Boys Basketball – Breaking Down the SCT Field
The Shore Conference Tournament is seeded and ready to commence, with the opening round tipping off Tuesday evening throughout Monmouth and Ocean Counties. While this tournament may not necessarily be what one would consider “wide-open,” there is a point in the seeding in which the teams all start to look pretty even and there probably are not many teams that are above that fray.
Should that be the case, we could be looking at a dramatic tournament from start-to-finish. Not every game will be an instant classic, but there are plenty of teams with a realistic chance to make it a memorable tournament below is a breakdown of the field, starting with the teams least likely to make a run and working up toward the favorite to win the whole thing.
If Keyport is looking for a reason for optimism, its two solid showings vs. Ranney are encouraging and will be performances Keyport will look to tap into in going to Wall in the opening round. The young Red Raiders have plenty to look forward to over the next two seasons and while they are probably a year or two away, perhaps they can put a scare into Wall.
27. Point Pleasant Beach
The Garnet Gulls have one of the tournament’s underrated players in senior Jake Clark and a solid crop of players who are set to return next season. In this tournament, Point Beach will have to deal with Marlboro in round one and with the way the Mustangs rack up points, force turnovers and run the floor, the Garnet Gulls will have their hands full on the road in the first round.
Based on results vs. Rumson, Red Bank Catholic and Holmdel – three teams in the general vicinity of CBA in terms of talent – Raritan is going to have issues in the opening round against the No. 8 Colts. CBA was on a roll before Red Bank Catholic cooled the Colts off on Saturday and it’s probably safe to assume that despite that loss, CBA is healthy and ready to play like a tough out in the SCT. That means Raritan will have to go above and beyond and while the Rockets have some reliable seniors, they are also young enough that Tuesday can serve as a learning experience.
24. Donovan Catholic
The Griffins have had to overcome missing starters throughout the season and finally appear to be at full strength heading into the SCT. The only issue is the first-round draw, which will be defending champion Ranney. The Panthers are also at full strength for the first time all year and while the youth on the Ranney side could leave the Griffins a slight opening, the margin for error is slim.
First-Round Underdogs; Second-Round Longshots
18. Point Pleasant Boro
The No. 18 seed is normally positioned reasonably well for a first-round win and Point Boro certainly has a chance to do that much. Drawing Mater Dei, though, appears to be a tougher matchup than most No. 15 seeds face, particularly in Point Boro’s case. Mater Dei played one of the Shore’s better non-divisional schedules, while Point Boro played a light non-divisional slate outside of Toms River North in December. With it blend of quick guards, size and depth, Mater Dei poses some match-up issues for Point Boro. The Panthers have shown they can play teams tough and are good enough to spring the upset, but getting by both Mater Dei and No. 2 Middletown South seems like an especially long shot.
Not many No. 26 seeds enter the tournament with much hope – the SCT often doesn’t even have 26 teams qualify – but Manchester has the kind of upside that could play in this tournament, at least in the first round. Pair that potential with a matchup against a Red Bank Catholic team that has proven to be inconsistent and the Hawks have a legitimate shot to pull the upset. Should Manchester pull it off, a possible second-round match-up with Lakewood would at least present the Hawks with a familiar opponent.
If Lakewood does not make it to the round of 16, it will be because Southern successfully slows down the game against the Piners. Southern is at its best playing games in the 40’s and while Lakewood’s defense has been good enough to do the job in that kind of matchup, a low-scoring affair would give the Rams a shot. As previously-mentioned, Red Bank Catholic has been unpredictable, so if Southern can find a way past Lakewood, the Rams could either be playing a somewhat-vulnerable RBC squad or a Manchester team that upset the Caseys.
17. St. John Vianney
The SJV-Neptune game in the opening round is close to a 50-50 tossup but it is hard to see the Lancers entering a potential game at Manasquan with much of a chance. That is a similar situation to the one St. John Vianney faced last year, when it was the No. 16 seed with Ranney awaiting the winner of its first-round game with Jackson Liberty. SJV could not hold serve at home last season so perhaps this year, the Lancers will pull out the road win and earn a shot at the No. 1 seed.
