson and advanced to the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group II final, and this year's team appears to be ready to play after hammering Shore on Thursday, 79-53. Ocean will be confident heading into Holmdel, but if the Hornets can survive that game, they play a style that could give good teams like Toms River North and Lakewood some trouble. The challenge will be combating the size and rebounding of their opponents and while that facet of the game may be too much to overcome for Holmdel, shooting the lights out while point guard Robbie Cantelli runs wild could more than offset the size disadvantage.
9. Red Bank Catholic
The Caseys are as solid as a team can be coming into the postseason: they play hard, they don't get blown out, and they have shown they can beat good teams. They have not, however, shown they can finish off a top team, and in order to get to Brookdale, RBC will have to beat CBA on the road. While CBA has not been an overall elite team, the Colts have been exceptional at home, with wins over Colts Neck, Manalapan and Middletown North. If RBC got a home game in the round of 16 - which it very well might have deserved - the Caseys would be a great bet to get to Brookdale. As it is - with a tough first-round game in Matawan and a potential second-round game against a great home team - the road to the quarterfinals is very tough.
Survive and Thrive
These two teams are slated to have very difficult second-round games, but each are good enough to win and if either does survive and make it to Brookdale, that team will instantly become a threat to win it all.
14. Long Branch
The Green Wave validated its status as a contender by rolling by Point Beach 60-42 last week, but as Long Branch has done all year, it slipped up in the next game against Wall on the road. If anything, Long Branch's schedule should prove that the Green Wave can raise its level to that of its opponent and with the draw Long Branch has, it is going to be necessary. The booby trap could be the first game against Brick Memorial, as we've already seen Long Branch take some opponents a little too lightly at home (Freehold, Ocean). If Long Branch can avoid that hazard, then it gets a chance to show what it can really do, because Manasquan is playing as well as any team in the area.
It is hard to know which team between Neptune and Long Branch has a better chance to win the tournament, but with Long Branch already beating a banged-up Point Beach, it stands to reason that Neptune could beat a healthier version of the Garnet Gulls if the Scarlet Fliers beat Toms River South on Tuesday. Neptune has had about four different teams over the course of the season and regardless of how good the talent on the team is at the moment, it's hard to believe that Neptune can get it together and beat likes of Point Beach, Shore or Manalapan, and Manasquan in consecutive rounds. Then again, if any team can do it, it is the defending SCT champions.
Good Teams, Good Draws
This is the second-largest tier on the list and it is comprised of four teams that all have about equal chances to get to the final four. None of these teams would have to beat two of the top-four seeds before going to Brookdale and even in having to match-up with a better seed, there are reasons to believe in an upset.
11. St. Rose
The Purple Roses have a senior-laden team that made it to Brookdale last year and while the best player on that team is no longer there, St. Rose has the balance and the draw to get back. First-round opponent Point Boro is undermanned at the moment and a good showing for the Purple Rose might be too much for the Panthers to handle. Then it's a matter of going to Jackson Memorial and figuring out the Jaguars, which St. Rose can do because of its balanced scoring and shooting. As far as a potential Manasquan showdown in the quarterfinals, the Roses were preparing for that match-up before Saturday's game got snowed out and they would have a puncher's chance against the Warriors.
8. Christian Brothers Academy
The Colts got a big break by getting the No. 8 seed because they have been unstoppable on their home floor. First-round opponent Jackson Liberty has also been much better on its home floor than it has been on the road, but the Lions also have good young talent that will be jacked up to face CBA. RBC, meanwhile, handled a St. Rose team that handled CBA. Still, the Colts get both those games at home and when at its best, CBA can play with any team. Throw in a neutral site for a potential showdown with Lakewood, and CBA got all it could have hoped for given its season to date.
All season long, the Blue Devils have been a team that is never out of a game, no matter the deficit. For the first time all season on Thursday, Shore fell behind early and never made a run in a 26-point loss to Holmdel. Either that is a sign that Shore still might be a year away from making noise in this tournament, or it is a much-needed wake-up call for a team that has shown, at times, to be a threat to go deep into the tournament. Meanwhile, Shore's draw might be as much of a mystery as the Blue Devils themselves are right now. Manalapan has arguably the best player in the conference in Anthony Firkser, while Point Beach is dealing with a funk of their own, so much so that it could be Neptune that awaits Shore in the quarterfinals. Shore can at least take comfort in the fact that if it handles its own business and plays well, a deep run is a probability.
6. Jackson Memorial
The Jaguars reached the Shore Conference quarterfinals last year for the first time and are set up nicely to get back. The only Shore Conference team that has beaten Jackson Memorial this season is Toms River North and in beating every other Shore Conference opponent, Jackson has proven to be very good in close games. The Jaguars are one of the top defensive teams in the Shore Conference, which should serve them well in trying to combat St. Rose's motion offense and in matching up with Manasquan in a potential quarterfinal. Jackson might be one of the few teams that can match up on the glass with Manasquan, so while the Jaguars don't have the offensive weapons that any of the top four seeds have, the physical match-ups give Jackson a pretty good shot to make a run at the final four.
