Boys Basketball – SCT: Breaking Down the Field
The first stage of Shore Conference Tournament speculation is over, which means its time for some more speculation before the games start and there is only intermittent speculation between rounds. A total of 27 teams are gearing up for this year’s SCT, which means 22 of them will be playing when the tournament opens up on Tuesday evening.
The expectation level for each team varies a great between Nos. 1 and 27, but every team has a goal – whether it’s to win one game, make it to Toms River for the quarterfinals, to win the whole thing or to simply sharper their skills for a more manageable NJSIAA Tournament bracket.
What follows is a breakdown of each team in the field and their odds at a deep run in the tournament, beginning with the teams least likely to win the whole thing and working down to the favorites. As a matter of organization, the teams have been separated into different groups based on what the expectation level is heading into the tournament.
Happy to Be Here – These teams could plausibly win a game, but it would be a surprise. Two wins would make for an improbable run.
26. Asbury Park
The Blue Bishops fell off the proverbial cliff after winning back-to-back Group I titles in 2011 and 2012 and the climb back to a winning season has been a long one for a proud program. The Blue Bishops have made it, however, and are back in the Shore Conference Tournament for the first time in six years and are actually battle-tested enough that they could knock off a handful of teams in the field if given the opportunity. Manasquan might not be among those handful of teams, but Asbury Park has seen the best this tournament has to offer and won’t back down from the challenge.
23. Brick Memorial
Since starting the season 3-0, Brick Memorial has had a quiet go of it this season, with a second win over Brick standing as the lone highlight since the Mustangs suffered their first loss of the season to Marlboro. They will get another crack at Marlboro in round one and will face a Mustangs team (yes, this is a battle of Mustangs) that is playing its best basketball of the season, evidenced by a win over CBA on Friday. There is a strong argument to be made that Brick Memorial has a tougher first-round game than Southern, as well as a tougher potential round-of-16 game if it pulls off the upset.
Southern is the last seed in the tournament, but that is because it lost to Asbury Park at home without its No. 1 backcourt scoring threat. Senior Jake DuBois is now healthy and that could potentially give the Rams a shot to win at the Cougar Den if Colts Neck has one of its off-shooting nights. Should Southern spring the upset, it’s hard to see Point Beach having a letdown like the one it did against Central earlier in the year, but the fact that the Golden Eagles can beat the Garnet Gulls means Southern might be able to if they are lucky enough to get the opportunity. It’s still a longshot, but something to hang onto for the Rams.
The Green Dragons have two scorers who could potentially catch fire and carry them to a first-round upset over a lot of opponents, which is reason enough to keep an eye on Brick during Tuesday’s first round. On top of that, Brick plays a Matawan team that, while it has not had any major slip-ups this season, has allowed a lot of inferior opponents to hang around until the final buzzer. That combination of factors gives Brick a real shot and the only reason it’s hard to consider the Green Dragons a legitimate sleeper to make the quarterfinals is because their second-round opponent would likely be Toms River North – which had little trouble beating Brick in Toms River last week to sweep the regular-season series.
At different points this season, Raritan has played both Rumson and Matawan tough, albeit in games it ultimately lost. The Rockets have a junior-heavy group that should be rounding into form at this time of year and the fact that they have competed against to of the top 10 teams in the field says they should be able to handle themselves on the road against Toms River North. The Mariners are also playing at a high level, so Raritan remains a considerable underdog, but the Rockets have played teams at this level and played pretty well against them.
Hello, Goodbye – All of these teams have a really good shot at winning their first game, but would face daunting tasks in the round of 16.
17. Middletown South
The Eagles had to battle some injuries during the tail-end of their regular-season schedule and leading scorer Ryan Purcell struggled a bit as he approached 1,000 points, but the team is now healthy and Purcell looks back in form heading into tournament time. While Middletown South has proven it can beat the likes of Ocean, the Eagles haven’t been able to get over the hump against teams ranked ahead of them, notably Red Bank Catholic, Manasquan and Rumson. Middletown South will be charged up to beat Barnegat on the road and that could very well happen, but winning at Ranney in the second round seems far-fetched.
