Boys Basketball – SCT Quarterfinal Preview, Predictions
The Shore Conference regular season ended with eight clear selections for the top eight seeds in the Shore Conference Tournament and the result is splendid day of quarterfinal games at Brookdale on Sunday – even with one of those teams getting bounced on Thursday. Sunday’s slate includes two division rivalries reigniting at least one more time this year and another matchup featuring two of the Shore’s most tradition-rich programs.
Although the teams in Sunday’s quarterfinals have all looked the part of SCT contenders this year, three of the teams were not even in last year’s SCT. Ranney, Mater Dei and Long Branch were all under .500 by the cutoff last season and while Mater Dei and Ranney have drastically overhauled their programs, Long Branch has turned things around thanks to the maturation of its young talent and with the help of one impact transfer.
The rest of the field, meanwhile, consists of many of the usual suspects. Christian Brothers Academy is looking to reach the championship game for the third straight year. Lakewood is back in the quarterfinals for the fifth time in six years after missing out last season. Manasquan is in the quarterfinals for the fifth straight year and will play defending champion and division rival Rumson-Fair Haven, which shocked the field as the No. 11 seed last year. Toms River North has also become a mainstay and is seeking its third semifinal appearance in the last four years with a team led by a core of juniors.
This is one of the more unique collections of teams in the quarterfinals in recent memory and the bracket has yielded a quadruple-header worth watching for the basketball fan who has nothing but time on a Sunday in February. Below is a guess at what that fan might see on Sunday.
No. 2 Christian Brothers Academy vs. No. 7 Lakewood, 11 a.m.
Somewhat remarkably, this will be the first game CBA plays this season against a Shore Conference team outside of Class A North. The Colts manhandled Middletown North on Thursday after a strong first quarter by the Lions and for their first test against a non-A-North Shore team, they face a pretty stiff challenge in the Piners. Lakewood also avoided Shore Conference teams outside of its own division during the regular season and rolled through Jackson Memorial and Point Beach in the first two rounds.
The Piners lost a few quality teams during the regular season in Westfield, Trenton Catholic and Colonia, but CBA will be on a different level from what Lakewood has seen this year. It’s not to say that CBA is markedly better or even better at all that Trenton Catholic, but the Colts present an offensive arsenal that is going to be the best that Lakewood has faced this year. Outside of a loss to St. Anthony, CBA has handled pressure, zone looks, double-teams on Pat Andree, and pretty much any other defensive challenge they’ve faced.
Lakewood’s advantage in this game is actually on the other end of the floor, where the Piners have shown an ability to score the ball as well as any team in the conference. Amir Tyler and Sean Barksdale have both had All-Shore caliber seasons that could be stamped by a big performance on Sunday and this is the kind of game that should allow both to thrive on the offensive end. CBA does not have the individual athleticism to handle both players, but the Colts have been getting better with each week on the defensive end and might be closing in on the level of teams like Manasquan, Rumson and even Mater Dei. If that defense continues to progress, Lakewood is going to have trouble scoring enough to match CBA, although the Piners should score.
The Pick: CBA, 69-61
No. 3 Manasquan vs. No. 6 Rumson-Fair Haven, 12:45 p.m.
These two teams have had some memorable regular-season battles, but they have avoided one another during the postseason despite playing in the same NJSIAA sectional bracket and plenty of recent success for both. The win-or-go-home dimension to this game will throw fuel on the fire of the rivalry and it is likely to be the third of four meetings this season between the teams. Manasquan is the No. 2 seed in the Central Jersey Group II bracket while Rumson is the No. 3, setting up a potential showdown in Manasquan with a trip to the sectional final on the line.
Before getting too far ahead by talking about the state tournament, let’s focus on what might be in store for the second game of the quadruple-header on Sunday. The only relevant matchup between the teams was the second A Central game, which Rumson won, 53-48, in its home gym. Manasquan dominated the Bulldogs on opening night, but Brendan Barry did not play in that game. In losing to Rumson in the second game, Manasquan left too many points on the table because of missed free throws and misses in the paint, which is reflected in a scoring total below 50. Devin Jensen found the range from behind the three-point arc early for the Warriors – as he has for most of the season – and Ryan Jensen dominated the glass on the defensive end, but missed free-throws and some empty possessions helped Rumson pull out the win.
Rumson, meanwhile, also has a chance to improve on that game as well. The Bulldogs played a large portion of the game with 6-6 center Elijah McAllister on the bench due to foul trouble, which allowed Ryan Jensen to thrive for a long stretch. Barry, meanwhile, broke the all-time scoring record at Rumson in that game, but shot well below 50 percent in doing so, scoring just seven second-half points. Last year, Barry owned this tournament but during the regular season, Manasquan owned Rumson, taking both meetings from the Bulldogs before the postseason. Whichever team wins Sunday will probably drop the potential state tournament game because that’s just how close the two teams are. On the big stage and in the SCT, it’s hard to bet against Barry and the Bulldogs.
The Pick: Rumson, 60-56 in overtime
No. 1 Mater Dei Prep vs. No. 8 Ranney, 2:30 p.m.
