Boys Basketball – SCT Opening Round Preview and Picks
When it comes to the Shore-wide rankings, yours truly turned out to have a pretty good handle on things at the start of the season. The top seven seeds in the SCT all fell exactly in line with the preseason Top 10 and the No. 8 team in the SCT was the No. 9 team at the start of the year. The two missing top 10 teams were not far away either, with preseason No. 8 Point Pleasant Beach seeded No. 11 and No. 10 Middletown North slotted at No. 14 in the SCT field. The only team I was way off on was Marlboro, which bucked some graduation losses to earn a top-10 seed.
The reason this is significant is because it is no longer at all significant. The preseason rankings were one thing, but forecasting a tournament is a different beast and it’s one that tends to devour anyone who dares provoke it – whether that’s the NCAA Tournament, the Shore Conference or state tournament, or the intramural playoffs.
With 11 Shore Conference Tournament first-round games on Tuesday, I’m sure I’ll take a loss or two or three, etc., but I can at least give you some unsolicited thoughts (and probably some bulletin-board material). Here goes nothing.
Note to the reader, from the author: Think you can beat me? I do too, but you and your fellow readers should probably prove it just to be sure. Pick the winner in the poll following each game and if you feel very strongly about your picks, you can return in an hour to vote again. The polls close at the scheduled time time of the first game, which is 4:30 p.m.
(27) Southern at (6) Colts Neck, 4:30 p.m.
Although Southern is the last seed in the tournament, the Rams are not without an element of intrigue in their first-round trip to Colts Neck. Senior Jake DuBois has missed most of the year with an ankle injury, but he is all the way back and is now part of a backcourt that had to grow up quickly without him. On top of that, Colts Neck has had a few close calls in recent weeks, as well as a lopsided loss to CBA, so there appears to be a possibility for an upset here. It’s unlikely, but don’t mindlessly put Colts Neck in the round of 16 just yet. The Pick: Colts Neck, 68-57
(25) Raritan at (8) Toms River North, 5:30 p.m.
Raritan has played two teams that are at or above Toms River North’s level: Rumson and Matawan. In three of those four losses, Raritan was within a single-digit margin three times, with a 20-point loss at Rumson the lone blemish. The Rockets led Rumson at halftime on the way to a 64-57 loss early in the year and lost to Matawan by six in the first meeting and nine the second time around. Raritan’s tame out-of-division schedule helped the Rockets make the tournament, but it might not have toughened them up enough to pull a game like this out. There is a good chance they compete, but Toms River North has been nearly automatic in this position. The Pick: Toms River North, 59-46
(24) Brick at (9) Matawan, 5:30 p.m.
Matawan has shown some tendency to play to its competition, which should give Brick hope in this one. The Green Dragons played Toms River North tough for three quarters, then the Mariners dominated them over the next five during the regular-season series – pertinent information given that Toms River North and Matawan were considered to be at about the same level when it came to the seeding. Matawan might give the Dragons a better chance because they don’t have as much size as Toms River North, who pounded Brick on the boards in the second meeting. Brick is due for a breakout game, but a weak schedule is a concern once the setting moves to the postseason and battle-tested teams stand out. The Pick: Matawan, 56-50
(21) Toms River East at (12) Red Bank Catholic, 5:30 p.m.
Toms River East has a resume that is all over the map, but one constant for the Raiders is they score points. They also give them up, which is why Tuesday’s game at RBC could wind up one of the more entertaining matchups on the first-round slate. This is also a matchup of a road underdog entering the game on a three-game winning streak, while the home team has lost four of five heading into the postseason. Red Bank Catholic’s size is becoming more of a factor for opponents, as 6-6 John Kelly and 6-5 Kevin Bauman can patrol the interior together on the defensive end, while Charlie Grodinier is freed up to use his length on the perimeter. That size could be the x-factor in this one and might be essential if East’s balanced lineup starts dropping three-pointers from all over the court early on. Maybe that happens, but RBC gets it together and finds a way. The Pick: RBC, 72-67
(26) Asbury Park at (7) Manasquan, 6 p.m.
If any team in this tournament knows about playing as an underdog, it is Asbury Park, which had to play the top two seeds in the tournament – Ranney and Mater Dei – twice each. None of the four games was competitive, but those four losses gave Asbury Park an exaggerated look at what a team seeded near the bottom of the SCT field is up against in the first round on the road. Throw in the fact that Manasquan’s players will be itching to get another shot at Marlboro and maybe the Blue Bishops can surprise the Warriors with a quick start or a big run to stay in the game. With its toughness inside, Manasquan should prevail, but expect Asbury Park to let the Warriors know they are there. The Pick: Manasquan, 67-53
(23) Brick Memorial at (10) Marlboro, 6 p.m.
Of all the first round games, the battle of the Mustangs appears to be the biggest mismatch on paper, mostly because of how well Marlboro is playing recently. After beating CBA on Friday, it’s hard to see the host Mustangs losing to a team they already beat at the WOBM Classic, but it just takes one off day to change the narrative. Brick Memorial plays hard and together, which will give the visiting Mustangs a chance to hang around if Marlboro comes out sluggish at all. Ultimately though, this one is up to Marlboro and there is too much leftover experience from last year’s SCT finalist to have a letdown this early. The Pick: Marlboro, 54-40
(22) Pinelands at (11) Point Beach, 6 p.m.