Just about everything stated above regarding Middletown South applies to Barnegat, with a few distinctions. First of all, Barnegat is one of the Shore’s hottest teams, having won eight in a row and 15 out of 17 – a stretch that included a win on the road over Tuesday’s opponent, Middletown South. Barnegat is also hosting an SCT game for the first time and is made up of a group of players who were all starters on last year’s team, which let a golden opportunity slip away at Central in the SCT opening round last year. All of those factors could drive Barnegat to a win on Tuesday, but won’t mean much if they have to head north to play Bryan Antoine, Scottie Lewis and Ranney.
Ranney has been better than Mater Dei over the course of this season, but both of those teams remain heavy favorites against the rest of the field. If Lakewood can beat a dangerous Ocean team at home on Tuesday night, the Piners would earn a trip to play Mater Dei in the round of 16, which would be a tough matchup for a Piners team that doesn’t really have the size that could possibly give the Seraphs problems. Lakewood will, however, play hard, as they showed in a tough loss to a quality Paterson Kennedy team, so Mater Dei would at least have to earn that win.
Ocean’s chances of boarding the bus out of Lakewood a winner on Tuesday night are about 50-50, but the Spartans probably have the personnel that is better equipped to give Mater Dei a fight that lasts into the fourth quarter. The Spartans already have a win over Neptune to their credit, which should provide a window into how Ocean could win a big game against one of the Shore’s better teams. It’s not an ideal scenario for Ocean, but its one the Spartans should be ready to tackle.
21. Toms River East
The Raiders aren’t necessarily better than the four teams listed before them, but the draw they have is more forgiving. Toms River East could even make a case to join the following group, although the potential round-of-16 matchup with CBA does not appear to be a favorable one for a Toms River East team that gives up its fair share of points. On the flip side, beating RBC on the road is very much on the table and the Raiders were very impressive in beating a quality Ridge program, which suggests maybe the Raiders do have a run in them if they can string two good games together.
Second-tier Sleepers – These teams have a good-to-fair shot at winning in the first round and a round-of-16 matchup that gives them at least a puncher’s chance at making it to the quarterfinals.
Pinelands is in the Shore Conference Tournament on the boys side for just the second time in school history and the last time the Wildcats were in it, they were overwhelmed on the road against Colts Neck two years ago. They would love to get another shot at Colts Neck, because it would mean Pinelands won its first ever Shore Conference Tournament game by beating Point Beach in the first round. Point Beach has its full roster heading into the postseason, but the Garnet Gulls did show some vulnerability in losing to Central and Pinelands, meanwhile, has stepped up and beaten quality teams like Ocean, Barnegat, Lakewood and Point Boro. If the Wildcats can take their act on the road, they could be an under-the-radar threat to win a couple of games.
The Hornets have the look of a team that has improved over the course of the season, even if they enter the postseason a modest 11-9 overall without a lot of wins against teams in the SCT field. They compete hard on both ends of the floor despite an obvious lack of size and have not backed down when tasked with facing teams like Rumson and Matawan, the latter of which edged Holmdel by four points last week. The Hornets also have a win over a quality A.L. Johnson squad earlier in the year, so this is an improving group that is more than capable of knocking off Point Boro and giving Neptune a headache in the round of 16.
Most every coach who has seen Howell is in agreement: the Rebels have top-10, perhaps even top-five talent. For whatever reason, however, they have not been able to get synced up and beat the better teams on their schedule. With that in mind, they are a talented team that will play another inconsistent entrant in the tournament in Middletown North on Tuesday and would not have to play either of the top two seeds if they win. Howell certainly has the capacity to win at Middletown North and Rumson has let some teams hang around during their 19-1 season. Maybe Howell could be the team to make the Bulldogs pay, but they will have to win a game to get a shot.
13. Point Pleasant Boro
The Panthers stumbled their way into the SCT with a loss to Barnegat, a narrow win over an ailing Donovan Catholic team and a loss at Pinelands. Despite that, Point Boro got a very favorable seed that gets them an undersized-but-gritty Holmdel team in round one and Neptune in a potential round-of-16 game. Point Boro has the varsity experience to be a dangerous team in the postseason and Neptune doesn’t light up the scoreboard to the point that the Fliers will run Point Boro out of the gym. Point Boro would indeed be the underdog in that game and is no lock to beat Holmdel, but all things considered, the Panthers got a very nice draw and could pose some problems for Neptune.