There has been a clear-cut group of four teams that has been the class of the Shore Conference this season, but there has to be a team or two out there with a chance to crash the semifinals.
When you have the best player in the field and a team that fits around him, you have a chance to beat anybody. Defensively, Manalapan does not profile as a team that is going to win this tournament, but with the shooters the Braves have around Anthony Firkser, Manalapan can very easily rip off wins over Freehold Township and Shore before giving Point Beach a tough match-up. Firkser requires so much defensive attention and his grasp on when to take over with his scoring and when to share the ball keeps defenses honest for 32 minutes. Manalapan had trouble at Colts Neck and at CBA, so there has to be some concern that good teams can handle the Braves' formula, but with a better shooting game from a team that shoots it well, any of the top teams could be in for a long night against Firkser and company.
5. Toms River North
While the top-four seeds have been dominant in their own right this season, the Mariners have been more consistent than dominant. The Mariners lost two close games to Southern and Manalapan at home, but they have also pulled out a number of close games against quality opponents. As far as personnel goes, Toms River North has a little bit of everything: a strong backcourt duo in Damien Singleton and Kyle Carrington, size down low, versatility and depth. They can play with a few different looks and handle a lot of different rosters and although the top four teams all appear to have higher ceilings, Toms River North can play with any of them on its best night.
Usually, the last two categories of this list are "The Contenders" and "The Favorites" but there are contenders throughout this list and four teams that are a level above everybody else while not really distinguishing themselves from one another. It would be a surprise if one of these teams is not in the semifinals, but it would not be the least bit surprising to see any one of them win the championship. Listing them in order of their chances to win is nitpicking, but why not take a crack at it?
2. Point Beach
At full strength, the Garnet Gulls are the best team in the field and there is a good chance they will be at full strength for the entire tournament. The problem the Garnet Gulls have is that their draw as the No. 2 seed is nothing short of brutal. Their first game of the tournament will likely be a home game against defending champion Neptune, a team that was the preseason No. 2 in the All Shore Media Top 10 and No. 1 according to the Asbury Park Press based on a great roster. While Neptune has underachieved, the Scarlet Fliers are still dangerous at full strength, and they potentially have the best player in the tournament in Keith Kirkwood. If Point Beach survives Neptune, either Manalapan or Shore will be the opponent at Brookdale and both are tough covers for very different reasons. If Point Beach gets it done this year, the Gulls will most definitely have earned it.
4. Colts Neck
The difference between Colts Neck and Manasquan was almost negligible, but since the committee had to pick somebody, Manasquan got the nod because the Warriors have been slightly more impressive lately. That doesn't mean that Colts Neck can't be the hot team over the next 11 days and win its first ever SCT. Southern is a good match-up for Colts Neck because the Rams rely a great deal on their athleticism and Colts Neck can counter that with a decent shooting game and by forcing Southern into bad shots. Toms River North, meanwhile, is not as explosive as Colts Neck, but the Mariners can get out and run and would give the Cougars problems in a couple of areas over the course of a game. Colts Neck probably has a slightly tougher quarterfinal match-up than the other four teams, but after getting to the final last year, this team appears poised to get back to the doorstep of the championship again.
The Piners were the hands-down, no-questions-asked No. 1 seed, so it would stand to reason that they are the clear favorite to win the tournament, right? Well, not necessarily. We saw last year that Manasquan could not only play with Lakewood, but that the Warriors could beat Lakewood, as they did in the SCT quarterfinals. Both teams are improved from last year and with Manasquan boasting so much scoring and Lakewood throwing so much athleticism at teams, it figures to be a pretty even game should it come to pass. Even Point Beach could be a problem for Lakewood because the Garnet Gulls sorely missed Dominique Uhl in the first meeting between the teams. Ultimately, it comes down to shooting. Lakewood will give the necessary defensive effort, but if the Piners shoot the ball poorly, they will be in close games and close games come down to free-throw shooting. While Lakewood is better at closing out games this year than it has been in any of the past years, the Piners still don't shoot the ball better than any of the other top teams. If shooting is not an issue, then there is no discussion: Lakewood will win the SCT. If shooting is an issue, the Piners could meet their match at some point.
The No. 3 seed has won each of the last two SCT titles, and with the way Manasquan is playing heading into the postseason, three could be the magic number once again. The Warriors were the preseason No. 1 team because of the returning talent and after a bit of a slow start out of the gate this season, Manasquan has essentially been steamrolling opponents for the past month-and-a-half. The lone blemish on the resume is a loss to Point Beach in a game that saw both teams shoot the ball poorly while Point Beach dominated at the guard position while holding its own against Jimmy Walsh. It is still a tough match-up for Manasquan, but between Point Beach's tough draw and injury issues, Lakewood's propensity for offensive slumps, and Colts Neck's reliance on perimeter offense, Manasquan looks like the team with the fewest weaknesses going into the tournament. The road is not necessarily an easy one, but ultimately, it's not the team with the best draw that wins; it is the best team that wins, and like the other top-four seeds, Manasquan has made a strong case that it is the best team.