The Bengals ended up with a more-than-manageable first-round draw, with Matawan hosting Barnegat in the opening round. Matawan has lost a first-round home game in each of the past two seasons to Ocean County squads – Brick in 2018 and Toms River East in 2019. While Matawan has more experience this season, Barnegat too boasts plenty of senior talent and a good blend of size, athleticism, skill and guard play. The winner of that first round game will face an uphill battle at Toms River North, but Barnegat is set up well to pull off the first-round road win.
First-Round Favorites; Second-Round Longshots
While Manasquan is unlikely to face much heat in its first SCT game, the Warriors could face a fair amount of resistance should Neptune get through the first round. The Scarlet Fliers have some depth, shooting and size to take into Manasquan for a potential round of 16 game and all of those things could play up should the No. 1 seed be without big man Alex Galvan. Coach Joe Fagan has a history of giving top teams tough games in tournament settings and as long as the Scarlet Fliers can put a full lineup on the floor, they should be able to get by SJV for the second time in two weeks and give Manasquan a game.
15. Mater Dei Prep
Mater Dei is a little more than a week removed from taking a one-point lead on Middletown South in the fourth quarter before losing control of the game in an 18-point loss to the No. 2 seed. The Seraphs are one win away from getting another shot at Middletown South and they have the pieces in place to withstand a first-round challenge from Point Boro. The question is whether or not Mater Dei can replicate its performance from Feb. 8 against Middletown South and finish the job, or will the Eagles catch fire and play the entire 32 minutes the way the played the final five against the Seraphs.
If Matawan can hit its stride, the Huskies can pose a threat to Toms River North in a potential second round game. On the flip side, Matawan has been just mercurial enough that Barnegat has a chance to become the third straight road underdog to upset the Huskies in the SCT opening round. Sometimes, it just takes one win to get a team over the hump and if Matawan can survive a tough Barnegat squad in round one, it has the talent and lineup balance to make Toms River North work in the round of 16.
The Roaring 20’s: High seeds that could do some damage
22. Toms River East
The Raiders are a year removed from toppling Matawan in a first-round road game and have the pieces in place to pull off a similar feat this season. Toms River South has a senior core of Mike Goodall, Ryan Goodall and Riley Engelhard and that trio should be able to hang tight with Manalapan – a team that won five games last season and is making its first SCT appearance in five years. Marlboro awaits the winner of that first-round game and while the Mustangs would be the favorite in either matchup, Toms River East’s experience, dynamic guard play and improving health from early in the season would give the Raiders a shot.
There are a number of teams that have played without a full lineup this year and Ocean falls into that category. The bad news is Ocean is likely to start the tournament as one of those teams, with senior Cole Kelly recovering from a broken nose. Ocean still has the athletes to play with Rumson and if the Spartans can shock the Bulldogs, they will match up reasonably well with Holmdel in the round of 16.
21. St. Rose
Not only has St. Rose demonstrated an ability to beat a top team with a win over Red Bank Catholic but its first-round opponent has two losses on its resume that suggest it is vulnerable. Freehold Township lost to Donovan Catholic and Freehold Boro during the regular season, so St. Rose makes the trip to play the Patriots with reason for hope. On top of that, the winner of that game plays Wall, which has not defeated a team seeded better than No. 14 in this tournament.
Teens in Toms River? (Double-digit quarterfinal threats)
13. Rumson-Fair Haven
The Bulldogs have shown over the course of this season that if there is a formula that gives them a chance to win a game, they are willing to try it. They have run line changes, pressed, slowed the game down – all to try to match up with opponents. That could make Rumson a challenging draw, which is why the Bulldogs probably would have preferred to play a team other than Holmdel, which is already familiar with the Bulldogs after having beaten them twice. Neither game was a runaway, though, so if Rumson can get past a talented Ocean team in the first round, it will have a chance against Holmdel in round two.
12. Freehold Township
Grabbing the No. 12 seed was a big break for Freehold Township, which did not qualify for the tournament until Saturday and had more warts on its resume than either Rumson or Mater Dei. Now that they are in that spot, the Patriots are set up to make some noise with their young, up-and-coming lineup that has put together some strong outings over the course of this season. The first round against a St. Rose team that was probably under-seeded makes for a competitive matchup but if Freehold Township can hold serve at home, the Patriots will play Wall – which has not faired all that well outside of Class B North this season. While Freehold Township hasn’t been the most consistent team this season, it is certainly one of the more battle-tested ones and the SCT has the potential to be a coming-out party for a team that starts four juniors and a freshman.
