Thursday, December 16, 2010

Boys Basketball Division II Preview

For the 2nd straight season, Milford is the hands down favorite in this division (which used to be called Class I). The gap between the Spartans and everybody else is even larger this year though. The other top teams all graduated key guys (like Tommy McDonnell, Mike Barton and Sheldon Benson). And some teams who weren't graduating top guys lost them anyways (Mike Lombard, Richard O'Brien and Jack Nelson). Meanwhile Milford returns their 4 best players from the team that won it all a year ago, which only makes the gap between them and everyone else even bigger.

"Milford is the clear favorite in our league" said one Division II coach. "After that I think there are a lot of teams that all match up really well and can all make a run to UNH."

Here's a look at those teams.

Here is a ranking of how the division's top teams are looking heading into the season. It is NOT a predicted order of finish - I don't take strength of schedule into account. I rank how good the teams are and that's it.

The Favorite

1) Milford
How much more can be said about this team before the season has even started? Well they have 2 of the top 5 players in the entire state (Mike O'Loughlin and Jamie Holder), 3 of the top 10 players in NH (add in Mike Mitchell), 4 of the top 20 players (add in Kyle Nelson) and 5 of the state's top 25 players (add in Scott McCallum). Last year it was the "Big 3", but now it's the "Big 5." All 5 of them are seniors and all 5 of them have a pretty darn good chance of playing basketball at the collegiate level.

All 5 of them play so well together. They pressure teams defensively, get out on the break, share the ball well in transition or in the half court, they attack the rim at will with their Memphis dribble drive offense and they can also knock down shots from the outside. Mitchell, O'Loughlin and Holder are all VERY talented kids who can make plays and have played high level AAU basketball for years now. While Nelson and McCallum are 2 of the most improved players in the state over the last year.

Off the bench look for forward Dan Desmairas and guards Richie Moore and Jovi Philbrick to compete for minutes.

Milford's Top Challengers

Good team, good program, good coach. I was VERY impressed with what I saw from this team on Sunday night when I saw them scrimmage Dover. Portsmouth played excellent defense all game long and they played superb team basketball. Coach Mulvey has a system that works and wins games. It is clear that the players on this team have bought into the system and also that they all know what their roles are within the team. Late in the game when both teams had starters or key players out there Portsmouth outscored Dover (#6 ranked D-I team) 15-2. This Clipper team is for real.

They play extremely tough defense. They can play man-to-man-zone or match-up zone. They challenge every shot. DiCesare is a talented wing player who scored 20+ points both times Portsmouth played Milford last year. He has a very good all-around game, hustles after loose balls, makes the extra pass and can score in bunches. Unfortunately it does look like the Clippers will be without their star junior to begin the season.

"Kyle did break the athletic contract" explained head coach Jim Mulvey.

As good as DiCesare is this team is about much more than him. In the 1st quarter of the Dover scrimmage he didn't play at all, yet Portsmouth still jumped out to a 19-6 lead out of the gate against the Dover starting lineup. They return starting forward Riley McCarthy, a 6'4" senior, along with 6'0" junior guard Greg Tsougranis, 6'3" forward Charlie Duprey and 6'4" senior center Quinn Heggarty who were all contributors to last year's team that made it to the semi-finals before falling to eventual champion Milford in overtime. Add in 5'10" junior point guard Kamal Walker, a transfer from Worcester, MA and 5'11" sophomore guard Terrance Herbert who comes up from JV and you have a squad that plays hard, plays together and is poised to win a lot of games. Walker is a quick player who excels in transition and has a good pull-up game. Herbert is a tough kid, a good role player who hustles all over the court and can also make the outside shot. Duprey and Tsougranis have both improved a lot since last season, Heggarty brings size and good interior defense to the table while McCarthy is one of the more underrated bigs in the division.

Portsmouth might start off a little slower without DiCesare, although even without him they're a pretty good team. Then when he returns to the lineup watch out.

3) Pembroke
Pembroke once again looks to be one of the top teams in the division. They graduated 9 seniors and lose 4 starters off last year's team. Still, I do expect them to make yet another return trip back to UNH.

"We are small and young, but quick and have some skill at certain positions" said head coach Matt Alosa. "More skill than the average high school player."

The Spartans will be led by a young but talented back court of 5'7 sophomore Rene Maher, 6'0" sophomore Matt Persons and 5'10" freshman Patrick Welch. These are the three guys who will really make this team go. They're all quick, they can all handle the basketball and they can all shoot it. Off the bench you have two more guards who can play the game at a fast pace in senior Nick Lavoie (transfer from Merrimack Valley) and freshman Brad Rhoades. None of those guys are over 6'0". but I still expect them to have at least 3 if not 4 of them on the floor at all times. It would be a small lineup, but they did the same thing last year and that worked out pretty good for them.

