Boys Basketball – Breaking Down the Field: Shore Conference Tournament Preview
The last week of the boys basketball regular season at the Shore saw some high-profile programs slip up against unassuming opponents, which has just been the way things have gone during the 2018-19 season for most of the teams in the area.
Maybe that is a harbinger as it pertains to the Shore Conference Tournament. On the other hand, while the entirety of the season has been defined by the parity among the teams ranked No. 2 to No. 12, recent trends suggest a more tiered hierarchy. The top seed is seemingly untouchable, the next two seeds have distinguished themselves and two of the next three seeds have been playing as though they have no designs of losing any time soon.
The vulnerabilities in the field start to appear after No. 6, however the real drop off appears after No. 12. Last year, the Nos. 20 and 24 seeds (Holmdel and Brick) won their first-round games on the road but in this more limited 24-team field, it is hard to see any team above No. 20 getting past the first round and even harder to envision any team outside the top 12 playing in Sunday’s quarterfinal outside Toms River.
If you are looking for upsets, the best bet will be the Nos. 18 through 20 seeds in the first round and the Nos. 11 and 12 seeds in the round of 16. Then again, upsets are not upsets because you can see them coming. This may look like a top-heavy field for now but as we have seen throughout the season, perception can change quickly in this year’s Shore Conference.
Below is a breakdown of each of the field’s 24 teams and their chances to make a deep run into the tournament, starting with the least likely teams to get out of the first round and working up to the favorite.
First-round predictions are at the bottom of the post.
24. Asbury Park
23. Mater Dei Prep
It is not completely out of the question that any of these three teams could win a game in the SCT, but all three are heavy underdogs. Lacey is more of a borderline case as the Lions boast some experience and a standout scorer in Carl Swensen to carry into Neptune, where the Scarlet Fliers present some serious defensive challenges but don’t always run up the points. An A-effort on the defensive end would give the Lions a shot.
Asbury Park is the last seed but might have a better shot to win than Mater Dei with a full complement of players, which the Bishops have often been without over the course of the season. For Mater Dei, the Seraphs will be taking on former coach Bob Klatt and a Wall team that has played to its competition for a lot of the year, especially recently.
One thing both Ranney and Mater Dei have going for them is they both played Ranney recently so they are ready for the speed of postseason basketball heading into the first round.
21. Donovan Catholic
Like Lacey, the Griffins are a borderline longshot but probably go into round one with a better shot at an upset. Holmdel has had a few letdowns this year and the Hornets do rely on the three-point shot some, so if a young Donovan Catholic squad can hit some shots earlier and build up the confidence, maybe things get interesting.
17. Jackson Liberty
The 16-17 game could go either way, but the winner will be a sitting duck in the round of 16. Jackson Liberty is 0-5 outside of Class B South this season and while the Lions have a chance to end that non-divisional drought at St. John Vianney in round one, they – like most teams in this tournament – won’t be able to compete with Ranney.
16. St. John Vianney
St. John Vianney rallied to qualify for the SCT with two wins in less than 24 hours and its reward is a first-round home game in which the winner gets to go to Ranney on Thursday. The Lancers should be the slight favorite in round one and if they can earn a trip to the round of 16, that’s a good showing.
18. Toms River East
Winners of four straight, the Raiders will absolutely be a threat to beat a scuffling Matawan team in round one. After that, they don’t match up so well with Manasquan, even though they turned in a more-than-respectable performance against the Warriors in the WOBM Classic.
20. Brick Memorial
The Mustangs lost a competitive game at Brick on Feb. 5 and beat their rival in the first meeting between the two, so it’s fair to call round three a toss-up with a slight edge to the home team. The winner gets Freehold Township and the Patriots already routed Brick Memorial on a neutral floor in December. Since then, Freehold Township has steadily improved while Brick Memorial has struggled more recently, so there is little reason to believe a rematch in Patriot Country would be any different.