Working from the bottom of the field up, Pinelands is the first team that appears to be a serious threat in its first-round game. Make no mistake: Point Beach is the clear favorite going in, but Pinelands has beaten some quality teams in its gym and while the road has not been as kind, the Wildcats are a growing team that has been close to some big wins away from home. On the other side, Point Beach showed it can lose to an underdog, as displayed by a loss at the buzzer to a 7-15 Central Regional team. Ultimately, that loss should help Point Beach keep its collective wits about it heading into an elimination game against a hungry upstart, especially now that the Garnet Gulls have their full roster. The Pick: Point Beach, 48-39
(20) Holmdel at (13) Point Boro, 6 p.m.
Coming off a very rough week, Point Boro will try to regroup in time to fend off one of the Shore’s peskiest teams. Holmdel has only three players listed above six feet tall and the tallest are Tim Zhou and Connor LaMountain at 6-1. Despite that, Holmdel defends and rebounds well enough to compete on most nights, which the Hornets did in rematches with both Rumson and Matawan. Point Boro, meanwhile, lost on the road to Pinelands and Barnegat and barely got by a depleted Donovan Catholic lineup at home. The postseason is a chance to start over, but Point Boro has not been the same team later in the season that it was earlier. If the Panthers can’t get the mojo back, Holmdel could give them fits. The Pick: Holmdel, 46-43
(18) Ocean at (15) Lakewood, 6:30 p.m.
Ocean and Lakewood will play each other twice in a span of two weeks and both will be elimination games. Ocean will host the Piners in the first round of the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group III Tournament on Feb. 26, but will first have to travel to the Piner Palace for a high-stakes dress rehearsal in the SCT. The Spartans have run hot-and-cold this year, starting the season 2-5 after a loss at Pinelands, only to roar back past the .500 mark and into the Shore Sports Network Top 10 – a run that started with a win over No. 4 Neptune. Ocean had a chance to earn a top-10 seed in this tournament, but a second loss to Middletown South last week ended those hopes. The Spartans have two dangerous scorers in Andrew Seager – who is 15 points shy of 1,000 for his career – and sophomore Jack Miller.
Lakewood, meanwhile, has been improving over the course of the season and since a 20-point loss to Westampton Tech, the Piners are 8-3 with competitive losses to Paterson Kennedy (16-5), Bordentown (16-5) and Piscataway (19-2) – all of which are seeded No. 5 or better in their respective NJSIAA sections. More importantly, the Piners have started to look like a team with an identity, one that gets after opponents on defense by causing havoc and working for rebounds and loose balls. They have also played well in their gym, with the loss to Kennedy the only blemish on the home resume. The two teams will probably wind up splitting the playoff games and with the way the Piners have played at home, Tuesday is their turn to win. The Pick: Lakewood, 50-47
(17) Middletown South at (16) Barnegat, 6 p.m.
While Ocean and Lakewood will play twice during a short period of time, Middletown South and Barnegat will meet for the second time in a two-week span after playing on Jan. 31. Barnegat travelled north and left Middletown with a nine-point win, which is the main reason the Bengals will be hosting a Shore Conference Tournament game for the first time in program history. If that is not enough motivation for Barnegat to leave it on the floor on Tuesday, the Bengals return five starters from a team that let a first-round upset at Central get away last year.
On Middletown South’s side, the Eagles will be motivated to avenged the loss two weeks ago, when they were missing second-leading scorer Dave Gervase. Adding Gervase to the fold is significant and considering the Eagles were coming off a big loss to Manasquan, they might have been ripe for the picking in the first meeting. That should not be the case this time and with two strong performances heading into the tournament, Middletown South looks raring to go. Barnegat will have the home crowd, but Middletown South has a full squad and a chip on its shoulder. The Pick: Middletown South, 51-48
(19) Howell at (14) Middletown North, 7 p.m.
The last game to tip off on Tuesday night could wind up being the wildest game of the night. Both the Rebels and the Lions like to get up and down the floor, with Howell boasting a team of athletes and Middletown North running out a deep stable of shooters. The personnel between the teams is a little different, but the offense is similar in that both teams rely on the drive-and-kick on offense and neither gets the ball into the post much, if ever. Both teams also rebound better than their size would indicate, particularly Howell, with athletes like Eddie Morales, Nasiem Brantley and Brandon Wilson. If the Rebels can win the battle on the glass, get a lot of different guys involved from different spots on the floor and dodge a hot-shooting night by Middletown North, they will have a great chance to pull off the road win.
Middletown North, meanwhile, will ride Rob Higgins as far as he can take them, which could be pretty far considering he is averaging 29 points per game. Higgins makes all of his teammate more dangerous as well, which is why Dave Campbell has thrown up 20-plus points in each of the past two games while Sky Cherry does everything from rebound, to battle on the block to stick threes. The question for Middletown North is will they defend enough to make the shooting count and that is a legitimate question. Howell has some similarities to Long Branch, which beat Middletown North twice within a week recently. The Lions rallied to make the tournament and will be at home, but this is a make-or-break game for Howell and the Rebels have been due for a big performance for a while. The Pick: Howell, 73-69