With such a wide open division it is things like transfers, ineligible players and injuries that will decide this year's D-I race. Some players (West's Zach Jones) are out for the year with injuries, while others (Chris Doyle of Winnacunnet) are returning from serious injuries.
As for player eligibility, you have Memorial's Majak Wenyin who was denied a year of eligibility by the NHIAA. Another Manchester kid, Isaiah Joseph from Central is still awaiting word from the NHIAA as to whether he will be allowed to play. Meanwhile West High standout Jocarl Bureau is ineligible for the season.
Then you have transfers. Matt Barr left Exeter for Cushing Academy, Mike LeBlanc left Dover for New Hampton, Travis Descoteaux left West for Marianapolis Prep and Ian Sistare and Collin McManus are both now at Northfield Mount Hermon.
All of these changes could make a NH basketball follower dizzy, but the fact is that they will have a BIG impact on this year' D-I boys basketball season. Here's a closer look at what to expect this season. I broke the 16 projected tournament teams into 2 tiers.
The eight favorites are...
1. Manchester Central - It can definitely be debated whether Central or Pembroke has a better team. But it is hard to argue that Central is the best team in Division I, and Pembroke is the best team in D-II. And while both teams are extremely fast, very talented offensively and have excellent starting fives, Central is a better defensive team and for that reason I think they would win if the 2 teams played each other. Central's starting five (Troy Pelletier, Isaiah Joseph, Dawson Dickson, Brett Hanson and Mike Plentzas) is REALLY good. If you follow D-I boys basketball in NH get ready to hear those 5 names A LOT this winter. They're fast, they share the basketball on offense and they pressure it on defense. These 5 guys have very good chemistry together and are fun to watch. Pelletier is your preseason D-I Player of the Year, Joseph is one of the most improved players in the state, and with Dickson, Hanson and Plentzas this team basically has 3 point guards out there (which means they're not going to turn it over). Joseph really had a big summer. There were even some games where he played better than Pelletier. But Joseph is still awaiting word from the NHIAA on whether he will be granted a 5th year of eligibility. If he plays, Central is the clear-cut favorite, if he doesn't play then Central falls back to the pack and it would then become anyone's guess who wins this thing. Either way, the Little Green will look to senior forward Tyler Kelly (a transfer from Memorial) to provide depth.
2. Trinity - some might be surprised to see them ranked this high. After all, they couldn't even get enough players together to play in the BST Summer League this year. However, late in the summer they had 2 kids transfer in to the school, and both of them are impact players. These 2 transfers should give Trinity enough depth to once again be one of the favorites in D-I. So who are these transfers? They're a pair of junior guards - Ryan Otis (transferred from Merrimack Valley) and Brad Rhoades (transferred from Pembroke). Trinity already had a solid core of returning players with their 'Big 3' of Mabor Gabriel, Carmen Giampetruzzi and Pat Keefe. This is as good of a 'Big 3' as there is in NH. All 3 have plenty of big game experience, and they all have well-rounded games. None of them is a point guard though, so look for Otis and Rhoades to share time at the point (also don't be surprised if Trinity goes with a smaller lineup and plays both Otis and Rhoades together). The other guy that you also have to really watch out for is senior guard/forward Romeo Masuku. Masuku is the team's best defender. He's 6-foot-1 and very quick so he can't cover the guards but he's also very strong with good leaping ability so he can defend bigs as well. Trinity has plenty of scorers already, Masuku's job is going to be to defend, hustle after loose balls and grab boards. Plus you also have sophomore wing Wenyin Gabriel (Mabor's little brother) who will look to provide depth after transferring from Memorial. Another player who could contribute to this deep team is senior forward Jon Cullity.
3. Winnacunnet - to some people it might seem like I have Winnacunnet ranked a little high, considering they won only 6 games last year and didn't even make the playoffs 2 years ago. But you heard it here first - this team is a contender in D-I this season. At the Exeter Team weekend tournament this summer, Winnacunnet won the tourney. They beat Nashua South in the semis and they beat Spaulding in the finals. The Warriors return 11 kids off last year's team, and that's not even including junior guard Chris Doyle who returns after missing all of last season with a torn ACL. Doyle was one of the top players on the team 2 years ago as a freshman. Guards Rich Ruffin, Sam Knollmeyer and Ryan Gigliotti and forwards Ben Gareau and Jordan Cutting all return after playing BIG roles on last year's team. Matt Guerin, Spencer Kennedy, Alec Boucher, Patrick Lamprey and Seth Edwards provide depth. Winnacunnet has possibly the deepest team in NH. They also have a bunch of kids who have been playing together for a long time and who have been starting for 2 or 3 years now. They're also bringing a few kids up to the varsity from a JV team that went 21-1 last season.
