Boys Basketball – 2023 NJSIAA Tournament Preview: The Shore in Group 4
Even though a Group IV team only won two NJSIAA Tournament of Champions in the 32 seasons the tournament was held and none since 1994, the Group IV Tournament is the state tournament at its best. There are legitimately good teams all over the state and sometimes even with seeds that go as high as No. 16. The balance in each bracket sets the stage for upsets and Cinderella runs and even if they don't happen every single year, there is always a chance in Group IV.
This year looks like it could be a mixed bag in the state's big-school bracket, with a clear favorite in Central Jersey for a second straight year, albeit a different team than in 2022, when Marlboro lived up to its No. 1 seed in winning its first ever sectional championship. In South Jersey, however, the field appears to be up-for-grabs, and it may not be limited to only a handful of highly-seeded teams.
When it comes to the Group IV final representative from the Southern half of the state, we may end up at a logical conclusion, but the road to get there -- as it usually is in this group -- could be wild.
Central Jersey Group IV
Shore Teams in the Field: No. 2 Freehold Twp., No. 4 Jackson Memorial, No. 5 Middletown South, No. 7 Marlboro, No. 12 Manalapan, No. 15 Howell
Top Seed: Trenton
Defending Champion: Marlboro
Favorite: Trenton. A year ago, the Tornadoes were a young team that battled its way to the sectional final as a No. 7 seed and gave Marlboro all it could handle in the sectional final. Now, Trenton returns its whole starting lineup and added Solebury Prep (Pa.) transfer and point guard Kabrien Goss to go with established seniors Davontay Hutson, Chris Wilson and Antwan Bridgett. The rest of the field appears to be up-for-grabs, but any team on the same side of the bracket as Trenton is a longshot to make the run to the final.
Darkhorse: Manalapan. Although Manalapan is on the same side of the bracket as Trenton, the Braves look better-equipped to make it to the sectional semifinals than the underdogs on the other side: No. 10 Hightstown, No. 11 Old Bridge, No. 14 Princeton and Howell. The Braves have depth with plenty of shooting and have already played No. 5 Middletown South and No. 4 Jackson Memorial close. No. 13 East Brunswick is also a team to watch and a difficult draw for Jackson Memorial in the opening round.
Bracket Breakdown: There have been some recent seasons in which Central Jersey Group IV has been a wide-open field with several contenders, but for the second straight year, there appears to be a clear and considerable favorite. Jackson Memorial lost a tight game to the Tornadoes in last year’s sectional semifinal and should give Trenton a tough game should the Jaguars make it that far, but that might be the only challenge Trenton faces. That is assuming Jackson Memorial can survive Middletown South, which is no given with the year the Eagles have had. On the other side of the bracket, however, there should be some drama.
Freehold Township has a difference-maker in the post with Jayden Holmes-Cotter and will be at home all the way though the sectional semifinals if the Patriots can continue to hold serve. No. 3 North Brunswick figures to be the major threat to Freehold Township, but will likely have to go through a quality No. 6 South Brunswick program with championship pedigree. For Freehold Township to get to the final, the Patriots might have to get through a Marlboro team that split two close games with the Patriots during the regular season. Howell is better than most No. 15 seeds, but was not able to handle Holmes-Cotter and Freehold Township during the season.
Championship Prediction: Trenton over South Brunswick. Despite a standout duo in Holmes-Cotter and Malachi Harris, Freehold Township has shown some vulnerabilities over the course of the season and could have its hands full with Marlboro. If the Mustangs can remain hot – they have won five in a row since a 59-55 loss at Freehold Township – a clash with South Brunswick for the third straight tournament could be over the horizon. Those teams will battle it out to face Trenton, which is likely to overwhelm its side of the bracket, with the possible exception of Jackson Memorial.
(1) Trenton over (16) Sayreville
(9) West Windsor-Plainsboro South over (8) Montgomery
(5) Middletown South over (12) Manalapan
(4) Jackson Memorial over (13) East Brunswick
(3) North Brunswick over (14) Princeton
(6) South Brunswick over (11) Old Bridge
(7) Marlboro over (10) Hightstown
(2) Freehold Twp. over (15) Howell
(1) Trenton over (9) WWP South
(4) Jackson Memorial over (5) Middletown South
(6) South Brunswick over (3) North Brunswick
(7) Marlboro over (2) Freehold Twp.
