The end of February means the conclusion of county tournaments in NJ high school basketball. The county tournaments were intense and filled with drama and didn’t come without the occasional upsets. As the calendar turns to March, and contenders are separated from pretenders as the state tournament unfolds. I’ll recap the county tournaments and make state title picks to determine who the 6 TOC teams will be.
County Tournament Recap:
Essex: The Essex County tournament was checkered by the injury of Seton Hall Prep superstar Jabri Abdur-Rahim. The sophomore hurt his knee in a regular season game against Orange and missed The Prep’s last 2 games of the tournament, including a semifinal loss to Montclair Immaculate. The record book will never show what could have happened if Abdur-Rahim had played in the tournament, but it will show that Newark East Side won their 5th title in school history (All in the last 18 years under co-coaches Bryant Garvin and Anthony Tavares). The Red Raiders dominated the first three rounds of the tournament and beat Immaculate for a third time this season in the final, 58-54. Despite a massive size gap between them and Immaculate, East Side won because of the leadership and guile of guards Shamir Johnson and Jahid Jenkins, who proved quicker than the taller front line of IC, and responded when Immaculate made a run in the 4th quarter.
Union: The premier county for basketball in New Jersey is almost always Union. This year was no different, with 4 teams in the county being ranked in the last NJ.com Top 20. However, the games in the county tournament were less than stellar, with Patrick School and Roselle Catholic winning in convincing fashion over St Mary’s (Elizabeth) and Linden in the semifinals and Roselle beating Pat’s 66-56 in the title game. The win was historic for the Lions as it was their first county tournament win despite winning multiple state championships in the last 5 years.
Hudson: The first 3 rounds were a mere prelude, a formality, leading up to the showdown between St. Peter’s Prep and Hudson Catholic. Both non-public powers trampled public schools like Lincoln, Memorial and Union City by 20 or more points to advance to the title game. In the title game, Hudson Catholic playing without All-American Louis King seemed poised to blow out Prep. But Prep was able to stay within striking distance, and even cut the lead to 6 with a minute left. However, Jahvon Quinerly was phenomenal as usual, torching Prep for 24 points and effectively ending the game with some “Jelly” with 22 seconds left.
Bergen: Similar to its more urban county to the south (Hudson), Bergen’s early rounds were chalk, leading up to a battle between Don Bosco and Bergen Catholic. Despite it being the third installment of a series, the game on Friday, Feb.24 at FDU was underwhelming. The game was brutal to watch as both teams played deliberate offense and shot poorly from the field. Bosco won 54-38 because of a huge game from Rutgers commit Ron Harper, who finished with 25 points, and steady free throw shooting that put the game away in the closing minutes.
Shore Conference (Monmouth/Ocean): The Shore Conference tournament this year should be re-named the Ranney showcase. Ranney dominated their 4 games in the SCT, beating Barnegat, Toms River North, and CBA by double digits while holding an in-game dunk contest between junior stars Scottie Lewis and Bryan Antoine, and trouncing Mater Dei in the final 52-28. What makes the victory in the final all the more remarkable is that it was against a team ranked No.13 in the state and Ranney beat them like they were Keyport or Asbury Park, playing Virginia-esque defense in the win.
State Playoff Preview:
It’s a bit tedious to cover all 20 sections in depth and predict each one so I’ll give a brief prediction of who will win each section and what 6 teams will be group champions and get to the TOC (Tournament of Champions) in late March.
Group 4: The group 4 brackets are the best public school brackets in NJ by a wide margin, especially North 2 Group 4 and South Group 4. South Group 4 is loaded and will come down to a showdown between Shawnee and Atlantic City, which Shawnee will win because of home court advantage. North 2 Group 4 features good yet untested teams like Millburn and Scotch Plains-Fanwood, and proven powerhouses Linden and Newark East Side. I see Newark East Side beating Linden in the final in an all-time classic, using their team mentality to beat Tavon Jones reliant Linden. Newark East Side then defeats Hackensack and Shawnee at Rutgers to get to the TOC for the first time since 2014, when Seton Hall’s Ishmael Sanogo was a senior.
Group 3: As the schools get smaller, the brackets become more predictable. I see group 3 coming down to a battle between Neptune, the Central Jersey Group 3 winner who is battle tested with size, and Ramapo, the North 1 Group 3 Champ. Ramapo is able to pull out a close win over Neptune by getting La Salle commit Jared Kimbrough in foul trouble and playing disciplined, team basketball led by KC Hunt and Jason Oppler.
Group 2: I see Group 2 coming down to a battle between South Jersey champ Camden and Central Jersey Champ Rumson Fair Haven. RFH has the size and guard play to go toe-to-toe with Camden but I think the fact that Camden’s played a tougher out of conference schedule this year (Gill St. Bernard’s, Patrick School, St. Augustine Prep) puts them ahead of RFH in a 5 or 6 point game. Camden will then proceed to beat Newark West Side at Rutgers and advance to the TOC.
Group 1: Cresskill will win Group 1 as the little team that could. I see Glen Ridge and Point Pleasant Beach giving them close games, but Cresskill coming out on top because of their abnormal size (two 6’5 forwards) for a group 1 school.
Now, we move on to the groups of death: The non-publics.
Non-Public A: North: I see Don Bosco Prep winning this section because of their size and experience. They’re battle tested and nearly won the TOC last year. They return the same cast of characters and are primed to get back to the TOC and possibly get over the hump and win this year. The only suspense for them is who they’ll play at Rutgers and RWJ Barnabas Arena to get there. Who they’ll play at Rutgers will be Seton Hall Prep if Jabri Abdur-Rahim is healthy or St. Peter’s Prep if Jabri’s knee continues to ail him.
South: The South Bracket is comparatively weak this year because CBA, St. Augustine, and St Joe’s Metuchen aren’t as loaded as they were in past years. This bracket is truly up for grabs, but I think St. Augustine will win it because although they are young and experience growing pains this year, they did beat Atlantic City by 10, and if that Hermits team shows up in the playoffs they’ll come out on top. The Hermits will put up a fight, but ultimately bow out to Bosco at Barnabas Arena.
Non-Public B: North: This is the toughest bracket in New Jersey history. Patrick School, a team ranked in the NJ. Com Top 20 and who took down nationally ranked St. Benedict’s, is the 12 seed in this bracket. THE TWELVE SEED. This bracket features 3 of the top 4 teams in the state: Gill St. Bernard, Hudson Catholic, and Roselle Catholic. Ultimately, I think Roselle Catholic comes out on top, beating Hudson Catholic with a gimpy Louis King, and Patrick School for a fourth time at Rutgers.
South: This bracket is Ranney’s to lose. Bar none. After their performance against Mater Dei in the SCT final, they look nearly unstoppable until they play Roselle Catholic in Toms River for the Group title. The only team that will challenge them in the playoffs is 24-2 Wildwood Catholic. I see Ranney playing Roselle close for three quarters before bowing out to the Lions, although Ranney will be a heavy favorite for the TOC next year.