Today I examine each of the 16 teams in the Class I boys tournament. I've seen all 16 of these teams play, and I go into detail describing each team's chances in the tournament.
First, the bracket:
16) Merrimack Valley
9) John Stark
3) Oyster River
Now, handicapping the field:
This team was the consensus preseason #1 team in Class I and they finish the regular season at #1. If I had to make a prediction for who will win this tournament, it would be them. You cannot underestimate how much getting Scott McCallum back in the lineup means to this team. The 6'3" junior has been out of the lineup for the past several weeks with a broken wrist. But he's expected to be back in time for the tournament. McCallum is a vital role player for Milford. They just flat out play better basketball when he's on the floor. He just fits in so well with the rest of the team chemistry-wise and whenever the team is making a big run in a game, there's a pretty good chance McCallum hit a dagger three pointer somewhere in the run. The other thing this team has going for them is that 6'4" junior forward Kyle Nelson has really stepped up his game over the second half of the season. And oh by the way, they have the "Big 3" of Mike Mitchell, Mike O'Loughlin and Jamie Holder. Milford ended the regular season an 11 game winning streak. Expect them to make it 13 heading into UNH. This team is the favorite, but they're not invincible. I could see Pembroke or Portsmouth giving them some trouble. Oyster River and Lebanon also could also surprise them.
This is a very fun team to watch. Yes they lack size. But they have 6 kids who all can run, handle the ball and shoot. These guys constantly attack teams. If you turn the ball over against them, they're going to turn it into 2 points for them on the other end, and they're going to do it fast. Guard Rene Maher is a freshman but he doesn't play like it. He can handle the ball, shoot it, defend, and even though he's only 5'7" he isn't afraid to take it to the bucket against players much bigger. I said before the season even started that senior guard Dalton Cheney was one of the state's most underrated players, and he has definitely lived up to that billing. Another kid that is constantly attacking the basket and is a very good role player. This team also has 2 Player of the Year candidates in seniors Coleton Neely and Sheldon Benson. This team has the ability to win it all. At times however they do struggle against teams with a dominant big man. They lost to 6'7" Kevin Cressy and Merrimack Valley over the holidays, they lost to 6'6" Tom Poitras and Bow early in the season and they were down by about 20 at the half to 6'8" Tyler Penney and Bishop Brady. Sheldon Benson usually has to cover the opposing team's center. Benson is not a center, he's a guard. He's been playing out of position all year, and that's why teams with dominant bigs have fared well. One spot where they do have an edge over pretty much every team in Class I is coaching. Matt Alosa, who is also one of the greatest players to come out of NH, gets everything out of his players. He prepares his team well, and excels in late game situations.
#3 Oyster River
Oyster River has lost in the quarterfinals each of the last 2 years despite being favored both times. Last year they lost at home to Portsmouth and 2 years ago they were 19-0 going into the game but lost at UNH to Pembroke. So you can bet that even though they're the #3 seed and are riding a 12 game winning streak they won't take anyone lightly, especially in the quarterfinals. 6'2" senior point guard Tommy McDonnell is a Player of the Year candidate. As he goes, so go the Bobcats. If he's on his game, getting to the rim, hitting shots and getting everyone involved this team is real tough. But if he's turning it over, forcing shots and trying to do too much they'll get beat. When this team is really at its best though is when everyone is getting involved. When they're getting out and running, and guys like Jack Nadeau, Adam Goodwin, Chris Walker, Alex Hennessy, Robert Sack, Dylan Kelly and Jake Finacharrio are all contributing. Then you also have defensive stopper Donovan Kelley who is coming back from a shin injury which sidelined him for a few weeks. That's 9 players I just mentioned. So even though Milford and Pembroke are the top 2 seeds, the one thing that Oyster River DEFINITELY has on them is depth. Milford and Pembroke only 6 or 7 players they can count on. Oyster River has 8, and and you can make that 9 if Kelley is 100% healthy. The other advantage the Bobcats have is size. Goodwin is 6'5" and Nadeau is 6'4", and both players can put up points in a hurry down low.