After missing an opportunity to win the B South title, Pinelands will try to atone by winning a Shore Conference game for the first time in program history. The draw is a good one for Pinelands, despite Jackson Memorial’s success playing at home. Should the senior-laden Wildcats pull off the road win, they will get a chance to travel to CBA and Shock the Shore.
14. Jackson Memorial
The Jaguars have played well in their gym this season so they have to feel pretty good about their chances to advance past Pinelands. Jackson Memorial is a balanced squad with a number of players who can score and do so in a lot of ways. An interesting sub-plot to a round-of-16 trip would be a return north for juniors Matt and Ryan Mahala, who attended CBA to start their high school careers and whose older brother, Rob, was a standout for the Colts last season as a senior.
One year after pulling off the most noteworthy early-round upset of the SCT, Brick will play at home this year against its crosstown rival. The Green Dragons have been playing better than Brick Memorial of late and they have one of the Shore’s better duos in Shane Williams and Jalen Jackson. As long as the stars show up, Brick has a great chance to win in round one. In a potential round two game at Freehold Township, they will need everybody to step up to have a shot.
Given Matawan’s recent play and Manasquan’s talent, this is, admittedly, a reach. The Huskies are just 3-7 in their last 10 games and are one year removed from getting picked off in the first round as a No. 9 seed in 2018. They are also a team with five starters 6-foot-2 or bigger with length and athleticism throughout the lineup and if Matawan can tidy up its play in time for a first-round showdown with Toms River East, they could present a challenge to Manasquan in the second round. Out of all the teams seeded 13 or above, the Huskies most resemble a team that can win two games, even if the chances of that happening remain slim.
8. Middletown South
Neither Marlboro nor Middletown South has the firepower to beat a Ranney team at full strength, but earning a trip to the SCT quarterfinals on Sunday to play the No. 1 seed would be no small feat for either program. Middletown South hasn’t been that far in the tournament since 2010 while Marlboro was 6-9 at one point this season before getting leading scorer Alex Ratner back and rallying. It’s also worth mentioning that two years ago, Marlboro stunned Ranney in the SCT semifinals in Toms River, although that was when Ranney’s entire core was sophomores.
Middletown South, meanwhile, is as battle-tested as any team in the field, but that will probably do little good against Ranney.
While not a lock to get past Donovan Catholic, Holmdel will have a familiar road to the semifinals of the SCT once the Hornets get through round one. The round of 16 would include trip to Rumson-Fair Haven, which Holmdel beat a little more than a week ago. Should the Hornets pull off another upset of the Bulldogs, they would play at Freehold Township, which came to Holmdel in January and routed the Hornets. It’s not the most forgiving draw but Holmdel has lots of scoring options and a junior-heavy squad that could grow up fast over the next several weeks.
7. Red Bank Catholic
With the No. 7 seed, RBC can avoid Ranney until the championship game, which should make the Caseys a real threat to get to Monmouth two Saturdays from now. The problem is they will likely have to get through both Manasquan and CBA - two teams that just pummeled RBC - to get there. The Caseys have gone 2-5 since winning 12 in a row to improve to 14-1 and at this point, they might have trouble winning one game. If, however, RBC can steady the ship at practice this week and get by Wall, the Caseys should be a serious threat to beat Manasquan – a team they already beat once this year. Keep in mind the Caseys are 4-0 this season at RWJ Barnabas Health Arena, where they won the WOBM Christmas Classic in December.
5. Rumson-Fair Haven
The Bulldogs could have easily been the No. 6 seed after losing to Red Bank on Saturday but getting bumped up to No. 5 might have actually hurt Rumson’s chances to maximize their run through this year’s SCT. Their first game will likely be against a Holmdel squad that beat them in the last meeting between the two and would be followed by a likely matchup against Freehold Township. Rumson should feel good about its chances to get by Holmdel and will give Freehold Township all it can handle, but it would take some kind of shooting performance for Rumson to put a scare into Ranney in a potential semifinal game. If that is something the Bulldogs have to think about, then they have had a good run.
