Boys Basketball – NJSIAA Tournament Preview: The Shore in Group 1
Over the last decade-and-a-half, Group I has been a platform for the Shore Conference to shine, if not always as an overall group champion (Asbury Park in 2011 and 2012, Point Pleasant Beach in 2013), then as a Central Jersey Group I champ (Shore in 2015, Point Beach in 2014 and 2018).
Last year, the sectional was both kind and cruel to the Shore's benchmark Group I team. Keyport reached the sectional final round for the first time since 2004 and nearly completed a shocking second-half comeback, but came up a point shy in losing to three-time defending sectional champion Burlington City.
As the 2023 Group I Tournament gets set to tip off at 10 a.m. on President's Day, three Shore Conference teams enter with legitimate hopes of winning the section. It doesn't hurt that Burlington City was moved to the South Jersey bracket, but in the Blue Devils' place is a new No. 1 seed for the Shore's three primary contenders -- and a pair of underdogs -- to chase.
Central Jersey Group I
Shore Teams in the Field: No. 2 Shore, No. 3 Point Pleasant Beach, No. 4 Keyport, No. 8 Keansburg, No. 10 Henry Hudson
Top Seed: Eagle Academy
Defending Champion: Burlington City (South Group I in 2023)
Favorite: Eagle Academy. This is a very tentative title for Eagle Academy, which does not have a championship history, nor does it have a home gym. While the all-boys Newark charter school will host every game, those games will be at Weequahic High School. While the homecourt advantage might be less of a factor, Eagle Academy’s challenging schedule within Newark and around Essex County should make the top seed tough to beat. Shore will give it a good run, as the Blue Devils enter the tournament having won seven out of their last eight, with the lone loss coming by five points at Toms River North – the No. 2 team in the South Group IV section.
Darkhorse: No. 12 Brearley. With a schedule that consists mostly of Group II opponents, the Bears enter the tournament knowing they can compete with larger programs, even though they will be on the road. The first-round matchup at Highland Park should be a winnable one for Brearley and if the Bears earn a trip to Keyport, they will be a pesky opponent for a Red Raiders team that is the healthiest it has been all year. If the run continues into the sectional semifinals, Eagle Academy would be on upset watch against the No. 12 seed. Going to the power-point format to seed the tournament has made runs by double-digit seeds in Group I less common, but there is a real possibility of it this year.
Bracket Breakdown: With three-time defending champion Burlington City shifting to South Jersey this season, the Central Group I bracket is wide open. Shore Regional eyes its first sectional title since 2015 after winning a first-round game a year ago and bringing just about its entire team back. Point Beach has one of the bracket’s best players in Kevin Burns and has challenged itself throughout the season to prepare for this run. Keyport has 6-foot-9 Nas Hart back after the sophomore missed most of the year with a hip injury, which did not prevent the Red Raiders from winning a share of the Class B Central division title and racking up 14 regular-season wins.
Keansburg and Henry Hudson will both have a chance to win a game, with Henry Hudson hoping to lay the groundwork for a nice run over the next few years. With a lot of Shore representation, there is not only a chance for the locals to make some noise, but there are three legitimate championship contenders in Shore, Point Beach and Keyport. Asbury Park was set to be the No. 13 seed, but an incident during a game at Toms River East earlier this week resulted in multiple suspensions and a subsequent disqualification from the NJSIAA Tournament. With Asbury Park out of the tournament, Keyport gets a bye into the quarterfinals.
Championship Prediction: Eagle Academy over Shore. Slight edge to Eagle Academy for hosting the championship game in Newark, but Shore is a real threat. The Blue Devils are playing their best basketball heading into the tournament and while Point Beach has been dangerous enough to keep in mind as a potential finalist, the Blue Devils look poised to get to the final. After reaching the sectional final a year ago and nearly erasing a 20-point deficit at Burlington City, Keyport is back in the hunt with a new-look lineup that could pose problems for any team in the section. A semifinal at Eagle Academy could, ultimately, produce a sectional champion.
(1) Eagle Academy over (16) STEM Civics
(9) South Hunterdon over (8) Keansburg
(12) Brearley over (5) Highland Park
(4) Keyport d. (13) Asbury Park (forfeit)
(3) Point Beach over (14) Somerset Tech
(6) Manville over (11) South Amboy
(7) Florence over (10) Henry Hudson
(2) Shore over (15) Dunellen
(1) Eagle Academy over (9) South Hunterdon
(4) Keyport over (12) Brearley
(3) Point Beach over (6) Manville
(2) Shore over (7) Florence
(1) Eagle Academy over (4) Keyport
(2) Shore over (3) Point Beach
(1) Eagle Academy over (2) Shore