12. Red Bank Catholic
Like Point Boro, RBC is not entering the tournament on a high note, having lost four of five games. On the bright side, the Caseys have lost to Rumson, Ocean, Long Branch and CBA and defeated Middletown South during that stretch, so it’s not like the sky is falling. The Caseys have already picked up wins over Point Boro, Marlboro and Manasquan and with a couple of days off to regroup, should come out strong against a Toms River East team that has a lot of players who can score. CBA beat RBC on Saturday, so maybe there is a payback factor if the Caseys can earn a rematch with the Colts, which would be at CBA this time around.
Semifinal Longshots – All four of these teams are good enough to make it to Toms River for the quarterfinals, but would have to get through one of the top two seeds to make it any further.
The Huskies have quietly gone about their business for most of the year, taking care of the teams they are supposed to beat with a couple of noteworthy wins along the way. Assuming Matawan can get past Brick in round one, it will have a chance to really make its season when it heads south for a likely date with Toms River North in the round of 16. Not only would that be a chance for Matawan to reach 20 wins, but it would give the Huskies their third trip to the SCT quarterfinals in the last six years, this time with a new group of players – although Mike Dunne and Reggie Tawiah both had older brothers on those teams. It’s hard to see Matawan – which is still a sophomore-heavy rotation beyond Dunne and Tawiah – hanging with Ranney in the quarterfinals, but the Huskies are good enough to get the chance.
8. Toms River North
Last year’s Toms River North team proved by the end of the year it could play with any team in the Shore and any public school in the state. This year’s Mariners team isn’t as explosive as last year’s group, but it has some size, depth and emerging perimeter scoring that makes Toms River North a balanced, dangerous team at this time of year. The Mariners will be playing home games up until the championship game with the quarterfinals and semifinals at RWJ Barnabas Health Arena, so at the very least, they will get a chance to play Ranney in their gym if they can win two games. With the depth and variety its has, Toms River North could be a candidate to challenge Ranney.
This one shouldn’t take much convincing considering Marlboro is one year removed from stunning Ranney in the SCT semifinals and going to the fourth quarter of the SCT final against Mater Dei in a close game before running out of gas. Three of the six rotation-members – Dylan Kaufman, Justin Marcus and Brian Levine – from that Mustangs team are back this year and Marlboro has added a sophomore standout in Alex Ratner and a capable and improving three-point shooter Eddie Paladino to the lineup with Kaufman, Levine and Marcus. The Mustangs will have to get by a motivated Manasquan team to get to the quarterfinals against Mater Dei, but should Marlboro get there, few teams have proven more capable of springing an upset of that magnitude.
Marlboro may have the more recent Cinderella history, but Manasquan has the personnel and the depth to make life difficult on Mater Dei should the two teams meet at the quarterfinals in Toms River. The Warriors also have the chip on their shoulder to get past a challenge from Marlboro, which handed Manasquan its first loss of the season and did so when the Warriors were without big men Alex Galvan and Xander Korolik. With a healthy rotation, the Warriors have the size and toughness on the interior to give Mater Dei a real challenge, particularly if Brad McCabe and Emilio Stevenson are on-target from the outside.
The Top-tier Sleepers – These two teams have been lying in the weeds and got a draw that gives them a chance to do some serious damage.
14. Middletown North
Howell could very easily assume this spot in the pecking order by beating Middletown North, but given what the Lions did last week to get into the tournament and the fact that they will be the team that has Rob Higgins on its side, the Lions enter with an edge over a lot of teams. Getting past a talented, athletic Howell squad will not be easy, but if Middletown North can do it, the Lions have the kind of team that could topple Rumson. In past years, Rumson was always the team that could upset a top seed with all of its shooting, but this time around, it would be Middletown North with the shooters and Rumson with the size.
11. Point Pleasant Beach
Losing to Central on the road might have been the best thing that happened to Point Beach because it bumped the Garnet Gulls from settling into the No. 8 or 9 spot and having to potentially play Ranney in the quarterfinals, to sitting at No. 11 and being two wins away from a rematch against Rumson. In the first meeting in Point Pleasant, the Gulls lost to the Bulldogs by only four and that was before either Mohamed Traore or Chris Pina were eligible. If Point Beach can get past Pinelands at home and a sound Colts Neck team on the road, they would be a very tough matchup for whichever team survives the Rumson-Middletown North-Howell triumvirate.