4. Spaulding - the Red Raiders spent the past couple of years sneaking up on people, but that won't be the case this year. This year they are expected to be one of the top teams in the state. It's been a long time since these guys were rated this highly in the preseason. In fact, Spaulding has never won a state title in boys basketball, and their only title game appearance was way back in 1964. This season just might be their best shot to get back there. The Red Raiders return three starters and 9 total players off a team that made it to the Final Four. The returning starters are 6-foot-4 senior forward and preseason Player of the Year candidate Dominic Paradis, 6-foot-2 senior wing Nick MacGregor and 6-foot-4 junior forward Charlie Nevejans. And while they graduated their 3 best guards from last year (Luke Roberts, Connor Noe and PJ Juneau), they were a very deep team last year that rotated 9 or 10 kids every game. As a result you have a lot of other kids coming back who saw valuable minutes last year, including Alex Gray, Quinn Connelly, Mike Bellio and Seth Fogg.
5. Salem - some might think I have them ranked high since they graduated not 1 but 2 kids who were first team all-state selections last season in D-I (Ben Slepian and Johnny Klecan). How can Salem lose 2 players that good and still be a top 5 team in D-I? Well if you read my Fall Ball recap you already know the answer, but in case you missed that article here is the shortened version. Andrew Ruffen returning to the lineup after missing all of last season with a knee injury is a big factor here. The 6-foot-2 senior wing has a sweet shooting stroke and can also score off the bounce. Meanwhile Salem also returns 3 kids who were either starters are key players off the bench last season in Michael Felix, Jack Hartmann and Steve Nugent. Hartmann is once again a player capable of scoring inside or out and also has a solid mid-range game. Felix and Nugent are 2 of the most improved players in the state. Felix is the best defender in the NHIAA (you heard it here first) and Nugent is tough as nails. Ruffen, Felix, Hartmann and Nugent gives Salem a very strong core. Then adding depth you have Chris Carabello, Danny Nugent, Anthony Lopez and Brent Barrett. Salem doesn't have a lot of size, but they play extremely tough defense, they have shooters, they move the ball well to look for a good shot, everyone on the team has a role and the pieces fit together like a puzzle. Plus they have Rob McLaughlin who has won the D-I Coach of the Year in each of his first 2 years as the team's head coach.
6. Manchester Memorial - this team is a wild card. On one hand I wouldn't be surprised if they ended up making the finals, and on the other hand I also wouldn't be surprised if they are playing in the 8/9 preliminary round game. This is partly because for now at least the top 7 teams in D-I are all pretty evenly matched. Another reason is because Memorial has a new head coach (Jack Quirk) and remains to be seen how this team will respond to him. After all, every kid who plays at Memorial plays their AAU ball for the Bishop Elite. The Bishop is coached by Sudi Lett, who has been the Memorial JV coach for the past couple years. Lett applied for the Memorial varsity job this summer but Quirk got it instead. Those Bishop Elite kids all really look up to Sudi, they were probably hoping he would get the job. It will be interesting to see how they respond to Quirk and his old-fashioned, no-nonsense style. This team will miss having star guard Majak Wenyin, who was denied a 5th year of eligibility by the NHIAA. Still, this will be a very tough team. You have a very good core of talented players with seniors Zoubel Iradakunda, Tong Akot and Joel Mayola as well as sophomores Oumaru Kante and Kabongo Ngalakulondi. All 5 of those guys were BIG contributors to a Crusaders squad that made the quarterfinals last season. You also have 3 more talented sophomores coming up from JV in Wade Gop, and Trevon Maughn. If that wasn't enough you also have Tschiefu Ngalakulondi (Kabongo's younger brother) who is arguably the best freshman in the state. So yeah, this team has A LOT of talent. Can they play together, can they play disciplined? These are to be determined. There's no question though that the talent is there. Oh yeah, and all 11 of the kids I mentioned here played for the Bishop Elite this past spring. Kabongo and Oumaru could really have breakout seasons this year.