In the front court look for 6'4 junior Tyler Morrison, 6'3" freshman Jordan Williams and 6'3" junior Kent Noyes to be the main guys. Morrison is a big body with big potential, Noyes is an athletic kid who has improved quite a bit since last season. And Williams has perhaps the most upside of anyone on the team due to size and athleticism at such a young age. He could end up being MUCH taller, and he's already a good rebounder. However an injury to one of his forwards could force Alosa to go with a small lineup often, at least early on.

"Jordan Williams is recovering from a knee injury" explained Coach Alosa. "Not sure when he will return."

Still, even without Williams in the lineup this is a team that gave Bishop Guertin all they could handle and even won a couple quarters on Tuesday night in scrimmage action. They have the speed, skill and excellent coaching to once again make a run. Furthermore, many of the Pembroke players train together year round as part of the Granite State raiders AAU program.

Lastly, one of the hot topics over the off-season was the 3 players who were planning on petitioning the NHIAA for an extra year of eligibility. One of them was Pembroke guard Coleton Neely. Well, he didn't the extra year.

"Neely has move out of the area to a school in CT, as far as I'm aware" said Alosa.

Other Top Teams

4) Oyster River
Like Portsmouth and Pembroke, Oyster River is another team you can expect to get better as the season goes on. Portsmouth will be getting DiCesare back in the lineup, Pembroke will have Williams returning from injury. And Oyster River has a couple key guys who will also start off on the sidelines. 6'1" senior guard Dylan Kelley is suspended for 2 weeks but will be back in the lineup for the Oyster River Holiday Tournament. And another one of the Bobcats projected starters will also begin the season on the sideline.

"Spencer Wyand has a sore hamstring and hopefully will be available for us by the 1st of the year" explained head coach Stuart Mitchell.

I got a chance to see these guys play quite a bit during the fall, and I really liked what I saw. They play with a toughness and a swagger that you often see in good teams. They're fearless and they don't back down from anybody, especially their top players in 6'5" forward Adam Goodwin, 6'0" guard Chris Walker, 6'4" forward Alex Hennessy and Kelley. Yes, all 4 of those guys are seniors. And yes, all 4 of them have gotten MUCH better since last winter. Goodwin put on a show at the Eastern Basketball Preseason Showcase, an event which featured some of the best seniors in the entire state. Walker has gone from strictly a spot-up shooter to a player who can handle the basketball, play either guard spot, push the ball in transition, knock down the three off the dribble or the catch and he is also now deadly when slashing to the rim. Look for him to have a breakout year and to join Goodwin as all-state players. Hennessy is also a very active inside player who really gets after it on the boards and is tough defensively as well.

Look for Nick DiVeglia, Anthony Shea and Tom Gehling to provide depth off the bench.

"Our weakness is the fact that we are not very deep, hopefully our strength will be our experience as all of the starters have some level of varsity experience" said coach Mitchell.

The most impressive thing to me about the Bobcats was during fall league when they beat Central Catholic (Lawrence, MA). Central is a team that won the entire state of Massachusetts last year and will be a top contender once again this season. And yes, scholarship player and 6'7" forward Jimmy Zenevitch DID play in that game (as did 6'4" wing prodigy Joel Barroa).

Oyster River won that game without Wyand in the lineup. Once they have him and Kelly back in there, along with Goodwin, Walker and Hennessy this will be a very scary opponent for a lot of D-II teams.

5) Souhegan
One team you can definitely expect a big jump from. Last year after a hot start they faltered late and only finished as the #13 seed before falling in the 1st round to Portsmouth. The good news though is that the Sabers return their 3 best players plus their 6th man. Look for big years from 6'2" senior guard Seth Cordts, 6'4" junior wing Devin Gilligan and 6'4" senior forward Ryan Redmond. All 3 are potential all-state players. Cordts is tough as nails, an excellent defender who can handle the basketball, shoot it and go hard to the rim. Gilligan is a tough match-up as a 6'4" kid who can score and rebound inside but also face-up from the perimeter and go by people. Redmond is a strong post player with good size and skill set. He scored 25 points in the playoff loss to Portsmouth last year. That is as good of a "Big 3" in the division outside of Milford.

