Boys Basketball – 2023 NJSIAA Tournament Preview: The Shore in Group 3
The good news for the teams competing in Group III for a second straight year is that they won't have Manasquan or Camden Eastside to contend with anymore. Manasquan is back in Group II after rampaging to a Central Jersey Group II championship, while defending Group III champion Camden Eastside is, more somberly, disqualified from the tournament after a widely-seen altercation during its Camden County Tournament championship game against rival Camden -- also banned from this year's state tournament.
With those to powerhouses out of the picture, a new one as emerged within Central Jersey, as the teams in the center and south of the state vie for the right to play in the group championship game during the first week of March.
That new favorite to reach the state final is not one of the Shore Conference teams, but the Shore will have a considerable number of participants in the field -- as is usually the case in Group III.
Shore Teams in the Field: No. 4 Brick Memorial, No. 5 Colts Neck, No. 7 Matawan, No. 8 Ocean, No. 15 Red Bank, No. 16 Freehold Boro
Top Seed: Ewing
Defending Champion: Manasquan (Central Group II in 2023)
Favorite: Ewing. The Blue Devils have had a resurgent season and enter the state tournament 20-4, although they are a more modest 7-4 over their last 11 games heading into the state playoffs. All four losses were competitive, including one-score losses to Elizabeth and Notre Dame and an eight-point loss to Trenton. The first of the losses was to No. 3 Hamilton West, so there is a team in this field that has beaten Ewing, albeit with the Blue Devils on the road. Hamilton West and No. 2 Nottingham could end up duking it out for the right to go to the finals, while Ewing shares a side of the bracket with Colts Neck and Brick Memorial – two teams that played their best basketball early in the season. There are some other potential obstacles along the way, but the Blue Devils are well-positioned to go the distance.
Darkhorse: Red Bank. In a bracket that could have a number of dark horses, the horses don’t get much darker than No. 15 seeds. So much of finding the most likely surprise team in a bracket is finding the matchups that set the stage for that sort of run. No. 13 Burlington Township also has the makings of a Cinderella team in the bracket, but having to go through Ewing to get to the championship makes the Falcons’ road a little tougher. Red Bank doesn’t have it easy either, but the Bucs are a battle-tested team that has the personnel to give any of the teams it could see in the first three rounds a hard game.
Bracket Breakdown: It would be an exaggeration to call Ewing a lock to go to the championship, but the Blue Devils are a clear-cut favorite to get to the final and win it. Freehold Boro drew the short straw in playing Ewing first, but the Colonials can take a lot from the game given the number of key players thay have coming back next year. Ocean is an intriguing team that could sneak up on the No. 1 seed if Ewing’s guard is down and while the Spartans are sophomore-heavy, they are sophomores that have played a lot of varsity games already. Ocean has travelled to Ewing four times over the past nine years and given the Blue Devils some good games, but is 0-4 against the bracket favorites.
Brick Memorial and Colts Neck are two other teams that have faced schedules that should have them ready for anything, but health has been an issue for both in recent weeks. Brick Memorial at full strength would be an intriguing team after the Mustangs came within one possession of reaching the 2022 sectional championship game. Matawan is another sleeper to make the final, albeit one with a home game in the first round. The Huskies have a dynamic group of perimeter players, a physical presence in the paint in Jayden Elijah and some tough games on the schedule that have prepared them for this challenge.
Championship Prediction: Ewing over No. 6 Robbinsville. Although Ewing is the most likely champion, there is some uncertainty baked into this section – at least more than last year, when Manasquan was head-and-shoulders better than the field. Robbinsville is one year removed from reaching the sectional championship game at Manasquan and while the Ravens are not quite as dangerous as they were last year, they are well-positioned within the bracket to take advantage of some of that postseason experience remaining on the roster. Ultimately, though, the section is Ewing’s to lose.
(1) Ewing over (16) Freehold Boro
(8) Ocean over (9) Hopewell Valley
(5) Colts Neck over (12) Lawrence
(13) Burlington Twp. over (4) Brick Memorial
(3) Hamilton West over (14) Somerville
(6) Robbinsville over (11) Allentown
(7) Matawan over (10) Carteret
(15) Red Bank over (2) Nottingham
(1) Ewing over (8) Ocean
(13) Burlington Twp. over (5) Colts Neck
(6) Robbinsville over (3) Hamilton West
(7) Matawan over (15) Red Bank
(1) Ewing over (13) Burlington Twp.
(6) Robbinsville over (7) Matawan
(1) Ewing over (6) Robbinsville
Shore Teams in the Field: No. 13 Lacey, No. 14 Barnegat
Top Seed: Mainland
Defending Champion: Camden Eastside
Favorite: Mainland. Camden Eastside would have been a considerable favorite, even as the No. 2 seed, but the brawl with Camden on Thursday night prompted the Camden School District to withdraw both Camden teams from the NJSIAA Tournament before the state could ultimately make the same decision. It is a brutal way to end the season for Eastside, which had a resurgent 2021-22 season and did not appear to start Thursday’s altercation, with most of Eastside’s players retreating in the direction of their bench when the conflict started. With the Tigers out, Mainland steps in and will look to take advantage of its homecourt advantage, but will have to deal with what is all of a sudden a much harder side of the bracket, with No. 4 Moorestown or No. 5 Hammonton representing a potential problem in the semifinals.
Darkhorse: Lacey. With No. 11 Absegami already routing No. 6 Pemberton on Saturday, the Braves are off the menu of pick-able darkhorses, although Absegami is in great shape with Eastside now out. That being the case, keep an eye on Lacey. The Lions have been an inconsistent team, but that is usually a feature of surprise teams at this time of the season. At its best, Lacey has competed with teams the caliber of which the Lions will be seeing at every stop they manage to make during the tournament. It’s not a great draw – Moorestown has the chops to be considered the favorite – but Lacey deserves to be on the radar. Barnegat is less likely to advance out of the first round, but the Bengals might have the better matchup and also have a team loaded with players set to return next season.
Bracket Breakdown: With Camden Eastside disqualified, the South Jersey Group III bracket is now wide open. Mainland, Moorestown and Hammonton might be the three front-runners and they are all on the same side of the bracket, while No. 7 Timber Creek is the second-highest-seeded team left on the other side of the bracket outside of No. 3 Medford Tech.
Championship Prediction: Moorestown over Timber Creek. With a win over Lenape – the No. 1 seed in South Jersey Group IV – on Friday, the Quakers ride into the tournament off a huge win. Timber Creek is set up to make a deep run, but surviving the first round against Ocean City is far from a given.
Round-by Round Picks
(1) Mainland over (16) Winslow
(8) Delsea over (9) Triton
(5) Hammonton over (12) Cherry Hill West
(4) Moorestown over (13) Lacey
(3) Medford Tech over (14) Barnegat
(11) Absegami d. (6) Pemberton
(7) Timber Creek over (10) Ocean City
(15) Clearview d. (2) Camden Eastside by forfeit
(1) Mainland over (8) Delsea
(4) Moorestown over (5) Hammonton
(3) Medford Tech over (11) Absegami
(7) Timber Creek over (15) Clearview
(4) Moorestown over (1) Mainland
(7) Timber Creek over (3) Medford Tech
(4) Moorestown over (7) Timber Creek