The first-round draw is dangerous, but Manalapan has a path to the quarterfinals, perhaps even the semifinals. The Braves drew No. 22 Toms River East in the opening round and will have to deal with guards Mike and Ryan Goodall, but beyond that first-round game, Manalapan has to like its chances. It is likely the winner between Manalapan and Toms River East will go to Marlboro and the Braves lost to the Mustangs by 11 combined points in two games. Manalapan also has the experience, balance and scoring prowess to keep up with Toms River North in a prospective quarterfinal game, so count the Braves among the teams seeded in the double-digits with a chance to make some noise.
Two Will Do: Teams that can make the quarterfinals and would be happy to do so
8. Christian Brothers Academy
It looked like CBA was going to barrel its way into the top six earlier in the week but the Colts ran into a revitalized Red Bank Catholic squad on Saturday and ended up settling for the No. 8 seed. That puts CBA into a very difficult position, with Ranney likely coming to the Academy in the round of 16 and No. 1 Manasquan likely awaiting the winner for the quarterfinals in Toms River. The Colts have a balanced lineup that is finally healthy, so they should be more than capable of playing a good game at home against Ranney, which could be enough to take down a young Panthers squad. With Manasquan looking nearly unbeatable – even when Alex Galvan is not in the lineup – it’s hard to see CBA’s tournament stay lasting pas the weekend, if it gets that far.
Although it seemed like everyone in the Shore Conference was playing for second last year anyway, it was still strange holding a Shore Conference Tournament without Lakewood in the field. It’s good to see the Piners back in the fold and with the way the bracket played out, this could be more than just a passing appearance for Lakewood. Southern represents a tough first-round opponent but Lakewood enters having taken care of similar opponents throughout its run to the B South title. After that, the Piners should have a great chance to tackle Red Bank Catholic on the road in a game that will pit RBC’s size and shooting vs. Lakewood’s length and quickness. If the Piners can win two games, they could also present an interesting challenge to Middletown South.
7. Red Bank Catholic
Just when it looks like the Caseys have finally revealed who they are, they always seem to change direction. The 15-point win over Wall in early January came out of nowhere, as did a two-point loss to Monmouth Regional on Feb. 7. The Monmouth loss coupled with some injury issues appeared to spell doom for RBC but the Caseys responded by nearly taking down Holmdel and then actually taking out CBA to cap the week. All that being said, RBC’s draw is not the easiest at No. 7. The Caseys will have to play a Manchester squad that is more talented then its No. 26 seed and assuming that goes as well as it needs to, RBC will then likely host a rapidly-improving Lakewood side. If the Caseys can survive all that, they are likely to be rewarded with a trip to Toms River to play Middletown South – which already handled the Caseys on the same court in December.
Final Four Contenders
Wall caught a huge break when it was gifted the No. 5 seed despite sporting a resume that was, by almost any objective measure, inferior to Marlboro’s (including a head-to-head 15-point loss to Mustangs). Yes, that means the Crimson Knights would have to play Manasquan before the final but it also means they don’t have to play any of Manasquan, Middletown South or Toms River North should they make it to Sunday in Toms River. Holmdel would be no picnic either but the Hornets will be more susceptible to an early loss than those other three and also represent a better matchup for Wall than any of the top three teams. Wall still has to get past either Freehold Township or St. Rose to make it to Toms River, but there is a road to the semifinals that is more manageable than expected.
No team has more of a reason to gripe about its seed than Marlboro. Seeding the Mustangs behind Wall is bordering on negligent on the part of the seeding committee. Forget the fact that Marlboro beat Wall by 15 points, although that is reason enough to complain. Both teams had the same number of losses and lost to good teams: Marlboro lost to the No. 2, No. 3 and No. 8 teams, while Wall lost to No. 1, No. 3, No. 6 and No. 7. Here is the clincher, though: Marlboro beat four teams (No. 8 CBA, No. 11 Manalapan, No. 12 Freehold Township and No. 13 Rumson) seeded higher than the highest-seeded team that Wall beat (No. 14 Matawan). Wall was also fortunate to beat Howell on a neutral floor – the same Howell team Marlboro beat twice by an average margin of 20. Factor in the aforementioned head-to-head result, and this should have been a layup.
