After a loooooong weekend of basketball in which I basically lived at Convention Hall in Asbury Park for the Battle on the Boardwalk slate (and have the annoying sniffles from the frigid temperatures to prove it), let’s get to some of the things we found out from an exciting weekend of basketball. Also, I promise that I will get the Players of the Week from this last week posted by early tomorrow or even late tonight if possible, so look for those. I also am looking to have the alumni page going by tomorrow or Wednesday at the latest.
Also, congrats to St. Rose coach Dennis Devaney on picking up his 400th career victory in a win over St. John Vianney on Saturday, and I’m sure he had plenty of wisecracks to celebrate his long and successful tenure with the Roses. This was a big weekend for the Devaney brothers, as in addition to the milestone, Dennis’s brother Sean and his Holmdel Hornets fell to Manasquan in a showdown for first place in Class A Central on Friday night and the other Devaney brother, St. Louis Rams general manager Billy Devaney, hired the Rams’ new head coach, former Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo.
1. Christian Brothers Academy can hang with anybody: Looking at the video replay numerous times, St. Patrick’s Paris Bennett got that final shot off in time to beat CBA at the double OT buzzer in my opinion, so that was just a great play by him. I’m sure CBA coach Geoff Billet needed a cold one after that game because the Colts were right there. Certainly, St. Pat’s is a different team without North Carolina-bound guard Dexter Strickland or junior guard Kyrie Irving because it’s next group of guards are not even close to that level. The thing I always like to see is who can make individual plays against St. Pat’s level of talent, which always includes several Division I players, which is where Brian Neller and Pat Light showed me something, Neller in particular. He really turned it on at the end, particularly from downtown, which makes you wonder where that was for three quarters but also shows that Neller can seize the moment and make a big play. Light is just the ultimate competitor who backs down from no one, so I wasn’t surprised by his strong performance. Now the Colts just have to show that they can finish off a top opponent with a trophy on the line when we get to the postseason.
2. Monmouth’s Neil Thompson is the best junior guard in the Shore Conference: As a long-time boys basketball follower and coach said to me during Monmouth’s win over Lakewood, “If you’re a college coach and you’re recruiting junior guards in the Shore Conference, how are you not starting with Neil Thompson?” Thompson has elite level quickness, can reliably knock down threes, can defend, and can get into the paint and finish or find open teammates. I know that’s a strong statement given the fact that players that are also highly regarded like CBA’s Roy Mabrey and Manasquan’s Matt Vadas are out there among others, but that’s the way I see it right now. Thompson continues to work on his game and add more and more every season.
3. Monmouth’s Joe Willman is the most efficient scorer in the Shore Conference: He has to be shooting over 60 percent from the field easily this season, and it isn’t just lay-ups and dunks. That 12-foot jumper of his is nearly automatic. I was joking with Monmouth coach Larry Cirignano that I’m almost surprised when he shoots and it doesn’t go in, and he smiled and said, “So are we!” before laughing. Also, kudos to Cirignano, who dug into any info the school had and went through old newspapers to try and find all of the Monmouth school records, which Willman is breaking one by one as he became Monmouth’s all-time leading scorer on Saturday. It’s a nice problem to have. Yeah, we have a guy who’s obliterating every school record in sight, so we just want to make sure what those records are.
4. Asbury Park is a good team, but take the Blue Bishops out of their home gym and they’re vulnerable: With their fullcourt, trapping, end-to-end style, the Blue Bishops’ tiny home gym is perfect for their style. I should know because I played there on a visiting team when I was in high school and when you take the ball out of bounds on one side of the court, your feet usually are actually over the end line because there is so little space between there and the concrete wall in which the Asbury Park faithful feel like they are right on top of you, roaring for their team. The other side of the court is the end of the stage, which I nearly went off the end of once while diving for a loose ball. One good outlet pass and it’s a lay-up in an instant on the other side on that court. However, on the bigger court at Convention Hall, Rumson could handle the Blue Bishops’ press because there was more space to work with, and the Bulldogs kept the game low-scoring in the 40s. Asbury Park is averaging much more points at home than away, and don’t think other teams weren’t taking notes when RFH sat in a zone and forced the Blue Bishops to beat them shooting jumpshots. AP’s Dave Johnson is a good coach, so certainly they will make adjustments now that they’ve seen it, and Asbury Park also has an army of good offensive rebounders, led by senior Lamar Young, who has developed a knack for late-game heroics with last-second buckets in wins over Rumson and Point Beach.