Cordts, Gilligan and Redmond are all such good scorers that their other starters don't really have to be. That's why senior wing Nick Hession fits in so well with this team, because he doesn't need to score to be effective. Hession is the kind of player who can help the team in a number of other ways, like playing tough defense, having the versatility to play 3 different positions on the floor and being a "glue guy."

We will be young but I like our talent level and commitment" said head coach Mike Heaney. "We had a great summer and fall off season."

One of the players who impressed during the fall is 5'6" sophomore point guard Brandon Len. Len is a true point guard who knows who to run an offense, distribute the basketball and control the tempo of the game. He will get the ball to the team's scorers in a position where they can score. Len also has the ability to drill the 3, mid-range pull-up and finish at the rim as well, so he can score if you pay too much attention to the "Big 3."

Len was part of an undefeated JV last year at Souhegan. Look for other players from that team to provide depth on the varsity this year, including Sean McGrath, Shaun McKenna, Zach Simmonds and Jake Kennedy.

This team would be even better, but one of last year's starters (who would have been a junior this year) moved to Chicago over the summer. 5'11" guard Jack Nelson had a solid season last year for the Sabers, and if he stuck around this team would be returning their top 4 players of last year's team.

Souhegan's problems last year were inconsistency and although they had a good amount of individual talent they didn't always play well as a team. I expect them to be better in those areas this season and for this team to have a very good chance at making a run to UNH.

6) Pelham
Despite being one of the smallest schools in the division, look for Pelham to once again be one of its top teams. 6'4" senior wing player Steve Spirou has already scored 1,000 points even before playing a game in his senior year (which is even more impressive considering he played with Justin Hojlo his first two years). Spirou is a special player who is a very difficult match-up due to size and skill set. He plays hard, is fundamentally sound and does all of the little things well. His weakness used to be shooting, but Spirou has worked very hard and his jumper just keeps getting better.

The Pythons caught a tough break when Spirou's sidekick Mike Lombard transferred to Proctor Academy, a prep school in Andover, NH. Lombard was having a great summer, shooting the three ball effectively in addition to the muscle he brings inside. With him Pelham would definitely be a favorite to make it to UNH.

Instead, Spirou will have a supporting cast that is small and young, but at the same time they're quick and talented. 5'8" junior Derek Defranzo returns as the team's starting point guard. I saw him play in an AAU tournament over the spring and is is clear that he has gotten even better since last season. He's a very quick player who can defend, handle the basketball and attack the rim. 6'1" junior guard Brett Bailey split time between JV and varsity last year and is a player who can really score the basketball. Erik Nystrom and Anthony Spirou (Steve's little brother) are both solid role players who play hard and are good defenders.

Matt Regan (the school's old JV coach) takes over as head coach of the varsity with Todd Kress vacating the position to take the A.D. job. They might have a new coach, but expect Pelham's style of play to remain the same.

"Our strengths will be our pressure defense, ability to get out and run, and we have 11 guys that can shoot the three at a good percentage which should help compliment lack of post presence. Weaknesses will be our lack of size defensively."

Look for Kevin Cheam, Dean Joyce, Brian Finney, Jesse Vaiknoras and Jake Vaiknoras to all compete for playing time off the bench.

This has the potential to be a very deep team. And they'll definitely be quick and have the ability to put up points in a hurry, as they have Spirou (arguably the best scorer in the state) and a number of other talented players. Lots of inexperience though, as only 2 guys got regular playing time all year for the varsity last winter. If they can gel as a unit and play consistently they could easily end up finishing higher than their preseason #6 ranking.

7) Bedford
Bedford is the preseason #7 ranked team for both boys and girls basketball. Go figure. Here's another team that could easily end up finishing higher than their preseason ranking. However team continuity and guard play will be the keys to their season.

This team has the biggest and the most talented front line in the division (by far) and possibly the state. You have not 1 but 6 guys who are 6'4" or taller and 5 of those 6 guys are at least 6'6". To say that the strength of Bedford this season is their front court play would be a bigger understatement than saying that buying a timeshare is a bad idea.

You have 6'4" senior forward Joey Maher (headed to Northeastern University next year on a full baseball scholarship), 6'6" senior Jared Fahmy (returns to Bedford High after spending last year at Brewster Academy), 6'7" junior Trevor Fahmy (Jared's little brother and a very much improved inside player). I expect all 3 of those guys to start for the Bulldogs. Then off the bench you have 6'6" sophomore Will Mcinerny, 6'6" freshman Roger Larrivee (#1 ranked freshman in the state) and 6'8" freshman Collin McManus.