4. Freehold Township
Freehold Township probably climbed from the No. 6 spot to No. 4 in the final week of the regular season and if that is the case, its chances to reach the championship game took a hit. In the six spot, the Patriots would have had to get through both CBA and Manasquan to reach the final, but that is a more likely scenario than beating both Rumson and Ranney. Freehold Township scrimmaged Ranney in the preseason and made the Panthers work for it at different points in the game, but getting the better of the state’s No. 1 team for 32 postseason minutes is a whole other hill.
With a tournament that features a favorite as imposing as Ranney at the top, the seeds to get are Nos. 2, 3, 6, 7, 10 and 11. Wall and Neptune grabbed the last two of those spots and will now try to take advantage of a road to the championship game that would include the top-seeded Panthers. That certainly won’t make things easy, but both teams have reason to believe they can get to Toms River and take a shot at Mansaquan and CBA.
Neptune recently lost a competitive game to Marlboro and has the personnel to hang with any team in the tournament outside of Ranney. After losing Sam Fagan to a season-ending injury, the Scarlet Fliers have full acclimated to life without their point guard and have won 10 out of 11. Perhaps the only team in the Shore Conference hotter than Neptune is Toms River North and the Mariners will be the team Neptune has to go through to get to the quarterfinal round. Beating Toms River North, CBA and Manasquan in consecutive games is not probable, but the Scarlet Fliers will take their chances with that route.
Wall, meanwhile, would play at RBC in the round of 16 and if they win there, the Crimson Knights would play a Manasquan team that had a battle on its hands Saturday in a 71-63 Warriors win over Wall.
Playing for Second...for Now
6. Toms River North
The Mariners have won 15 straight and are no stranger to entering this tournament on a roll. Toms River North is just two years removed from reaching the semifinals and nearly upsetting top-seeded and eventual champion Mater Dei Prep. This year’s road to the final will not go through the No. 1 seed but it will likely have to go through Neptune, CBA and Manasquan – which is quite the heat check. With the way the Mariners are playing, though, and with every game prior to the final on its home floor, Toms River North might be looking at the best chance it has ever had to reach the final.
3. Christian Brothers Academy
Plenty can be said about the potential matchup between CBA and Manasquan but we will save that talk for when it comes to pass. For now, the comparison between the teams will come down to two other things: 1) the chances of both to make it to the semifinals and 2) the chances of either to beat Ranney. CBA’s road to the semifinals is likely to include the Jackson Memorial-Pinelands winner and the Neptune-Toms River North winner. The Colts are probably in less trouble than Manasquan in the first game but Neptune and Toms River North are both playing better than Red Bank Catholic and Wall – probably not enough to stop CBA but enough to hold off on penning the Colts into one of the semifinal spots.
On top of a slightly better draw relative to CBA, Manasquan also looks like it would match up better with Ranney than CBA would, although that point is certainly disputable. Manasquan might get a challenge from either Matawan or Toms River East in its first game and if they get through that, the Warriors would then play a team it beat in the last week of the season – either Red Bank Catholic or Wall. That looks a little more manageable than what CBA faces, although if RBC can snap out of its funk, Manasquan’s road could get a lot tougher.
The Virtual Lock
Calling Ranney the favorite to win the tournament would be an understatement: the Panthers have a pair of McDonald’s All-Americans, including the newly-crowned all-time leading scorer in Shore Conference history in Bryan Antoine. If there is any hope for the rest of the field, it is the injury Antoine sustained in the loss to Montverde Academy that kept him out of Saturday’s game against Asbury Park, although it is currently not expected to keep him out for the heart of the tournament. Last year, Ranney completely dominated this tournament and is a better team this year, so this is the Panthers’ tournament to lose, to say the least.
(9) Marlboro 71, (24) Asbury Park 54
(10) Wall 62, (23) Mater Dei Prep 47
(11) Neptune 69, (22) Lacey 55
(12) Holmdel 58, (21) Donovan Catholic 45
(13) Brick 48, (20) Brick Memorial 45
(19) Pinelands 51, (14) Jackson Memorial 47
(15) Matawan 56, (18) Toms River East 51
(16) St. John Vianney 61, (17) Jackson Liberty 54