The basketball season in New Jersey is just over the horizon, with games tipping off on Thursday evening all around the Shore and the entire state. The Shore Conference is set for another intriguing season after three of its teams won NJSIAA sectional championships last year and two more went to sectional championship games. Here are 10 of the most pressing questions heading into opening night, most of which will need an entire season to answer in full.
Is St. Rose ready for the big stage?
With three overseas transfers and three transfers from other programs in New Jersey, St. Rose got a major facelift over the offseason. Second-year coach Brian Lynch figured to be an impact hire for the program given his professional background as a player and coach in Europe and his presence has had an effect on the caliber of players who are interested in the program.
Junior Matt Hodge – a 6-foot-8 wing from Belgium and a family friend of Lynch – and his brother, Jaden, are the headline additions for St. Rose, while in-state transfers Gioacchino Panzini (Red Bank Catholic), Peter Mauro (Gill St. Bernard’s) and Evan Romano (Holmdel) are all major additions that have at least two high-school seasons left. St. Rose will have to wait until mid-January for the New Jersey transfers to become eligible but once everyone is active, the Purple Roses have the talent to win the Shore Conference Tournament title and could very well end up the favorite in the South Jersey section of Non-Public B.
Will Manasquan have to go through Camden to win an elusive state championship?
For any team playing in either the Central or South sections of the NJSIAA Group II Tournament over the past decade, the championship runs through Camden. Even when Manasquan escaped Group II for Group III last year, the Warriors ran into Woodrow Wilson of Camden and bowed out against the Tigers in the group semifinal round.
This season, however, Manasquan may not have to go through the Camden juggernaut in order to get to the Group II championship. The NJSIAA is currently investigating potential recruiting violations that could disqualify the Camden boys basketball program from the state tournament for this season and beyond. Should the Panthers program be cleared to defend its Group II championship, their start-studded team would represent a major road-block for Manasquan. With the likes of Roselle Catholic, the Patrick School, Don Bosco and St. Rose on Manasquan’s schedule, the Warriors will be as ready as they can be for whatever is waiting for them.
Can CBA crash the beach party?
Manasquan and St. Rose appear to be on a collision course for the Shore Conference Tournament final, but there could be some legitimate obstacles standing between that championship game, most namely CBA. The Colts return four starters from a team that made it to the SCT final four a year ago and, unlike St. Rose, will not have to deal with any potential pitfalls of waiting for transfers to become eligible. The Colts will actually host St. Rose on the day before the Shore Conference Tournament is likely to be seeded and that might be an opportunity for CBA to not only clinch the No. 2 seed in the SCT but, perhaps knock St. Rose out of the No. 3 spot, depending on how the Purple Roses fair with only part of their roster during the first month of the season.
Who emerges as the fourth best team at the Shore?
Manasquan and CBA have the best returning rosters on paper and St. Rose added a mountain of talent through transfers, making for a fairly clear top three to open the Shore Conference season. The No. 4 spot, however, could be anybody’s guess. Recent Top 10 mainstays Rumson-Fair Haven, Marlboro and Red Bank Catholic lost entire starting lineups, while Ranney, Holmdel and St. John Vianney lost most of theirs, leaving a void in the middle of the Top 10 ready to be filled – perhaps by the revamped versions of those aforementioned teams.
Out of those six teams above, Ranney returns the best top talent, with All-Shore guard Isaac Hester and Patrick School transfer Jahlil Bethea leading the way. St. John Vianney and Red Bank Catholic hope to have the depth to cover the loss of several standouts to graduation and transfers, while Holmdel still brings back three-quarters of its impressive underclass quartet from a year ago. Freehold Township remains a team to watch near the top of the conference, while Ocean County could get into the mix as well with several teams looking to build on last year. Speaking of which…
Who will conquer Ocean County?
The answer to this question was not all that clear last year, so it remains a valid one heading into 2023. Manchester was probably the most talented team from start to finish, won its Class B South division, was eliminated from the state tournament by Camden and lost a competitive SCT quarterfinal to Red Bank Catholic. Jackson Memorial beat Manchester, was the highest-seeded Ocean County team in the SCT and was one basket away from reaching the Central Jersey Group IV championship game. Brick Memorial won the Class A South division title and was also one shot away from making it to a sectional final.
Those three figure to be involved in this year’s push for the top spot in Ocean County, with Central Regional and Toms River North also looking to make a run with most of its 2021-22 team back. It stands to reason, though, that both Ocean County and Class A South will come down to Jackson Memorial and Brick Memorial, both of which graduated all-division interior players, but return just about every other key player from last year’s competitive teams.