The size this team has is staggering. But this is NH high school basketball, and you need good guard play in order to win games. Having good bigs is all well and good, but somebody has to be able to get the basketball to them. And unfortunately for Bedford their best returning guard from last year has transferred to Brewster Academy. This loss was really hurt the team, as O'Brien was very good at handling the ball against pressure, running the point and hitting shots. Now those duties will fall on senior Matt Beaulieu and junior Trevor Glassman. Beaulieu plays hard and is a good defender, and Glassman can get hot shooting the basketball at times. But neither player's forte is handling the ball or distributing it. As a result you can expect pretty much everybody to press Bedford full court.

Providing depth in the back court could be 6'0" Jake Capistran and 6'1" Cam Meservey. Both are talented players, but they're both also only freshmen.

This team definitely has some talent, and lots of size. But all of these guys playing together as one cohesive unit is a different story. It will be the job of 1st year head coach John Langlois to make that happen. Langlois takes over for Joe Kegler who is now teaching in Portugal.

8) John Stark
It seems like just yesterday I was at a packed house at Milford High watching John Stark take the eventual champion Spartans to the wire on the road before falling in the Class I quarterfinals. Greg LeBlond, Ethan O'Neil and company gave Milford all they could handle, and you have to respect the way the Generals played in that game, especially after going down by so much early in the game. And just a few days before that Stark blew out Hanover in the prelims.

The Generals return 3 starters off that team in 6'0" senior guard Greg LeBlond, 5'11" senior guard Steve Johnstone and 6'3" senior forward David Morgan. LeBlond and Johnstone are a dynamic back court duo and this will be their second year together as the team's starting guard combo. Both players compliment each other very well and they both play off each other effectively. LeBlond is a deadly shooter with above average range. He can also handle the basketball well and if you play up on him to take away his jumper he'll go right by you off the dribble. Both he and Johnstone are above average defenders. Johnstone is a tough, hard nosed player who hustles after loose balls and takes charges all over the place. He is also a player who can knock down shots if open. Morgan is a valuable role player who defends, rebounds, gets put-backs and does all of the little things to help this team - he's a "glue guy."

Look for 6'6" sophomore forward Zach Grattan to see an increase in playing time this year. Grattan has definitely improved, as I saw him play AAU ball with the NH Fastbreak and it's clear that he's gotten better, especially his low post moves an touch around the basket.

Stark isn't the deepest team out there, but they weren't last year either. Look for LeBlond and Johnstone to lead yet another Generals team to what could be a big year.

9) Coe Brown
The Bears were only the #15 seed in the playoffs last year, but they are definitely a team on the rise. They return They return their top 2 players from last year, 3 returning starters and they're loaded with talented juniors and seniors. Look for the trio of 6'3" junior forward Skyler Mitchell, 6'0" senior guard Dan Lang and 6'5" senior forward Krystian Lucey. Mitchell is a hard working four-man who always plays hard, has a high basketball I.Q. and has a solid all-around skill set. Lang is a knock down shooter, one of the more underrated shooters in the state. He can also put the ball on the floor and take it to the rim. Lucey is a much improved big man who is very tough on the boards.

A pair of 5'9" guards in junior Tommy Darling and senior Alex Johnston join Lang in the back court. Darling is a solid floor general who was the backup last year, while Johnstone is a good spot-up shooter and along with Lang will really be able to stretch defenses to create room inside for Mitchell and Lucey to operate.

Look for a number of guys to compete for time off the bench, including 5'9" sophomore guard Damon Doyle and 6'1" forward Harrison Vina. Doyle is a quick player who defends well and is explosive off the dribble.

I saw these guys play a couple preseason games. At times they looked like a top 4 or 5 team in the division, and at other times they looked like MAYBE a top 10 team. They are probably somewhere in between. I have them at #9 right now, which is still a 6 spot jump from last year. The Bears have some good individual talent. The key will be getting those guys to all play together and to be able to play the game at a faster speed in order to keep up with teams like Pembroke, Milford and Pelham.

Other Teams to Watch Out For

10) Lebanon
Lebanon hasn't had a losing season since the early 90's. That's a pretty impressive streak. However the Raiders are a team that graduated their entire starting 5 from last year, including Player of the Year Jake Woodward (now pitching for St. John's University). So while Lebanon does have a talented group of youngsters coming in keeping their streak of winning seasons alive will certainly be more difficult than in year's past.