(1) Trenton over (4) Jackson Memorial
(6) South Brunswick over (7) Marlboro
(1) Trenton over (6) South Brunswick
South Jersey Group IV
Shore Teams in the Field: No. 2 Toms River South, No. 5 Central, No. 10 Southern
Top Seed: Lenape
Defending Champion: Lenape
Favorite: Lenape. The defending sectional champs are back as the favorite in the South Jersey Group IV, or at least as the team that will be playing at home as long as they hang around. The Indians were senior-led a year ago, so this year’s group, while led by a returning junior in Tye Dorset, is playing with a different dynamic. While that makes Lenape more vulnerable than it was a year ago, the Indians will also be playing in a section that might be more balanced from top-to-bottom than it was a year ago. If there is a team that stands to be a tougher out than Lenape, it would be No. 3 Egg Harbor. The Eagles have the best record in the section and are coming off a win over St. Augustine in the Cape-Atlantic League final, but having to go through Toms River North and Lenape in back-to-back rounds would be extremely challenging.
Darkhorse: No. 12 Rancocas Valley. Central got a challenging draw in the opening round in a battle-tested Rancocas Valley team. The Red Devils have gone toe-to-toe with a handful of highly-seeded teams in the bracket and still managed to head into the tournament with a solid 14-10 record. As a matter of fact, all of Rancocas Valley’s losses are either to teams with a home game in South Jersey Group IV or a top-four seed from another section (Camden Catholic, Camden and Moorestown). Of course, Central is seeded higher than any of the teams Rancocas Valley beat in Group IV, although the Red Devils have two wins over No. 6 Cherokee and just handed South Jersey Group II No. 3 seed Cinnaminson its second loss. There could be some competition for a surprise run on Rancocas Valley’s side of the bracket, with No. 9 Washington Township posing a serious threat to Lenape in a potential quarterfinal meeting.
Bracket Breakdown: Without a juggernaut looming over the field, the Shore contingent in South Jersey Group IV can dream big. Toms River North has had some frustrating exits from this tournament over the last decade, which includes one appearance in a sectional final, as well as a first-round loss as a No. 1 seed. In other words, anything is possible with the Mariners, which are a junior-led group that may be set to embark on a memorable two-year run or could be a year away. Southern is on the same side of the bracket and could earn a third crack at Toms River North if both Class A South teams advance, but Cherry Hill East will be a formidable road block for Southern to cross, especially with the Cougars on their home court.
Central, meanwhile, has been on top of its game lately, with the exception of a 20-point loss to Raritan in the Shore Conference Tournament quarterfinals. Playing at home in the first round will help, but the overall draw is a very tough one for the Golden Eagles. Lenape and No. 4 Eastern are championship contenders and Rancocas Valley looks like the most capable of the double-digit seeds. Toms River North’s early-round possibilities are not east either and a potential semifinal showdown with Egg Harbor would be intense – the Eagles are three years removed from shocking the Mariners in the first round in a 16-over-1 upset.
Championship Prediction: Egg Harbor over Lenape. The state tournament is a reset and teams that looked great in their conference tournament, don’t always carry it into the NJSIAA Playoffs. In Egg Harbor’s case, though, the Eagles have been building toward this kind of run since they made it to the sectional semifinals with a young, 16th-seeded team in 2020. The following year, Egg Harbor went 14-1 in a COVID-shortened season with no state tournament, then ran into Lenape in the sectional semifinals last season. This year, it looks like the pieces are finally in place for Egg Harbor to complete its sectional-title run.
(1) Lenape over (16) Gloucester Tech
(9) Washington Twp. over (8) Williamstown
(12) Rancocas Valley over (5) Central
(4) Eastern over (13) Atlantic City
(3) Egg Harbor over (14) Millville
(6) Cherokee over (11) Atlantic Tech
(7) Cherry Hill East over (10) Southern
(2) Toms River North over (15) Shawnee
(1) Lenape over (9) Washington Twp.
(12) Rancocas Valley over (4) Eastern
(3) Egg Harbor over (6) Cherokee
(2) Toms River North over (3) Cherry Hill East
(1) Lenape over (12) Rancocas Valley
(3) Egg Harbor over (2) Toms River North
(3) Egg Harbor over (1) Lenape