March Madness Memory Lane: Former Jersey Shore Stars and Opponents in the NCAA Tournament
Thursday marks the official beginning of the NCAA Tournament it will be a welcome site for basketball fans after last year’s Big Dance was canceled amid the outbreak of COVID-19 in the U.S. and around the world.
Only one team from New Jersey heard its name called on selection Sunday and it is the school that has not made it to the NCAA Men’s Tournament in 30 years. Rutgers will be representing New Jersey as the Garden State’s lone team, but there will be plenty of New Jersey talent scattered about the field – including some players with Shore Conference connections.
Below is a look back at some of the players in this year’s NCAA field who either played at the Shore or collided with teams from the area in notable games during their high-school careers. We’ll start with the former Shore standouts.
Scottie Lewis and Alex Klatsky, Florida (Ranney)
Game Info: No. 7 Florida vs. No. 10 Virginia Tech, Friday, 12:15 p.m., CBS
It has been a bumpy road for Lewis and his Florida squad since he arrived on campus in the summer of 2019 but the Gators – and 67 other teams, for that matter – have finally made it to the NCAA Tournament after last season’s Big Dance was canceled because of the coronavirus outbreak.
Lewis has turned in some breathtaking performances and plays during his Florida career, which should surprise no one who is familiar with his library of highlights and big-game performances as a four-year standout at Ranney. He started his sophomore season in Gainsville strong, averaging 14 points and 5.2 rebounds through Florida’s first six games and his four best scoring games in that stretch were the four games Florida played against Power-Five Conference teams – Boston College, Florida State Vanderbilt and LSU. Lewis also played no fewer than 32 minutes in all four of those games and averaged 16.5 points on 54 percent shooting, including 53.8 percent (7-for-13) from three-point range.
Since putting up 17 points and five rebounds in a win over LSU, however, Lewis has struggled to find his rhythm on offense, although he has maintained his reputation as one of the SEC’s top defenders. He has scored double-figures just twice since those first six games and has topped 30 minutes just twice while playing fewer than 20 five times.
Missed time has contributed to the cold spell. Lewis missed four games in mid-January for “health and safety reasons” as reported by the team’s official website and the Gators also went 12 days between games vs. South Carolina on Feb. 3 and at Arkansas on Feb. 16.
Earlier in the season, Florida went on an 18-day pause after standout sophomore Keontae Johnson collapsed on the court during a Dec. 12 game vs. Florida State. Johnson has since rejoined the team but has not been cleared to play.
Lewis appeared to find his scoring touch again in a 16-point performance vs. Auburn on Feb. 23, but has not scored more than eight points since. In Florida’s first-round win over Vanderbilt in the SEC Tournament, Lewis was benched to start to the game due to arriving late to a shootaround the day of the game. In two SEC Tournament games, Lewis scored one point on 0-for-5 shooting in 42 combined minutes, but did block four shots in a quarterfinal loss to Tennessee.
Klatsky – a four-year starter at Ranney during their 100-plus win stretch from 2015 to 2019 – is a walk-on who has played sparingly, appearing in four games for the Gators in 2020-21.
With the NCAA Tournament marking the start of a new season, Lewis, Klatsky and Florida will look to take advantage of a clean slate, with the Gators drawing the No. 7 seed in the South Region and taking on No. 10 Virginia Tech in the first game of the day on Friday at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.
Bryan Antoine, Villanova (Ranney)
Game Info: No. 5 Villanova vs. No. 12 Winthrop, Friday, 9:57 p.m., TNT
Antoine played his senior season at Ranney with a torn labrum in his right shoulder and has been greatly impacted by the injury, as well as the missed time to develop on the court and in the weight room. He was limited to 16 games in his freshman season in 2019-20 and has played in only seven this season after suffering an injury setback prior to the start of his sophomore.
Injuries in Villanova’s backcourt – the Wildcats will be without Big East Co-Player of the Year Collin Gillespie (knee) and likely another starter in Justin Moore (ankle) for the tournament – have opened the door for Antoine to play more. He played 22 minutes in a loss to Providence on March 6, which was the game in which Moore went out with what head coach Jay Wright termed a “severe” ankle sprain. Antoine then saw nine minutes of action in a 72-71 loss to Georgetown in the Big East Tournament quarterfinals.
