Boys Basketball – SCT: Breaking Down the Field
The Shore Conference Tournament begins on Tuesday evening with 26 teams playing 13 opening-round games and three more enjoying byes to Thursday’s round of 16, and all 29 of those teams are dreaming big with the entire postseason ahead of them. Of course, only eight will have a chance to play on the premier day of basketball in the Shore Conference – the SCT quarterfinals at Brookdale on Sunday – and only one is going to be hoisting up the trophy at the Multipurpose Activities Center at Monmouth on Feb. 27.
While the tournament is all about crowning that winner, the thrill is in the chase, and a lot can happen during that chase for the title. In this particular year, the top eight seeds in the tournament look awfully solid, but that doesn’t mean another team can’t crash the party on Sunday.
Below is a look at each of the 29 teams in the field broken down into 11 tiers and in the order of their chances to make a deep run. In a tournament like this, the matchups are more important that the seeds and this exercise in an attempt to find the teams that have the matchups conducive to a big run, even if the seeding suggests otherwise.
State Tournament Tune-up
29. Henry Hudson (10-10, 4-10)
It has been 10 years since Henry Hudson was in the Shore Conference Tournament and the Admirals nearly pulled a first-round upset as a No. 26 seed in their last foray into the SCT. This time, they will be facing a Toms River North team with a lot of firepower and while the Admirals are battle-tested in B Central (you read that right), they are heavy underdogs. The state tournament should bear some fruit, but this is likely a one-and-done mission.
27. Point Pleasant Boro (10-9, 7-7)
The Panthers have adjusted to life without John Venturi (torn ACL) and are showing signs that perhaps they could be a potential dark horse during the early part of one of the tournaments. The tough thing for Point Boro is they will have to play at Rumson-Fair Haven in the first round and if the Panthers somehow pulled that off, next would be a Manchester squad that handled them in the second meeting between the teams, which was shortly after Venturi got hurt. With a better draw, Point Boro might have been a little more viable, but this is a really steep hill to climb.
26. Jackson Memorial (9-9, 7-7)
The Jaguars showed a few times this year that they can beat teams in the middle of the field and for that reason, perhaps they deserved a little more regard from the seeding committee. As it is, however, Jackson Memorial will have to go to Lakewood in the first round, which just does not seem like a favorable match-up at all. If the Jaguars were to win that game, a match-up at Point Beach or Raritan probably favors them a little more than a game at Manchester would Point Boro.
25. Brick (13-8, 8-6)
The Green Dragons are in the tournament for the first time in nine years and their reward is a trip to Ranney in the first round. Given Ranney’s youth, maybe Brick can make some inroads in that match-up and shoot the ball well enough to have a shot at an upset, which they have proven they can pull off with wins over Southern and Monroe. If Brick can beat Ranney, it should also have a shot against Freehold Township. It would certainly be a surprise to see Brick at Brookdale, but that’s more because of the draw than because of its roster. Then again, the last time the Green Dragons were in the tournament, they did make it to the quarterfinals.
28. Central (11-11, 5-9)
Ceiling is important when looking for potential sleepers and Central just might have enough of a ceiling to be a legitimate sleeper. Colts Neck is one of the more sound teams in the tournament, but the Cougars are not an especially dynamic offensive team, so a good gameplan and good execution by a young Central team that is starting to come around could keep the Golden Eagles in that game. The Toms River North and Colts Neck lines of the bracket are probably the two most favorable draws, so in that regard, this seed was a pretty good get for Central, even if the Golden Eagles are still considerable underdogs.
22. Matawan (11-11, 7-7)
The Huskies have struggled lately (3-5 over their last eight) and will have to go take on a Manchester team with three legitimate scoring options in the opening round. While that game is not impossible for Matawan, a win would earn the Huskies a trip to Rumson, which would inch closer to impossible. While a slump leading into the tournament is not a disqualifier of any kind, this draw is quite the buzzkill for Matawan. One win would be a great showing for first-year coach John Giraldo and a team that was supposed to be rebuilding this year.
24. Ocean (12-9, 6-8)
The Spartans are a spot ahead of Matawan on this list because they have played a little better lately, but their draw is almost as tough, perhaps even more so. Ocean is good enough to go into Freehold Township and surprise the Patriots, but in order to make a significant run, the Spartans will likely have to go through Ranney in the round of 16. If they have to worry about taking on top-seeded Mater Dei in a quarterfinal matchup, that’s a burden they would gladly bear.