Alas, Marlboro is stuck with the No. 6 seed and while it is almost certainly a worse draw (Marlboro will likely have to beat each of the top three seeds to win the championship), it is still not a bad spot for the Mustangs. Beyond the fact that Marlboro reached the 2017 championship game as a No. 6 seed, the Mustangs will like that this draw keeps them away from Manasquan until the final and gives them a potential quarterfinal game against a Toms River North squad that they have already seen once in the same setting. Getting there won’t be easy if Marlboro has to beat Manalapan for a third time but if the Mustangs, with all of their talent and Alex Ratner leading the way, are playing with a chip on their shoulder, they could be a very tough out.
While Manasquan is unquestionably the best team in the field, Ranney is the runaway winner for most intriguing team in the field. The Panthers have basically had three different teams over the course of the season and each of those versions have been inexperienced. The latest version is also very talented and it’s a good thing for Ranney because its draw is heavy. Just getting by Donovan Catholic will be a challenge in the opening round, then the Panthers will likely have to go win in CBA’s gym in order to reach the SCT quarterfinals for the third straight year. If Ranney gets through all of that, Manasquan likely awaits at Toms River. One potential positive about this draw: it might be better to get Manasquan in the quarterfinals than in the semis or final. Galvan is questionable for this week with his shin injury and the earlier a team draws the Warriors, the more of a chance it has to play them without the Player of the Year frontrunner.
Of all the teams to benefit or suffer from Marlboro’s under-seeding, Holmdel could be the greatest beneficiary. A quarterfinal game against Marlboro would have featured a clash of styles and likely would have prompted Holmdel to play fast and let the shots fly, like the Hornets did in Saturday’s impressive 19-point win at Manalapan. Instead, that prospective matchup is against Wall, which is likely to be a lower-scorer, more physical battle that should play to Holmdel’s strengths. It’s not all smooth sailing for Holmdel at No. 4 – the Hornets could have to beat a scrappy Rumson team for a third time this season and for a second straight year in the round of 16 in order to earn a second straight trip to the quarterfinals. Last year, it was Holmdel that went on the road as a No. 12 seed and beat No. 5 Rumson, so the Hornets will try to avoid a role-reversal.
The Championship Challengers
3. Toms River North
We have reached the group of teams that have looked all year like they can win a conference championship. While Manasquan has unquestionably earned the label of favorite, the next two seeds have the rosters and the pedigree to make it far. Toms River North has not been to an SCT championship game since 1996 and is looking at perhaps its best chance to make the final since that year. The Mariners will be on their home court for the entire tournament unless they make it to the championship game, so they have a built-in advantage over just about any opponent. Matawan could pose a challenge in the round of 16 and Marlboro will almost certainly be a tough out if the Mustangs make it to quarterfinal Sunday, but the Mariners have had the look of a Shore final four team and have the capacity to beat Middletown South in a potential semifinal showdown.
2. Middletown South
Since getting smacked by Manasquan in the WOBM Christmas Classic semifinals, Middletown South has rattled off 19 wins in a row and done so against a pretty challenging schedule. If the seeds hold true, Middletown South’s first two games of the tournament will be against teams it has already defeated in No. 15 Mater Dei Prep and No. 7 Red Bank Catholic. If Point Boro or Lakewood make it to either of those games, Middletown South should be plenty equipped to handle either curveball, which means a trip to the semifinals is a pretty safe-looking bet. In order to reach the SCT final for the first time in 10 years, Middletown South will likely have to go through Toms River North on its home floor, but the Eagles are just one year removed from beating the Mariners by double-figures at the same venue with many of the same players still on each roster. As far as beating Manasquan goes, the Eagles have the lineup balance, senior experience, and shooting to make it a better game the second time around.
Although there is some concern that Alex Galvan could miss time in the tournament with a shin bruise, the Warriors have already proven they can win without him over the course of the season, however unsettling that proposition may be. They nearly took out Roselle Catholic without him, beat a state-ranked St. Peter’s Prep handily and beat RBC by large margins twice with Galvan out. Manasquan’s draw is much tougher than most No. 1 seeds face, with a capable Neptune team potentially coming in for the round of 16 and Ranney and CBA likely battling for a shot at Manasquan in the quarterfinals. If healthy, Manasquan will be the overwhelming favorite and while any injury issues make the Warriors more vulnerable, they are still the most likely team to hold the trophy at the end of the tournament – something Manasquan has not done since 1957.