7. Nashua South - like Memorial, South is another team that I wouldn't be surprised if they move up this list as the season gets going. The Purple Panthers return 4 of their top 5 players from a team that won 10 games last year. Leading the way is the Preston brothers - Jack Preston (a 6-foot-5 senior forward) and Tim Preston (a 5-foot-10 junior point guard). They are 2 of the top players in D-I, and after they have grown up playing against each other in the driveway it should be fun for them to play together on the varsity for a third and final season. David Dunham is another returning starter and is a bruiser who can also hit shots. With the Preston brothers and Dunham you have a very talented core to build around.
8. Alvirne - the Broncos will once again be a very dangerous team. They graduated 3 starters, but they rotated 9 guys last year. So while they will miss Sean Dunn, Tony Beaulieu and Jimmy Tomaswick, the good news is that they still have 6 kids coming back who all got A LOT of playing time for a team that won 12 games and gave Trinity a tough battle in the quarterfinals. Leading the way is 6-foot-6 senior forward Tyler Livingston, who is now bigger and better than last year. He is primed for a big season, as long as he doesn't fall in love with the 3-pointer. He is a good shooter but when he's at his best is when he's going inside as well as outside. His supporting cast is led by senior wings Kevin Pierre (6'4") and Alec Yoksh (6'3") and junior forward Tyler Brown (6'4"). Other players who gained valuable experience last year are senior forward Britton Doyle and senior guard Dan Kingsley. I definitely wouldn't be surprised if if any of the top 8 teams were to make the Final Four, and that includes Alvirne. They're all very good and all fairly evenly matched heading into the season.
There's definitely a drop-off after those top 8 teams. These next 8 teams are a crap-shoot to rank this early, as they could literally finish in any order. Here's the order that my gut is telling me though...
9. Dover - their best player from last season transferred to a prep school, but this will still be a tough team to beat. Mike LeBlanc received a scholarship offer from UNH over the summer and is now playing at the New Hampton School. If he was still at Dover this would be a legit title contender - I'd definitely have them ranked in the top 4 with LeBlanc. Still, the Green Wave will be a tough, hard nosed defensive team with enough scoring weapons to win games. This is a team loaded with seniors, most notably Mike Wons, Grant Faustino, Phil Boyatsis and Colin Shaughnessy. Other returning key players are Billy Carroll, Kam Towle and Carter Moore. All of them are seniors, as is Noah Boucher who also saw some valuable minutes off the bench last year. Without their go-to guy, Coach Romps' team will need everyone else to step up, they'll need to move the ball and hit their open shots. One thing is for certain though, they will be one of the top defensive teams in the state.
10. Bedford - there is definitely some talent on that roster, and if there is a coach in NH who will be able to get the most out of that talent it is Mike Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick left Memorial to take the job, replacing John Langlois who resigned at the end of the season to take the job at Campbell. The Bulldogs would surely be ranked higher if they hadn't lost 6-foot-10 center Collin McManus, but he transferred to Northfield Mount Hermon and reclassified to the Class of 2015. But the big man to watch out for now at Bedford is 6-foot-8 senior Sam Thomas. The two guys who will be doing most of the scoring are junior wings Cam Meservey and Jake Capistran. Meanwhile senior guard/forward James Caparell is one of the state's top defenders. Taylor Grande and Sean Purcell give Bedford a pair of kids who have big game experience running the point, and adding depth to the front court is sophomore forward Ryan Brown. They will get better as the season goes, as they get used to Fitzpatrick's system, but I have a feeling they just might surprise some people.
11. Londonderry - the Lancers are a team that everyone seems to be talking about during the preseason.
"Don’t sleep on Londonderry" said one D-I coach. "They have had a nice off-season, and Jeff Does a great job with them."
According to head coach Jeff Gustavson, their best player from last year (Andre Simmond) is a D-I college prospect in soccer and is now enrolled at Brewster Academy. Still, Londonderry will be a tough team as they return 10 kids from last year. They are led by their back court of sophomore point guard Cody Ball and junior shooting guard Drew Coveney. Ball plays much more like a senior than a sophomore, and Coveney is finally healthy after getting injured over the summer and walking with a brace on his leg for a few weeks. When healthy he is a kid who can flat out score the basketball. Providing size inside is 6-foot-6 sophomore center Rob Wilson, and adding additional toughness and offensive firepower from the wing is Taylor Simpson, Max Coleman and Nick Stevens. The Lancers are always a scrappy, physical, fundamentally sound team. They could definitely upset some of the those top 8 teams if they don't bring their 'A' game.