The second of the two division rivalry games features the two newly-formed Class B Central powers squaring off for the third time. Unlike the Rumson-Manasquan series, this one has been one-sided. Mater Dei has two double-digit wins over Ranney this season and even when the Panthers were more competitive in the second game, the Seraphs still put the game away before the final minute. Those two games are the only two losses Ranney has suffered this year, but the Panthers have some significant ground to make up in order to pull off the upset.
Mater Dei has torn through 18 straight opponents during a 20-1 start to the season and appears primed to roll to the SCT final on Saturday at Monmouth. The Seraphs have a full roster now, which features a deep stable of guards who can play bigger thanks to their athleticism and length. Elijah Barnes is the only player on the team resembling a big man and even he is more of a 6-6 wing player. The guard-heavy approach has served them well against Ranney, put it’s also the aspect of the team that the Panthers and any other Mater Dei opponent will try to exploit. Ranney owned an edge on the glass and before Marvin Pierre entered that game off the bench for the Seraphs, the Panthers dominated in the rebounding department. Over the last several weeks, rebounding has emerged as a potential weakness of Mater Dei, although it’s still only a relative weakness.
A positive way for Ranney to view this upcoming game is that it seemed to find the mismatch last game with freshman phenom Scottie Lewis isolating on whichever player was guarding him and taking the ball strong to the basket. Lewis also did not have to rely on his shot falling because his shot selection was mostly relegated to the paint. Fellow freshman Bryan Antoine, meanwhile, has not been as good against Mater Dei as he has been against the rest of the team’s schedule and there’s no reason to think that’s a trend at this point. Mater Dei senior NyQuan McCombs has pestered Antoine like he has other opponents, but Antoine has had enough good looks and whether or not Ranney has a chance may simply come down to a few more of those looks going in this time.
The rest of the team still seemed rushed offensively while 6-6 freshman Chris Autino has not been able to stay out of foul trouble, but there were enough strides defensively to suggest another slight improvement offensively and some foul management could yield an upset. A lot has to go right, but not so much that Ranney winning is a crazy proposition.
The Pick: Mater Dei, 63-54
No. 4 Toms River North vs. No. 12 Long Branch, 4:15 p.m.
The finale of Sunday’s festivities is the ultimate contrast-in-styles game. Both Toms River North and Long Branch offer a lot of athleticism, but both teams deploy it very differently. Long Branch has size, length and leaping ability that makes it a handful of the glass and very difficult for the opposition to create space against on offense. Toms River North, meanwhile, uses its length and athleticism from its team of guards to pressure on defense and run the floor at every opportunity. Long Branch has the horses to defend the transition game to some degree, but the Green Wave likely cannot afford to get into a track meet with the Mariners.
Long Branch has the edge if this game is played possession-by-possession and in the half court, mostly because Toms River North – while still a good rebounding team – will be surrendering some size while not owning a decided advantage in quickness like the Mariners usually do. Shooting will be a variable in this game regardless of how the pace plays out, but Long Branch has shown an ability to shoot enough to win if it comes to that while Toms River North goes hot-and-cold as well. Mike Nyisztor for Toms River North and Anthony Velazquez for Long Branch are the potential game-breakers from the outside for both teams, although each team has other players who can hit outside shots – Tyree Morris and Jamar Foster for Long Branch and Hunter Petrick and Pat Marinaccio for Toms River North.
The point guard matchup could also be an x-factor, with Darrion Carrington driving the Toms River North machine and freshman Marc Dennis running Long Branch as one of the more unheralded stories of the season. While the Ranney freshmen and even Rob Higgins at Middletown North draw praise as rookie performers, Dennis has essentially taken the reins for a team that went from three wins last year to the SCT quarterfinals this year.
On paper, Toms River North is the much more explosive team, but these games aren’t always about firepower. This one will be about tempo and which team imposes its will. Ultimately, Toms River North has shown it can win in the halfcourt, even if it’s been a struggle. After surviving the grind, the Mariners should be able to open it up late like they did against Toms River East on Thursday.
The Pick: Toms River North, 68-57
Round of 16: 7-1
Opine from the Sideline
As a change of pace, we have brought on board a Shore Conference coach, who - unfortunately for his sake - did not make the SCT this year, to offer a unique perspective on the games. Our coach has been making picks throughout the tournament and continues with his thoughts on Sunday’s quarterfinal games, which are listed below.
1st seed Mater Dei Prep OVER 8th seed Ranney – Mater Dei Prep's depth and experience overcomes the young, talented Panthers of Ranney for the third time this season, 56-49.
12th seed Long Branch OVER 4th seed Toms River North – Velazquez, Foster & the Green Wave Cinderella story continue. Long Branch squeezes out an upset victory to continue their season and move on to the SCT Final Four, 56-54.
6th seed Rumson OVER 3rd seed Manasquan – Unless Manasquan is able to stop Barry, I think his experience and Rumson's confidence is too much to pick against. Rumson 61, Manasquan 54.
7th seed Lakewood OVER 2nd seed CBA – Lakewood's athleticism teamed with their ability to show last round they can knock down the three gives them a tiny edge here over Andree, McGuire and CBA. Lakewood in a classic, 74-71 in Double OT
Coach’s Picks Record
Round of 16: 7-1