The situation is not great for Villanova – a No. 5 seed in the tournament after tracking as a potential No. 1 seed earlier in the season – but Antoine will have a chance to get a feel for tournament play after being robbed of a large portion of his first two college seasons due to injury. The 6-foot-5 guard was a selective shooter and efficient scorer in his time with Ranney and still managed to set the all-time career-scoring record in the Shore Conference with 2,499 points. He has been similarly picky about his shot selection this season but with Villanova looking for any kind of spark it can get and plenty of time to prepare for first-round opponent 12th-seeded Winthrop, Wright could call upon Antoine as a secret weapon off the bench – especially with the Wildcats searching for guard production.
Jamir Watkins, VCU (Mater Dei Prep/Trenton Catholic)
Game Info: No. 7 Oregon vs. No. 10 VCU, Saturday, 9:57 p.m., TNT
Watson spent most of his high-school years at Trenton Catholic, but played his sophomore season at Mater Dei Prep and was one of the Shore’s best players during his partial season in Monmouth County (he sat until Feb. 1 of that season due to NJSIAA transfer rules). He was part of a 2017-18 Mater Dei team that reached a third straight Shore Conference Tournament final and lost to Ranney in the championship game.
Watkins transferred back to Trenton Catholic for his final two high school seasons and again faced off against Ranney in a 2019 playoff game, with the Panthers eliminating Watson and the Iron Mikes in the South Jersey Non-Public B quarterfinals. Despite losing, Watkins stood out by leading all scorers with 20 points in the game.
The versatile 6-7 wing has made a healthy contribution as a freshman at VCU, averaging 7.2 points and 17 minutes per game and has seen his minutes increase to 23 per game in February and March. Watkins posted his first career double-double with 14 points, 10 rebounds and two steals in a Feb. 27 loss at Davidson.
After falling to St. Bonaventure in the Atlantic 10 championship game, VCU will look to start a tournament run against seventh-seeded Oregon on Saturday night – the last first-round game to tipoff.
Mike Dunne, Hartford (Matawan)
Game Info: No. 1 Baylor vs. No. 16 Hartford, Friday, 3:30 p.m., TruTV
Hartford is headed to the NCAA Tournament for the first time and Dunne has made a contribution to the Hawks’ successful season as a walk-on. Dunne has played in 14 games this season, has scored in seven of them and is shooting a red-hot 7-for-11 (63.6 percent) from three-point range.
Dunne was a 1,000-point scorer at Matawan before graduating in 2018 and following in his older brother, Jason’s footsteps in playing at Hartford.
The Hawks will get their first taste of the tournament on Friday afternoon against the second overall seed in the tournament in Baylor. Only one No. 16 seed has ever defeated a No. 1 seed, which happened in 2018 with UMBC’s stunning 20-point win over Virginia.
Locked Out of the Dance
A pair of former Shore standouts came up just short of joining the field of 68 this week and both had a major impact on their team this season, as well as back in their high-school days.
Shavar Reynolds, Seton Hall
Reynolds is one of the great success stories in college basketball over the past three years and that the Manchester High School alumnus did not get an opportunity to play in the NCAA Tournament in either of his final two college seasons is a true shame.
Last year, the opportunity was taken from him and his Seton Hall teammates, when COVID-19 wiped out the entire tournament – in which Seton Hall was in line for a favorable seed and had a chance to make a deep run with a talented roster.
This season, the Pirates’ misfortune was self-inflicted. Seton Hall was a bubble-team throughout the 2020-21 season and at their peak, the Pirates were looking at a seed as high as nine or 10. They dropped two tight games against Villanova, squandered an 18-point second-half lead in a home loss to Creighton, and after winning four straight following the second loss to Villanova, Seton Hall lost its final four regular-season games – to Georgetown, Butler, UConn, and St. John’s.