5. Watch out for Toms River North: Quietly, while all the action was going on at Convention Hall, the Mariners had No. 3 Freehold on the ropes before Andrew Gerbehy saved the day with a 3-point play in the final seconds for the Colonials. This Toms River North team has an array of athletes and scorers, and when it cements its lineup and rotation, it will not be an easy out for anybody because it has several players who can guard multiple positions and are a match-up problem, like seniors Steve Nyisztor and Pat Szukics.
6. Middletown South has definitely improved: You knew under head coach Kevin Cullen that they weren’t going to just let the season get away from them, and we’ll see if they are really a different team when they take on Colts Neck again to start the second trip through their Class A North schedule. The good sign is that they are playing low-scoring games, which means their defense has gotten better. The big keys are guards Rob Callori and Jake Brodsky. If they get consistent scoring out of those two, this is a different team. Two areas that have to improve are ball-handling against the press and foul shooting. The Eagles tend ot overdribble against the press, and Neptune took full advantage of that to get a large chunk of points on Saturday, and foul shooting has cost South in losses to Colts Neck and Neptune.
7. We still don’t know which way Neptune is headed: The Scarlet Fliers found a way to beat a good team, Middletown South, thanks to Jabari Joyner’s game-winning jumper, but they still shot 1-for-19 from 3-point range and 20-for-58 overall. They simply cannot continue to shoot like that and pull games out in tournaments. The good sign is that their defense caused 23 turnovers and they shot 9-for-13 from the foul line. I think senior D.J. Gutridge is the best of the four senior guards right now because he always seems to be a factor in any game, whether it’s offensively, defensively, or both, while Joyner, Lem Walker and Thomas Jones tend to have flashes here and there before disappearing at times. I would never write a Neptune team off because the Fliers have proven too many times that they are up to the challenge.
8. Lakewood has to handle the ball better against top teams: The Piners showed that when they got into transition or the halfcourt that they have good one-on-one players who can break down their man and score. However, I don’t know how many times they kicked the ball away, threw it away or had other careless turnovers that you can’t have against a team like Monmouth. Their guard play will determine how far this team can go because if swingmen Jacob Grant and Jarrod Davis can get the ball on the wing in position to score, they are tough. If they have to handle the ball more than usual, that will take them out of their comfort zone.
9. Manasquan will go as far as Matt Vadas can take it: A legitimate 6-4 guard, Vadas is a match-up nightmare who can post up, score off the dribble, score in transition and knock down threes. I think you might see teams employ Holmdel’s strategy from Friday night, which is essentially that they know Vadas will get his points, so just stop everyone else while making sure senior guard Kyle Wehner doesn’t cause drouble from behind the arc. The Hornets did that, but didn’t have the offensive firepower to keep up without Erik Shirvanian in the lineup. Someone on Manasquan is going to have to emerge as that reliable second scoring option to Vadas, and one candidate in my mind is junior forward Neal Sterling.
10. Watch out for Shore and Middletown North: Both of these teams have come on recently, particularly North, which is back from the dead and right back in contention for a postseason berth. Shore took down a Red Bank Catholic team that was playing well in double overtime. These teams might be fringe teams when it comes to making the Shore Conference Tournament, but they also could be the last teams any others want to have to beat to qualify for the postseason or solidify a seed.
1. St. John Vianney is built to play with anybody, but does have a vulnerable spot: The Lancers nearly stunned Murry Bergtraum, but an offensive rebound by Doris Ortega did them in at the very end. The thing that makes SJV so dangerous offensively is that anyone can carry the offense for stretches. Freshman Michaela Mabrey and sophomore Jackie Kates did it for three quarters on Sunday before the Shore’s best closer right now, senior Katelyn Linney, brought them down the stretch. However, the loss showed that the Lancers can be hurt by a good offensive rebounding team. The thing is, I don’t exactly know who that team is in the Shore Conference because the next-best team, Colts Neck, has the same problem itself. Who would be that Shore team that would be able to really exploit SJV on the offensive glass? This Lancers team is just so solid considering that it withstood a treacherous week, which was interesting because Colts Neck had its hell week at the exact same time and also finished strong. I was definitely more impressed with SJV after Ortega said that this was the first team all year that they felt hung right with them and actually made them look like the tired team that couldn’t keep pace. Considering Bergtraum is by far the fastest team I have seen all year, that’s a heck of a compliment to SJV from the best player on a nationally-ranked team that has won 70 straight games.
2. Colts Neck’s season will come down to defensive rebounding because its offense is outstanding: This team’s offense can’t really be slowed down by anyone because its guards are so good off the dribble and play so well together. Plus, if Emily Laurence is going to knock down threes off kickouts like she did on Sunday, that makes this team even tougher to defend. They run that high screen and just get whatever they want off of it. That makes sealing off the defensive boards the No. 1 issue for this team. If they can do that in that crucial four-minute stretch to end a close game, they can beat anyone, SJV included. They also proved that they have the stamina to play back-to-back games with a small rotation against powerhouse teams and compete right to the end.