6. Colts Neck
In a lot of ways, Colts Neck has been the most predictable team in the field. The Cougars lost twice each to CBA and Neptune and beat literally every other team on its schedule without taking a loss. That seems to suggest that the Cougars might have trouble getting over the hump against Rumson in a potential quarterfinal game but should be favored against a team like Point Beach in the round of 16. Of course, it’s always more complicated than that because the Cougars played CBA tough in one of the games and had a chance to win and did the same in its most recent meeting with Neptune. By the same token, they needed a buzzer-beater to survive Marlboro at home, which suggests the Cougars could be both vulnerable against Point Beach but also a legitimate contender to reach the semifinals. It’s the difference of a play here and a shot there, which is impossible to predict.
5. Christian Brothers Academy
CBA had a rough finish to the regular season, going 2-3 with losses to Cherokee, Neptune and Marlboro after winning 10 straight. The Colts have been on both ends of the spectrum and will try to regroup and get going again during the postseason and should have an SCT path that is conducive to that. CBA will see either Red Bank Catholic or Toms River East in its first SCT game and should be relatively safe in that game, but a rematch with Neptune raises some fair questions about how the Colts match up with a Fliers team that beat them by 17 in the last meeting. There is also the question of point guard Liam Kennedy’s health after he suffered a hip injury against Marlboro, so while CBA has the balance to beat anybody on a given day, the events of the last week present just a little bit of doubt about the Colts’ staying power.
While CBA’s stock has dropped some in the last week, Neptune’s is as high as its been in the six years since the Scarlet Fliers last won the Shore Conference Tournament. Neptune is 11-2 over its last 13 games, a stretch that won it the first division title for the program since that SCT championship season of 2011-12. The two losses also came on the road against CBA by one point and on a neutral court against Montclair Immaculate by a four-point margin. Montclair Immaculate also has wins over Ranney and Mater Dei, so there is actual evidence that Neptune can play on the level of Ranney and Mater Dei and the prospect of the Scarlet Fliers beating both to win the conference is real.
3. Rumson-Fair Haven
Rumson might wind up with the toughest round-of-16 game of any team among the top five seeds, regardless of whether or not it is Howell or Middletown North that makes the trip to the Dawg Pound. There is also a case to be made that the Bulldogs will have the most favorable quarterfinal matchup, depending on which of Colts Neck, Manasquan and Toms River North you favor. Rumson has operated most of the season without the shooting it has had in years past, but with the return of Jack Solano and the ability of Teddy Sourlis to catch fire from three-point range, the Bulldogs are never far from a hot shooting night. They can probably get by without that red-hot shooting for the first two games, but once the Bulldogs face Mater Dei, that shooting might be the difference between winning or losing.
2. Mater Dei Prep
The two-time defending champions could potentially be considered a co-favorite in this year’s tournament and are certainly in the mix to win the tournament and become the third team ever and first since CBA in 1995 to win three in a row. The only reason the Seraphs are bunched with this group is because they did not beat Ranney in either regular-season meeting and are not as deep as they were in either in the last two years, when they wore teams down if they weren’t already blowing them out. There is definitely an avenue for Mater Dei to beat Ranney and the Seraphs had chances to beat the Panthers at home, but if it does come down to the top two seeds in the final and both are healthy, Mater Dei will be the underdog.
It hasn’t been all smooth sailing for Ranney this season, and that might be even more reason to believe this will be the year the Panthers’ talented junior class plants its flag at the top of the Shore Conference mountain. Ranney has played 10 games with at least one starter missing and that does not include the games in which one of the starters got hurt, like when Scottie Lewis went down against Point Beach and when Alex Klatsky injured his ankle against St. Rose. Klatsky could miss the early part of the tournament and even if he can’t get healthy for the last couple of rounds, the Panthers have the horses to get by everybody in this field. Ranney’s thin bench could become a factor at some point between now and the middle of March, but as long as the Panthers five of its top six players healthy, the Panthers will be the favorite.