Despite the rough finish to the regular season, Seton Hall still had a golden opportunity fall into its lap when the Pirates beat St. John’s in the Big East Tournament quarterfinals to earn a game with eighth-seeded Georgetown after the Hoyas had just upset top-seeded Villanova. The Pirates’ road to an automatic NCAA Tournament bid appeared to get much easier, but that was before we knew Georgetown to be the March darling that the Hoyas have since become. Georgetown beat Seton Hall for the second time in three weeks and crushed Creighton in the championship game to snatch an automatic NCAA berth.
Reynolds both benefited from and was taxed by the persistent injury issues fellow guard Bryce Aiken faced. Aiken – who starred at the Patrick School and at Harvard before transferring to Seton Hall for the 2020-21 season – had his moments during the season and formed a nice complementary point-guard tandem with Reynolds when he could play, but knee and ankle ailments limited him to 14 games.
Reynolds stepped up in a major way early in the season, averaging 8.4 points, 4.9 assists and shooting 52 percent from three-point range in Seton Hall’s first 12 games. The only at-large NCAA Tournament team Seton Hall faced in that stretch was Oregon and Reynolds played his best game against the Ducks: 17 points, eight assists, two steals and 4-for-5 shooting from beyond the three-point arc.
On top of starting every game as Seton Hall’s point guard, Reynolds was also the Pirates’ defensive stopper. While Reynolds went above and beyond in the role, it led to foul trouble in a number of games and was also physically demanding without Aiken at full strength to spell him.
Reynolds started his Seton Hall career as a walk-on having done a year as a post-grad following his graduation from Manchester. After carving out a reputation as a relentless worker in practice and a defensive specialist off the bench, Reynolds was made a scholarship player by coach Kevin Willard heading into his sophomore season at Seton Hall.
Kenneth Jones, Loyola-Maryland (Mater Dei)
Like Watkins, Jones began his high school career elsewhere but unlike his former teammate, the Hillside native finished his high school years as a three-year starter for the Seraphs and First Team All-Shore selection as a senior in 2017-18.
After graduating from Mater Dei, Jones headed to Loyola as one of the Greyhounds’ prized recruits in the class and has matured into one of the team’s leaders as a junior. With Jones back to full strength after an injury slowed him earlier in the season, Loyola reached the Patriot League championship game as a No. 9 seed and was one win away from punching a ticket to the NCAA Tournament.
Colgate, however, was too much for the Greyhounds in an 85-72 championship-game victory. Jones reclaimed a starting spot for all three of his team’s postseason games and averaged 6.0 points and 3.7 assists in the Patriot League Tournament.
Former Shore Nemeses in the Dance
With the Shore boasting some state-ranked squads in recent years, many of the top players from around New Jersey crossed paths with the best teams and players from Monmouth and Ocean County. Here is a look back at some of best players from this year's NCAA Tournament field who played in New Jersey and squared off against Shore teams in recent years.
Paul Mulcahy and Cliff Omoruyi, Rutgers (Gill St. Bernard and Roselle Catholic)
Game Info: No. 7 Clemson vs. No. 10 Rutgers, Friday, 9:20 p.m., TBS
Naturally, New Jersey’s State University has some Jersey influence, if not Jersey Shore influence. Mulcahy had two noteworthy showdowns against Shore Conference opponents during his decorated four-year career at Gill St. Bernard and both ended with somewhat surprising results.
As a freshman, Mulcahy and his Knights team made the trip to Long Branch to face off against Brendan Barry and Rumson-Fair Haven. GSB was a ranked team in the state, but Barry and Co. carved up the Knights in an impressive 66-49 win at the Hoop Group Boardwalk Showcase.
Three years later, Mulcahy would average a triple-double in his final high school season and one of his finest moments in his senior year came in a win over the Shore’s first ever Tournament of Champions winner. With Mulcahy leading the way, GSB knocked off Lewis, Antoine and Ranney, 62-60, to hand the Panthers their only loss of the season against a team from N.J.
Omoruyi clashed with Ranney on multiple occasions during his two years at Roselle Catholic, as well as the Shore’s No. 1 team in 2020. Omoruyi and the Lions went 1-2 vs. Ranney during his junior and senior seasons, with two losses to the Panthers in 2019 – the second of which came in the NJSIAA Non-Public B championship game.