Good Teams, Bad Draws
16. Marlboro (13-7, 9-5)
This is the portion of the field filled with teams in the 15-to-18 range that have to win a tough-but-winnable first-round game and then go play in the gym of a tournament favorite. In Marlboro’s case, they get to host St. John Vianney in round one and the Mustangs might be a favorite to advance in that one. Unfortunately for them, they would then draw Mater Dei and considering Marlboro thrives on a pressing, up-tempo style, they are probably playing right into the hands of the top seed should that match-up come to pass.
15. Middletown North (13-8, 9-4)
Like Marlboro, Middletown North has a pretty good chance to win in the first round, but the Lions were non-competitive in their first meeting against CBA, which is the team awaiting them should they beat St. Rose. Middletown North is a team that lives and dies by the three-pointer, so perhaps that bodes well for them as a potential underdog. On the flip side, CBA pretty much always lives by the three.
19. Red Bank (11-10, 7-7)
While Red Bank does not have to get through either Mater Dei or CBA to get to Brookdale, the Bucs have a tough match-up in the first round, followed by a trip to play Manasquan if they can survive Tuesday’s challenge. Red Bank is certainly capable of beating Southern, but it will take an above-average offensive game and a great defensive effort against a team used to playing into the sixties and seventies on the scoreboard.
17. St. John Vianney (13-8, 8-4)
Red Bank has a better draw than the Lancers, but St. John Vianney’s talented, senior-heavy roster makes them a legitimately tough match-up for almost anybody. Unfortunately for the Lancers, they could not escape the mid-teens to get away from Mater Dei and CBA, so their second-round fate would be a trip to play the top-seeded Seraphs. If nothing else, if SJV does get past Marlboro, Mater Dei will have to be sharp in their SCT opener.
18. St. Rose (13-9, 9-5)
Although St. Rose may end up CBA’s sacrificial lamb on Thursday, the Purple Roses can go in knowing that they have already played four games against two of the best teams in the field. One reason to favor St. Rose over the rest of this grouping of teams is because on top of being one of the most battle-tested teams in the field, the Roses are also playing their best basketball of the season right now. It still might not even be enough to come out of Middletown North with a win, but it shouldn’t be a shock to see St. Rose within a few scores of CBA sometime around 6 p.m. on Thursday.
23. Raritan (10-10, 5-7)
The Rockets went just 1-9 against teams in the Shore Conference Tournament, so it would seem at first glance that they are not built to last in a tournament made up of a bunch of teams similar to the ones Raritan had trouble beating all season. Raritan was, however, feisty in late-season games against Rumson and Manasquan and the Rockets did test themselves quite a bit during the season, even if they lost most of those tests. They will face another battle-hardened team in Point Beach Tuesday night and that has a chance to be an even game. If Raritan can somehow pull that off, the Rockets can probably put together a decent effort against Lakewood and maybe give themselves a shot late.
20. Donovan Catholic (12-8, 10-4)
The Griffins are not playing the way they would like to be playing heading into the tournament, but this draw could not have gone much better for a Donovan Catholic team hoping the start of the postseason will have a rejuvenating effect. At the beginning of the season, Donovan Catholic looked like a team that could push for a top-10 seed in this tournament and if the Griffins find that form again, they are capable of challenging Toms River East and potentially Toms River North in the following round. If they were playing a little better heading in, they would be a real sleeper to get to Brookdale and perhaps even beyond. Then again, if they were playing better, they would have been seeded better.
21. Holmdel (10-9, 6-6)
Since Donovan Catholic has been a little inconsistent of late, the title of “sleeper” goes to Holmdel, a relatively inexperienced team heading into the season that is peaking late and has a history of postseason over-performance in its recent history. Last year, Holmdel rolled into Red Bank as a No. 15 seed in the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group III first round, shot the lights out, and knocked off the second-seeded Bucs. This year’s team has been better than last year’s to this point and with respect to this particular tournament, the draw could not have worked out much better. The four teams that have looked like legitimate threats to win this tournament this year are CBA, Mater Dei, Rumson and Manasquan and Holmdel can’t see any of those teams until the semifinals. While the Hornets still have to perform and are still legitimate underdogs, they play a Long Branch team Tuesday night that is capable of a poor shooting night.
The Wild Card
14. Southern (14-7, 10-4)
If the Rams were one spot higher in the seeding, they would be a real threat to reach the final four. That still is not out of the question, but the road is going to be much more perilous under the current set of circumstances. Southern opens the tournament against a Jekyll-and-Hyde Red Bank team that is capable of bothering Southern with its athleticism and perhaps even winning if it can find some scoring. If Southern can flex its scoring muscles in that game, they could ignite a run. The talent that has been in place over the last four years suggests the Rams are overdue for a trip to Brookdale and with Peyton Wejnert and Ethan Dubois as senior captains, motivation shouldn’t be an issue. With the top scorer in the conference in Wejnert and improving guard play, Southern should be able to play with anyone in the field not named Mater Dei or CBA.