3. If the rest of Freehold’s starters are aggressive offensively, this team is dangerous: While Shannon Mayrose was excellent as usual and had 22 points in an upset of Red Bank Catholic, I thought it was the aggressiveness of Alex Eagle, Ashley Lewis and Simone Dixon offensively that really made the difference. It gave Mayrose more room to operate, and it got RBC’s frontcourt in foul trouble when one of those three would penetrate and get fouled. If they can do that consistently, the Colonials will be a tough out in the SCT.
4. Sophomore guard Kasey Hobbie makes RBC a better offensive team: While I think RBC”s guards still throw the ball away way too much, Hobbie has major scoring potential because she can knock it down from deep, get to the basket off the dribble and hit mid-range floaters. Her return makes this a team that struggles a lot less to score against good teams. This is still an extremely young team, but that is no excuse any more in the Shore Conference considering that Colts Neck won the SCT with a team full of sophomores last season and Neptune won a sectional title while being led by a pair of freshmen last season. The Caseys will have to get up to speed because teams like SJV, Colts Neck and Neptune will bring back everyone next season, too, so this group has to bring it up a notch. The talent is definitely there, and you would still rather have this loss in mid-January than in February. RBC is the type of team where the light switch could go on a week before the SCT and then it makes a great run, so it certainly can’t be counted out.
5. Neptune is lurking out there under the radar: The Scarlet Fliers quietly beat a well-respected Absegami team over the weekend and are still unbeaten. They haven’t had the high-profile match-ups of those like SJV, RFH and Colts Neck, so they haven’t been at the forefront, but they are hovering out there, preparing themselves to run the SCT gauntlet. Like Colts Neck, they rely almost exclusively on their starting lineup, but with sophomores Shakena Richardson and Syessence Davis, junior Sehmonyeh Allen and senior Marley Mauvais, they are dangerous. Still, they know that no one will believe in the record until they take down an SJV, Rumson or Colts Neck in a tournament game.
6. Middletown South is improving as the season goes along: The Eagles had a nice win over Freehold Township on Friday night and have SCT quarterfinal potential behind Danielle Pankey and Meghan McGuinness. This is a team that can slow the game down and maybe steal one from a well-regarded team, although if they get a No. 7 or No. 8 seed that means a likely meeting with SJV or Colts Neck, which they obviously want to avoid.
7. Colts Neck’s Lauren Clarke is throwing her hat in the ring in the early discussion for Player of the Year: Junior guard Lauren Clarke is right at the top of the discussion along with Katelyn Linney and Kate Miller when talking about first team All-Shore Conference players as she was tremendous in a loss to Shabazz and a win over Christ the King, with 29 points and 22 points, respectively. She also does it without taking a ton of shots as she gets to the free throw line, converts in the paint, and knocks down open threes when she gets them. Granted, much of it is because of the chemistry between her and Brooke Hampton and Tiffany DeTulio, but Clarke has showed up in a major way in every big game Colts Neck has had this season, and that’s the mark of a Player of the Year candidate.
8. We still don’t really know who that No. 5 team in the Shore is for sure: St. Rose occupies that spot now, but the Purple Roses are one of those teams that has beaten every team it has been favored against but has come up way short against the higher-ranked teams (i.e., St. John Vianney). RBC was a candidate, and then lost to Freehold. St. Rose still plays Rumson and RBC, so we’ll see what the Purple Roses do. Right now, there just doesn’t look like that team that can break up that top four of SJV, RFH, Neptune and Colts Neck. It could actually be Freehold if the Colonials are going to play like they did on Sunday.
9. There aren’t a whole lot of divisional races with any intrigue in them: Colts Neck (Class A North); Neptune (Class B North); St. Rose (Class B Central); and Manchester (Class B South) all look like runaways, and it looks like St. John Vianney’s next meeting with Rumson most likely decides Class A Central. Jackson had a two-game lead in Class A South coming into Monday’s game with Southern, but still would have to stumble twice for that division to get away from it.
10. Can anyone from Ocean County crack the top eight in the SCT?: Southern looked like a candidate before a loss to Toms River North, and Manchester is playing better after some early season stumbles, but once again it looks like an uphill battle, mainly because the Monmouth County teams all seem to play one another and have tougher schedules while the Ocean County squads mainly stick to their division and county until the SCT and state tournaments, other than maybe the WOBM Tournament.