All three of the teams that are seeded higher than Portsmouth are fast breaking, run and gun teams. Portsmouth is not. Yes, Portsmouth has already beaten Milford, Oyster River and Pembroke. But that was way back in January. If they want any chance of beating any of those teams now they'll have to make it a half court game. Like Alosa, Jim Mulvey is also a very good coach and will have them ready to go no matter who they're playing. Mike Barton is a first team all-state player and Kyle DiCesare is an up and coming sophomore. They're disciplined and solid defensively. Like Pembroke, they also lack inside scoring, though. All of their offense comes from either shooting it from the outside or slashing to the bucket. What they do though is play smart, disciplined, unselfish team basketball. Because of that, they can compete with anyone.
Their win over Milford in the Keene holiday tourney has been well documented. This team can play. They have a very good home court advantage. They have a pair of solid inside scorers with 6'5" Jimmy Kane and 6'4" Jake Woodward. Woodward is a possible Player of the Year in Class I. He's big, strong and fast. He can score inside and out. He can go for 20-30 points on any given night. Kane can score inside and freshman guard David Hampton can shoot it from the outside. And senior point guard Dillon Mccarthy does a little bit of everything. But overall, they don't have a ton of offensive firepower. If you want to beat them you gear your defense to stopping Woodward and make the other guys beat you. You also will want to make it a fast paced game. Because while Woodward is fast for a kid his size overall their biggest weakness is a lack of speed. Fortunately for them in the tournament the pace of the game usually does slow down. Lebanon has a possible quarterfinal match-up looming with Portsmouth. That would be THE must see game of the night.
No disrespect to Kearsarge, but there definitely appears to be a dropoff from the #5 seed to #6. You look at their roster and you say, "Who are these guys?" They don't have any first team all-state players, they don't have the biggest team, they don't have the fastest team, they don't have great shooters, and they're not very deep. What they are though is a tough, hard nosed group of kids who play as a team. They don't care who scores, just as long as the team scores. Their best player is senior guard cam Heffron. Heffron embodies what this team is. Unselfish, nothing flashy, just plays hard and plays smart. I don't think anyone expects these guys to go all the way, or even make it to Durham. But this team has already overachieved big time. No one expected them to win 11 games in the regular season. You have to give coach Nate Camp a lot of credit for what he has done with this team.
Bow is a tough team to figure out. They have wins against 3 teams seeded in the top 6 (Pembroke, Oyster River and Kearsarge). But all of those wins came way back in January. Since then, the only tourney team they've beaten is #16 seed Merrimack Valley. On paper, the Falcons have the talent to make a run and get to Durham. They have a good 1-2 punch on the low block with 6'6" senior Tom Poitras and 6'4" junior Josh Faber. A solid backcourt that can give teams fits on both ends of the floor in junior Erik Michaud and Connor Hill. And a 6'1 junior wing Ryan Hill who can make plays and plays the game hard. This team was playing much better basketball in the beginning of the season. But if they can get back on the same page and rediscover their "January Magic they have what it takes to get to Durham.
See a trend here? Hanover, Lebanon and Kearsarge, all teams from up North are all half court teams. Whereas the Southern teams like Milford, Pembroke, Oyster River and Pelham are all fast paced, run and gun teams. It's an interesting comparison. Hanover is definitely a team that wants to slow it down. Like Lebanon, they're a very good defensive team in the half court, but they don't have the speed to keep up with the faster teams if it becomes a transition basketball game. One player to watch for them is junior guard Sam Carney. Over the last couple of years, he has had big games against Class I's weaker teams, and hasn't produce nearly as well against tougher competition. This year's tournament is his chance to show if he belong's among the state's top guards. At the same time, he doesn't have much help offensively. So teams are going to focus their whole defense on stopping him. It would be interesting to see how he would do with more talent around him. Perhaps in the coming weeks we will see some other players emerge for Hanover. If that happens, and if they keep teams playing at their pace, they could make it a game with Milford in the quarterfinals. But if those 2 things don't happen, they'll get beat by John Stark in the prelims.
#9 John Stark
This is a fun team to watch. They run up and down the court, they take a lot of three's, they take the first open shot they see and they push the tempo all game long. They're very similar to the way Dover was playing early in the year. if they can get hot from the outside they can beat anybody. But if they go cold from downtown they can lose to almost anybody. Junior Greg LeBlond is one of the best shooters in the state while Steve Johnstone and Tim Plunkett can also shoot it from deep. Even 6'5" center Ethan O'Neill can shoot it from the outside, but he is also an effective inside scorer. This team is decent defensively, but simply due to their fast, frenetic style of play they do give up a lot of easy baskets.