11. Manchester (15-5, 11-3)
While the plight of this group does not match that of seeds 14 through 19, it still is tough to draw the 7-to-11 range of seeds in a deep tournament like this one. In Manchester’s case, the Hawks have shown an ability to step up and challenge top-10 caliber teams, evidenced by a win over and another competitive game against Lakewood, as well as a competitive loss to Freehold Township after the Patriots routed them in the first half. The Hawks are capable of giving Rumson problems in a potential round-of-16 game, but considering the two teams played in the state tournament last year, Manchester won’t be sneaking up on the Bulldogs.
10. Point Beach (13-9, 9-5)
If Point Beach can get past the first round, they will get a chance to go to Lakewood and upset the Piners in the round of 16 for the second straight year. Given how challenging Point Beach’s schedule was this year, the Garnet Gulls should be ready to play any team in this tournament, but it remains to be seen how many of them they can actually beat. Lakewood falls under the category of teams Point Beach could potentially knock off, but this year’s Gulls team does not have the firepower that last year’s team had. Despite that, Point Beach has a real chance to get back to the quarterfinals for a fourth straight year, even if that hypothetical run probably comes to an end against CBA.
9. Freehold Township (15-7, 10-4)
The Patriots certainly didn’t get a great draw, but they go into the tournament with two games against CBA under their belt. While Point Beach and St. Rose can use two games against Mater Dei each as a frame of reference in this tournament, Freehold Township acquitted itself better against CBA than those two did against Mater Dei. That might not mean much if it turns out Mater Dei is significantly better than CBA, but for now, it suggests Freehold Township is prepared to go to Ranney and walk out with a free trip to Brookdale on Sunday to play Mater Dei. The fact that they have to go through both of those B Central powers probably isn’t ideal, but they should be as ready as a team can be for the challenge.
The Double-Digit Darlings
13. Toms River East (13-5, 10-4)
It could be that Manchester, Point Beach and Freehold Township are better than the two teams in this tier, but the draw matters. Ultimately, this tournament comes down to who can win high-level games, but the best handful of teams in this tournament won’t stand in Toms River East’s way until the semifinals. With all due respect to Toms River North and Colts Neck, Manasquan and Rumson are the public school teams to avoid in the field and Toms River East would not see either of those teams – or Mater Dei and CBA – until the semifinals. The Raiders will be living in Toms River in the first two rounds against Donovan Catholic and Toms River North and they have already shown they can run with the Mariners. If Toms River East can get through those two games, they are capable of beating Colts Neck or Long Branch at Brookdale and getting back to Toms River for the semifinals. That’s a realistic scenario for a team that has not been in this field since 2008. Not bad.
12. Long Branch (14-6, 11-3)
The Green Wave has just enough trouble shooting the ball at times to be vulnerable to an upset but is deep and talented enough to make a serious play for a spot in the final four, especially with this draw. Holmdel will be a pain to play in round one, but if Long Branch can survive that upset bid by the Hornets, they would get a likely trip to Colts Neck for a rubber match with the Cougars with a spot in the quarterfinals on the line. Toms River North would likely be waiting at Brookdale and the Green Wave have to like their chances against that line of teams. What has already been a major turnaround season for Long Branch has a chance to become extra special over the next week.
7. Lakewood (17-4, 13-1)
More than any year in recent memory, this field looks like it is going to succumb to chalk. While there will be a fair chance for an upset or two, the top eight seeds are going to be considerable favorites in the round of 16. The bright side of the top eight seeds getting to Brookdale is that the match-ups that day would be must-see. Lakewood probably has the longest shot of the teams in the top eight simply because of what the Piners have to go through to win it. While they could very well be better than every team in the field other than Mater Dei and CBA, they would likely have to beat of those teams to win it, plus either Rumson or Manasquan in the semifinals. Throw in a potential showdown with Point Beach in the round of 16, and it’s clear that if Lakewood is going to win a second SCT title in four years, the Piners are going to earn it.
8. Ranney (18-2, 12-2)
It’s quite possible that Ranney is the second best team in the Shore Conference and we will never know for sure because the Panthers keep running to the No. 1 team before getting to play anyone else in the top eight. The No. 8 seed was a rough draw for an 18-2 team that only lost to Mater Dei and had a measurably better resume than division-winners Colts Neck and Lakewood. At the same time, if the Panthers can crack the code against Mater Dei on the third try, they will be favorites against whichever team awaits in the semifinals. Any team that can beat Mater Dei can win the tournament and even with a tough road, Ranney is going to have a chance to do both with a team that starts four freshmen.