12. Merrimack - they won the D-I title last year, but graduated Tyler Gendron, Jared Peabody, Jeff Giannelli, Jackson King, Kyle Richardson and Dylan O'Brien. Plus Dimitri Floras transferred to Vermont Academy instead of playing his senior season at Merrimack. If Floras stuck around, this could have definitely been a championship team as the Tomahawks would have had hands down the best duo in the state with Floras and Eric Gendron. But Floras is gone, and now Eric Gendron has to be THE guy on this team. Look for senior forwards Brad Jarry and Connor Whelan to provide solid post play, and for sophomore point guard Austin Franzen (a transfer from BG) to make an immediate impact in the back court while playing alongside Gendron.
13. Concord - it's no secret that Concord has struggled for the past few years. But in the past few years this season is their best chance to make some noise. That's because Kaleb Marquis (the best player they have had in quite some time) is a senior, and it is the second and final season where he'll be playing alongside his younger brother Sam. Kaleb has flown under the radar over the past couple of seasons while playing for a bad team, but this just might be the year he explodes onto the scene. He averaged 17 points per game last year and could average 20 this season. Sam Marquis is also a very capable scorer and ball handler, and there is finally some hope and excitement around Concord High basketball. They have a new head coach in John Finnegan (the school's former JV coach), their JV team made the semi-finals last year and this season they had 60 kids tryout for the program.
14. Pinkerton - it is not very often that Pinkerton finishes this low in the standings, but it's also not often that they have a team with such little varsity experience. The Astros graduated their four best players off last year's team, including POY candidate Chris Light. They graduated 5 of their top 6 players. The lone returning starter is senior forward Cam Welch, and sophomore guard Luke Testa saw sporadic minutes off the bench as a freshman. The rest of this year's roster has little or no varsity experience. Coach Rosinski will look for guys like Andrew Lechner, Justin Scott, Thomas Lennon and Scott Bradley to step up. Then you have 6-foot-5 freshman forward Luke Rosinski (Coach Rosinski's son) who will be looking to compete for minutes right away. With Welch, Roskinski, Bradley and Scott this team will have good size up front, and Testa and Lennon should be able to do a solid job in the back court. But the question is how will these pieces fit together and gel since they just haven't played together very much. It could be a rebuilding year for the Astros.
15. Bishop Guertin - the Cardinals are another team that's rebuilding. They graduated all 5 starters and 10 total seniors off a team that went on the road and lost in the first round of the playoffs. Forward Jeff Lunn and guards CJ Boykin and Steve Toscano all played valuable roles off the bench but all three will now be asked to step up and run the show for this team. Another player to watch out for is freshman guard Jack Zimmerman.
16. Manchester West - if you read by column from a few weeks ago where I ranked the top 10 teams in the state you would have seen that I had West in there. Well since that time sophomore wing Zach Jones (who was on the verge of a breakout year) suffered a season-ending wrist injury. And the extremely talented Jocarl Bureau (who was a potential first team all-state player if he could stay on the court all year) was ruled ineligible to play this season. Those were projected as arguably the two best players West had, and neither will suit up for the Blue Knights. This was already a team that graduated its best player from last year (Aaron Martin) and had its next best player (Travis Descoteaux) transfer to Marianapolis prep school. Still, Coach Bryson will have a team that is fast and competitive. They will now be led by the back court of Carl Jacques and Nolan Flynn, and hope to get a big year inside from 6-foot-4 Adrien Stillwell.
Preseason All-State Team
1st team - Troy Pelletier (Manchester Central), Mabor Gabriel (Trinity), Dominic Paradis (Spaulding), Jack Preston (Nashua South), Eric Gendron (Merrimack), Tyler Livingston (Alvirne)
2nd team - Carmen Giampetruzzi (Trinity), Kaleb Marquis (Concord), Andrew Ruffen (Salem), Tim Preston (Nashua South), Sam Knollmeyer (Winnacunnet), Kabongo Ngalakulondi (Manchester Memorial)