The Python were a consensus top 3 or 4 team in Class I preseason. They've had a disappointing season so far. But in the tournament sometimes all you need is one dominant player who gets hot and that can be enough to get you to Durham. If it happens this year for Pelham, forward Steve Spirou will be that guy. The 6'4" junior is an excellent inside scorer, is best at slashing to the rim and also has an improved jump shot this season. He's the kind of player who can put a team on his back and lead them to where they want to go. After struggling to beat anybody in the middle of the season, the Pythons finished the year by winning 5 of 6 and 7 of their last 9. Most of those wins came against bad teams though. Should be interesting to see how far this team goes, because like fellow juniors David Madol and Connor Green, Spirou is also a player that could possibly leave after the season for prep school.
Which Kingswood team will show up, the team that beat Portsmouth and Bedford or the team that lost to Kennett and St. Thomas? The team that had a 35-30 lead late in the first half four nights ago on the road against Oyster River, or the team was outscored 57-27 over the final 18 minutes of that game? This team does have some talent though. They can run and put points on the board fast with Kevin Smithwood, Dylan Lovering, Tate Jozokos and Kohl Meyers. They can put points on the board but the problem with them is defense.
Bedford, in just its second year of varsity basketball, has to be proud of what they've done. Many people were really doubting them before the season, and for such a new program winning 11 games is impressive. At the same time, they can't like the way they ended their season. After starting off the year 7-1, they finished just 4-6 including a 13 point loss to a below average Hollis team to end the season. This team has been searching for an identity all year. Did they want to run or play half court, just play 7 guys or go 10 or 11 deep, which one is the go-to guy? These are all questions that have been asked all season. They'll need to be answered if the Bulldogs want to make a run. They do have some talent, though. 6'4" junior Joey Maher is arguably the best rebounder in the state, 6'3" senior Tyler Weber has a good all around game and 6'1" point guard Mike Marinelli is a good leader who can score and defend on the perimeter. This team has question marks. But they also have a group of tough, hard nosed kids who love the game of basketball and never quit. The other good news for them is that 6'5" Jared Fahmy should be returning to the program next season, after spending this past winter over at Brewster Academy.
Another team that has a bunch of talent but faded down the stretch. The Sabers lost 4 of their last 5 and 5 of their last 7 to end the regular season. One of their better big guys, 6'4" junior Brendan McKenna, left the team in the middle of the season. It seems like this team is divided between the older guys and the younger guys. If they can all get along and play together as a team they could be pretty good. Even without McKenna, there's talent there. Sophomore wing Devin Gilligan, junior guard Seth Cordts, sophomore guard Jack Nelson, junior forward Nick Hession, junior forward Ryan Redmond and senior forward DJ Petropulos. These guys have some kids who can play. But you'll notice that 5 of those 6 players are sophomores or juniors. Are they thinking about next year already?
Give Coach Soucy a lot of credit. Nobody, myself included, expected much from Hollis this year. I didn't think they would make the tournament. Bishop Brady has much more talent than the Cavaliers do. This team got embarrassed week after week at the Rivier Fall League just a few months ago. I saw them lose by 50 to Trinity in the Riv. League Playoffs. I saw them look real bad in the Nashua holiday tourney in a loss to Bedford. If someone told me after either one of those games that this team would win 5 of their last 6 games to end the season, with 3 of those 5 wins coming against Bow, Souhegan and Bedford I would have told them to get out of my face! So kudos to Coach Soucy, and kudos to his players for working hard all year. They have a lot to be proud of. Even though their season will end against Oyster River in the prelims.
Here's one team that finished right about where they were expected to be. They're a young team though, and their top 3 players will all be back next year. 6'3" sophomore forward Skyler Mitchell has a bright future, and 5'10" junior guard Dan Lang is one of those kids who plays the game the right way and gets the most out of his talent. They also will return 6'5" junior Kristian Lucy, who has a raw game but has only been playing basketball for a couple of years. If he keeps working hard, him and Mitchell will be real tough inside next year for the Bears.
#16 Merrimack Valley
For a team that beat Pembroke over the holidays, and has one of the top 10 college prospects in the class of 2010, you sure expect more than a #16 seed. Unfortunately, 6'7" Kevin Cressy was inconsistent and it didn't help that he was double and triple teamed all year and had to do it all himself. The Pride will lose to Milford in the prelims and then they will really struggle next year without Cressy.