4. Toms River North (19-2, 14-0)
There is still a level of uncertainty about the Mariners despite their 19 wins and it all stems from the nightmare game against CBA in last year’s semifinals. For anyone whose only look at Toms River North last year was that 39-5 first half, it’s hard to envision the Mariners coming back this year and seriously challenging for the conference title. On the bright side, this Toms River North team is more experienced, more athletic and overall a little better than last year’s team. On top of that, the Mariners got a good draw, which they benefitted from last year as well. They don’t run into Rumson, Manasquan, CBA, Mater Dei, Lakewood or Ranney until the semifinals and while Toms River East, Colts Neck or Long Branch could all make for stumbling blocks, Toms River North has every reason to expect to be back in the semifinals this year and prove that it can, in fact, play with the top teams in the conference.
5. Colts Neck (16-3, 12-2)
The Cougars are proof that you never know when you might be playing in the most important game of the regular season. Of course Colts Neck had to beat the likes of Long Branch and Red Bank in order to win the B North title, but a double-overtime, December win at Rumson-Fair Haven could be the game that sets up Colts Neck for a serious run at a conference title. The Cougars run hot-and-cold offensively, but they are senior-laden, they defend, and they have a potential breakout star of the tournament in Lloyd Daniels. While most of the Shore knows Daniels for his stats and his bloodline, this tournament is a chance to take that to another level, kind of like Brendan Barry did last year. It’s hard to see Colts Neck matching up with Mater Dei, but how many times have we seen some other team do the dirty work by knocking out the top seeds while a team from the other side of the bracket benefits at the end? With three excellent teams seeded Nos. 6, 7 and 8, Colts Neck could very well be that benefactor this year.
3. Manasquan (19-2, 11-1)
With arguably one of the two best defensive teams and one of the best rebounding teams in the tournament, Manasquan has a squad that should compete with both CBA and Mater Dei and can overcome poor shooting nights against anyone in the rest of the field. Remember that Manasquan did not shoot the ball particularly well against either Toms River North or Rumson and still beat the Mariners and lost to the Bulldogs by five. If the offense is working, the Warriors have a great chance to win the tournament, but the road is pretty arduous. If the seeds hold, Manasquan will have to go through Rumson, CBA and Mater Dei to win the title, which is an example of why selling a team like Rumson short in the seeding doesn’t just hurt Rumson.
The Defending Champs
6. Rumson-Fair Haven (17-4, 10-2)
Speaking of Rumson, the defending tournament champion gets its own category. The Bulldogs looked primed for no worse than the No. 4 seed until Red Bank Catholic shocked the Bulldogs last weekend. Although they lost a head-to-head game against Colts Neck, simply beating RBC would have given Rumson a 17-game winning streak heading into the tournament with no losses in 2016 and wins over Gill St. Bernard’s and Manasquan. As it is, maybe the loss is a necessary reminder for Rumson that it is, in fact, beatable and that anything less than the best from the Bulldogs might not get it done deep in this tournament. If you can believe it, Brendan Barry is playing significantly better heading into this year’s tournament than he was last year and having him in the mix gives Rumson a chance in every game.
2. Christian Brothers Academy (18-3, 13-0)
In taking the temperature of coaches around the conference, the decision as to who was No. 1 was not all that much of a debate. Despite an unbeaten A North mark (CBA still has one more division game against Middletown North to make up) and losses only to St. Anthony (21-0), St. Augustine (19-0) and Don Bosco (20-2), CBA did not get much consideration as the No. 1 team in the field, which might work in CBA’s favor. The Colts were underdogs in the final against Point Beach two years ago, but were relatively inexperienced in late-round tournament games, while last year they carried the burden of being the heavy favorite into the championship game. With plenty of tests against good competition to lean on, CBA is prepared for a tough road that could end with the Colts playing the role of underdog against a loaded Mater Dei team.
1. Mater Dei Prep (20-1, 14-0)
Since losing to Pope John by three points on Jan. 2, Mater Dei hasn’t just won 17 games in a row – the Seraphs have dominated 17 games in a row. St. Joseph of Montvale is the only team to come within a single-digit margin of Mater Dei during the streak and that was an eight-point game that was 13 at one point in the fourth quarter. It’s not like Mater Dei is playing all cupcakes either. The Seraphs have also rolled through Ranney twice, St. Peter’s Prep and capped off the regular season by beating a 19-win Notre Dame squad by 12. The Seraphs probably are not thrilled with having to beat Ranney a third time to get to the semifinals, but if those first two games against their division rival are any indication, Mater Dei might not break a sweat until the final.