Roselle Catholic got its revenge against the Shore in Omoruyi’s senior season, not only with a 66-59 win over Ranney but also with a 45-43 win over Manasquan in a down-to-the-wire game at the Boardwalk Showcase at Brookdale. Manasquan held Omoruyi to six points and eight rebounds, but the 6-11 center blocked eight shots in the game.
Mulcahy and Omoruyi have both started at times this season for the Scarlet Knights and both are key members of Rutgers’ regular eight-man rotation, with Mulcahy now entrenched as a starter.
Josh Pierre-Louis, UC Santa Barbara (Roselle Catholic)
Game Info: No. 5 Creighton vs. No. 12 UC Santa Barbara, Saturday, 3:30 p.m., TruTUV
Pierre-Louis had a tremendous senior season at Roselle Catholic that ended with him injuring his wrist in a sectional championship win over Mulcahy and Gill St. Bernard. The speedy, 6-4 point guard tried to gut it out in the next round vs. Ranney but was not himself and the Panthers conquered the Lions to reach the Tournament of Champions for the first time.
Pierre-Louis was part of for Ranney-Roselle Catholic battles, with Roselle Catholic winning both matchups during Pierre-Louis's junior year and Ranney taking both in his final season as a Lion.
Pierre-Louis was a UNLV commit, began his college career at Temple last season, then transferred to UCSB for this season. He is coming off a Big West Conference Tournament during which he put up a 24-point game in a win over Long Beach State.
Al-Amir Dawes, Clemson (The Patrick School)
Game Info: No. 7 Clemson vs. No. 10 Rutgers, Friday, 9:20 p.m., TBS
Dawes was a key player off the bench for one of the most dominant high school teams New Jersey has produced over the past decade. The 2016-17 Patrick School team, which was coached by former Rutgers coach Mike Rice alongside head coach Chris Chavannes, trucked through the N.J. landscape to win a Tournament of Champions title, but on the way, they had to fight off a pesky upstart from Ranney. Led by Ahmadu Sarnor (28 points) and Bryan Antoine (21), Ranney trailed the Celtics by four with four minutes to play before Patrick School pulled away for a 10-point win. Dawes contributed five points off the bench.
A year later, Dawes scored 23 points against Ranney at Brookdale in the Boardwalk Showcase, but this time, the Panthers got the better of the Patrick School, 57-44.
Now a sophomore at Clemson, Dawes is a key scorer for a Tigers team that take on Rutgers, giving Dawes a chance to play against the lone team in the field from his home state.
R.J. Cole, UConn (St. Anthony)
Game Info: No. 7 UConn vs. No. 10 Maryland, Saturday, 7:10 p.m., CBS
Cole was the star on the last ever St. Anthony team, one that squared off against Ranney at the Boardwalk Showcase in 2017. With Lewis and Antoine in their sophomore seasons, Ranney was in position to send shockwaves through the state by knocking off the Friars, but a three-pointer by Alexander Rice – the son of Monmouth head coach King Rice who would play his junior season at Mater Dei Prep – in the final seconds denied Ranney the upset.
While Rice led the way with 24 points, Cole was his usual steady self with 18 – part of an all-state campaign in his final season playing for Bob Hurley Sr. After beginning his career at Howard and finishing near the top of the national scoring leaderboards, Cole reunited with the Hurley family by transferring to play at UConn for Dan Hurley and the resurgent Huskies, for whom he has averaged 12.3 points per game as a starting guard.
Tucker Richardson, Colgate (Hunterdon Central)
Game Info: No. 3 Arkansas vs. No. 14 Colgate, Friday, 12:45 p.m., TruTV
Before Richardson was a three-point marksman on a Colgate team full of them, he played a similar role at Hunterdon Central – one of the top Group IV programs in New Jersey. As a Group IV school in Central Jersey, Hunterdon Central frequently runs into Shore Conference teams on the state’s biggest stage: the NJSIAA Tournament.