Which team will reload quickest: Marlboro, Rumson or Keyport?
Marlboro engineered its greatest season in program history, Keyport had its best season in 18 years and Rumson-Fair Haven made it as far as it ever had before running into Camden in the Group II semifinals. Their season-ending losses all hit especially hard because all three were heavily-influenced by seniors, with Marlboro and Keyport graduating all-time classes in the history of their programs.
Marlboro is also under the direction of a new coach in James Reuter, who will be dealing with multiple key injuries from the jump on top of the general inexperience. Keyport, meanwhile, brings back a handful of role players on a team that should still have a shot at contending for the Class B Central championship, if not a Central Jersey Group I title.
The safe bet is Rumson, a program that has consistently reloaded under coach Chris Champeau. This year, however, might mark one of the tougher turnarounds Champeau has faced, with the 2021-22 Bulldogs boasting an all-senior starting five.
With questions in the Top 10, is there a sleeper team?
The door could be open for an Ocean County team to get back to the SCT semifinals – something not done by a school other than Toms River North since 2008, when Donovan Catholic reached the SCT final. Even within Ocean County, though, there is some sleeper potential with Southern, Toms River East and Point Boro. Southern has shown itself to be a tough out over the last two seasons, while Toms River East brings back an entire lineup from a team that improved over the course of the season. Point Boro doesn’t have as much back, but had more to work with throughout last year and relied on scoring from up and down the roster in 2021-22.
As for Monmouth County, the options are even more abundant. Raritan came excruciatingly close to reach the sectional final in Central Jersey Group II and brings back a solid nucleus from that team. Both Middletown teams enter the season with intrigue, with North hiring Eric Youncofski as its new head coach and Middletown South bringing back some key pieces from a team that flashed potential last season, albeit without enough consistency.
There is another team with both a new coach and some key pieces back that could be a particularly interesting follow this season and beyond.
Can Sourlis elevate Red Bank?
George Sourlis ran one of the state’s most consistent girls basketball programs for three decades at Rumson-Fair Haven and after a brief stint away from the sideline, he decided to try his hand in coaching the boys team at the school two-and-a-half miles west on Ridge Road. Red Bank was not exactly starved for good coaching under longtime head man Scott Martin, but the rejuvenated Sourlis could provide a jolt for the Bucs, who bring back a solid trio in Nick Valentino, Collin Teter and Braydon Kirkpatrick. With Rumson and RBC suffering some losses to their rosters, the door is open for Red Bank – the public co-champion in Class B North a year ago – to take advantage in the new-look B North division.
What does Ranney have left in the tank?
Four seasons ago, Ranney became the first – and, presumably, the last – Shore Conference boys team to ever win the NJSIAA Tournament of Champions and since then, the Panthers have been competitive, but far from the dominant version of themselves that they displayed for back-to-back Shore Conference championship seasons. Last year’s team had a capable, athletic starting five around Hester and will have to find a way to support the All-Shore guard.
The addition of Bethea from the Patrick School will help once he is eligible and the development of junior Drew Buck will also be key, but the rest of the team is unproven and also undersized. There is enough talent for Ranney to be a top 10 team, but with a more limited roster and its two stars entering their senior year, one has to wonder where Ranney – a program that has elevated to elite status within the Shore Conference – goes from here.
How much juice will the division races have?
Since the 2019-20 season, the Shore Conference has gone from 46 teams in six divisions to seven divisions a year ago to 45 teams and eight divisions this season. The shortened winter season prompted the move, giving teams a chance to schedule opponents outside the division with fewer divisional games to play. While the new structure preserves showcases and high-profile non-conference match-ups, it remains to be seen how the division races are affected.
On one hand, they could be watered-down. Class A North and Class B Central have only five teams apiece, which means only eight games will determine a division champion where it used to require 14. Class A Central is now home to three teams that finished in last place in their respective divisions a year ago (Matawan, Freehold Boro and Long Branch), while Class C South does not have a team in its field that won a division championship of any kind last year.
On the other hand, more divisions mean more champions in fewer games, which means more on the line every night. Teams in B Central, B South, C South, B North and A Central that might not have been playing for something were they in a top-heavier division might now find themselves with a chance to do more than just qualify for postseason tournaments during the regular season. It’s a new wrinkle in a new world of high school basketball in New Jersey and there are sure to be teams that make the most of it.