The Raider's best returning player is 5'10" sophomore guard David Hampton, who was the team's 6th man last year as a freshman. Hampton had one game vs. Hanover last season where he scored 18 points. Look for the other main scoring options on this year's team to be 6'3" sophomore forward Matt Cowles and 6'1 senior wing Marlin Huiel. Cowles is a versatile player with a strong frame. He played JV last year, but he was one of the better JV players in the entire division. Huiel is a tough competitor who is effective in transition and is a very good slasher.

Rounding out the starting 5 is 5'10" guard Kyle Farr (a solid spot-up shooter) and 6'5" senior forward Blake Whaley. Whaley looks to fill the role that Jimmy Kane had last year for this team - hard working big man who gobbled up offensive rebounds and put them back in the basket.

Off the bench look for forward Mark Davidson and Cody Patch (both starters on Lebanon's undefeated state championship football team) to make an impact.

Not one of the elite teams in the division. But they're a scrappy bunch of players who play well as a team and always played hard for head coach Keith Matte. They should have plenty of familiarity with one another because even though they graduated all 5 starters the Raiders had their own AAU team in the spring (the Lebanon Longhorns) in addition to playing together over the summer.

They might however, get off to a little bit of a slow start as Davidson and Patch shake off the football rust and while Cowles recovers from a concussion he suffered recently.

11) Hanover
Another solid team last year for Hanover. They might have achieved a little ess than what some of the predictions were for them before the season, but they do have most of their talent back from last year. For the 3rd straight year (in football AND in basketball) their best player is 5'10" senior guard Sam Carney. Carney is a tough guard who can take it hard to the rim and hit shots either off the catch or the dribble. Look for junior wing player Daniel Gorman to be Carney's sidekick once again. Gorman is a solid shooter, and having their 2 best players back should certainly lead to their fair share of wins for the Marauders.

Other Playoff Contenders

12) Goffstown
The Grizzlies return their top 2 players off last year's team that made the Class L playoffs in senior guards Brandon Shea and Ryan Lange. She and Lange also played AAU ball together with the NH Spartans in addition to playing with Goffstown over the summer. The Grizzlies make the move down to Division II (Class I) this season, and with their 2 best players back they could make some noise.

13) Kearsarge
Kearsarge was a pleasant surprise last year. Talent-wise they were not a top 10 team, maybe not even top 15. Yet they wound up as the #6 seed in the playoffs. You have to give head coach Nate Camp a ton of credit for what he did with that team. The guy who really made that team go though was point guard Cam Heffron, who graduated in the spring. Returning though are 3 key players off last year's team in Jake Broom, Brett Bascom and Doug Gregory (led Kearsarge football to undefeated season in D-V).

14) St. Thomas
Very young team last year, and the injury early on to point guard Josh Foster really hurt them. But they do return a lot of their key players, including junior guard Andrew Kahr who was their leading scorer last season. Also look for senior Dustin Kaubris and 6'4" junior Chris Haaser to step up for the Saints. This team could surprise some people.

15) Hollis-Brookline
Hollis ended last season by winning 5 of their last 6 games to finish with 8 wins, and considering all of the talent they lost their year before it was a nice season for Coach Soucy and company. He returns a lot of the same players, including guard Connor Walsh and forward Matt Haight. Also watch out for freshman Jordan lates, a point guard who is fast and exciting to watch.

16) Windham
Windham is only a 1st year varsity program with no senior class. And according to head coach Todd Stefanides they plan on starting 4 sophomores. But Windham is also a town with a history of producing good athletes. Many of the players on the Salem High teams who won back-to-back Class L titles just a few years ago were Windham kids. Bedford is a town full of athletes. When they got their new high school they took their lumps in year 1 and then after that they were a contender. Don't be surprised if the same thing happens with Windham. Look for a starting lineup of 5'10" sophomore point guard Alex Whitehead, 5'11" sophomore guard Danny Cannone (little brother of Salem's Matt), 5'11" junior forward Scott Priestley, 5'11" sophomore forward Jeff Trovato and 6'3" sophomore forward Joe Lorenz.

I might even have Windham ranked a spot or two higher, but they begin the season with a couple of key players injured. Junior guards Mike Diorio and Steve Dastous are still trying to work their way back into the lineup.

Mike has been cleared to practice, but hasn't made it through without feeling dizzy. He has an Neurologist appointment today, so will know more this afternoon" said Coach Steffanides. "Mike would be a starting guard. Steve had surgery to repair a second dislocation. May return in February. Steve is a guard who would start or come off the bench."

Preseason All-State
Mike O'Loughlin (Milford), Steve Spirou (Pelham), Jamie Holder (Milford), Mike Mitchell (Milford), Seth Cordts (Souhegan) and Adam Goodwin (Oyster River)

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