Hunterdon Central took its lumps against the Shore when Richardson was a sophomore and a junior before finally breaking through when he was a senior in 2016-17. The Red Devils endured losses to Colts Neck and Freehold Township in back-to-back state tournaments in 2015 and 2016, with Richardson scoring 13 points as a sophomore in the first-round loss to Colts Neck and putting up nine in a sectional semifinal loss to Freehold Township.
In 2017, Hunterdon Central broke through for a Central Jersey Group IV championship, beating Middletown North in the sectional quarters before winning at Freehold Township in a classic championship game. The Patriots limited Richardson to seven points, but the then-senior found Anthony McDowell in the corner for the go-ahead three-pointer with seven seconds left in the 41-39 Red Devils win.
After spending a year at Blair Academy, Richardson made his way to Colgate, where he is now the fourth-leading scorer and second-leading rebounder and assist man for the Patriot League champs (and NET Ranking darlings) at 11.9 points, 5.9 boards and 4.2 assists per game.
Justyn Mutts, Virginia Tech (St. Augustine)
Game Info: No. 7 Florida vs. No. 10 Virginia Tech, Friday, 12:15 p.m., CBS
Mutts will collide with Lewis and Florida in the first game of Friday’s true first round slate and he enters the tournament a hot player for the Hokies. Virginia Tech has only played five games since the calendar turned to February due to COVID issues, but Mutts has been a major factor during that span of five games in six weeks (16.2 points and 6.2 rebounds).
The 6-7 redshirt junior went off for 22 points, nine rebounds and seven assists in a win over Miami on Feb. 6 and in a first-round loss to North Carolina in the ACC Tournament, he put up a career-high 24 points to go with eight rebounds.
Back in his days at St. Augustine, Mutts played in three memorable games against Christian Brothers Academy in a span of two seasons. In 2015, Mutts and the Hermits lost a classic game to the Colts in the NJSIAA South Jersey Non-Public A final, with CBA keeping Mutts relatively quiet with 10 points.
The following year, Mutts and St. Augustine would have their revenge. After edging CBA in a tight regular-season game in Atlantic City, the Hermits routed the Colts, 85-52, in their own gym in the South Jersey Non-Public A semifinals, with Mutts unloading 26 points and eight rebounds in the blowout win.
Mutts has had an eventful journey following his junior year at St. Augustine in 2015-16. It was reported Mutts would be transferring for his senior season, only for him to return to Richland for one more year with the Hermits. He began his college career at High Point University in 2017-18 and transferred to Delaware, where he both played and sat out a full season. Ahead of this year, Mutts moved yet again, transferring to Virginia Tech, where he has made an impact in the ACC.
Taj Thweatt, West Virginia (Wildwood Catholic)
Game Info: No. 3 West Virginia vs. No. 14 Morehead State, Friday, 9:50 p.m., TruTV
Thweatt likely has a bright future as a Mountaineer and will benefit from learning under Hall-of-Fame coach Bob Huggins as he progresses during his college career. At the moment, Thweatt is a seldom-used freshman for a West Virginia team that looks poised for a potential run to the Elite Eight.
Just a year ago, Thweat was a standout senior at Wildwood Catholic, where he helped the Crusaders win the South Jersey Non-Public B championship before the season was canceled due to COVID-19. Before knocking off Rutgers Prep in the championship game, Wildwood Catholic disposed of Mater Dei Prep in the semifinals after the 12th-seeded Seraphs upset their way through the first two rounds, with Thweatt scoring 14 points and grabbing eight boards in the win.
Earlier that same season, Wildwood Catholic rolled through CBA, 60-39, at the Boardwalk Showcase at Brookdale, with going for 21 and 14 to lead the way.
The most memorable game Wildwood Catholic played against the Shore Conference during Thweatt’s career came during a 27-2 junior season. Wildwood Catholic had Tournament of Champions favorite Ranney on the ropes in the South Jersey Non-Public B final at Jackson Liberty, with Thweatt contributing 13 points, 11 rebounds and four blocks in the game. Ranney, however, rallied to push the game into overtime and pulled out the 54-50 win on the way to a T of C title.