By Matt Jenkins
---- — In the Paint
Roughly one week of games remain in the 2012-13 boys basketball regular season — which means everything is about to get serious.
The North Shore has been lucky enough to witness some major top-level team talent this winter. But how will that translate into the postseason, when the stakes are highest?
Let’s take a look, division-by-division, to see how our local teams match up with the Eastern Massachusetts talent.
St. John’s Prep has had an amazing year. Unbelievable, really.
The preseason chatter was that the Eagles could struggle and possibly face a year without tournament qualification. Even head coach Sean Connolly seemed so focused on just getting the necessary 10 wins just to earn a postseason bid. Maybe that’s why the Eagles’ bandwagon was a lonely ride in early December.
Now? The wagon is overloaded like a clown car, so full that the tires could burst from all the weight.
The Eagles have earned all their new-found love. They started fast, handling all their early-season non-league action, then quickly asserted themselves against their Catholic Conference rivals. A small hiccup against Waltham wasn’t enough to derail them when they faced their biggest test, the first of two regular season meetings with Central Catholic.
After a 55-52 victory over the Raiders, St. John’s (15-1) may have actually positioned itself as the current favorite in Division 1 North. If the tournament started today the Eagles would be the No. 1 seed, but they still face the rematch with Central Catholic this Sunday (7:15 p.m. at Central).
Senior guard Drex Costello has had a tremendous year, and deserves consideration for The Salem News Player of the Year honors at season’s end. Costello is a consistent scorer and an excellent defensive player. Paired with Tyler Dooley in the backcourt, the Eagles have one of the state’s hardest-working (and possibly most underrated) tandems around.
Forwards Josh Syska and Max Butterbrodt are tough-as-nails players who have increased their scoring as the season has gone along. Sophomore Ben Judson is a dangerous long-range shooter while Max Burt, Jake Burt and Quentin Bullen have been valuable reserves.
Division 1 is crowded with solid representation from the Merrimack Valley Conference (Central Catholic, Lowell, Andover) and the Greater Boston League (Malden, Somerville, Everett, Medford). Waltham, the team that handed St. John’s its only loss, is also a team to keep an eye on.
Northeastern Conference teams Salem and Beverly have each had solid seasons and Masconomet is on the brink of qualifying after an excellent midseason run.
Division 2 just happens to be a very crowded bracket. North Andover, from the Merrimack Valley Conference, is one of the best teams in the state, and teams from both the Middlesex League (Melrose, Wakefield, Woburn, Burlington) and Boston City League (Brighton, New Mission) will make this a very difficult tournament to navigate through.
Salem is undersized but gets a lot from its starting five — Christian Dunston, Billy Muse, Marvin Baez, Emilio Beato and Jared Louf-Woods. Junior reserves David Kazadi and Jamie Dominguez have been playing particularly well lately for the Witches (13-4).
Beverly, meanwhile, showed just how tough it can be when it recently played undefeated Danvers right to the buzzer. No team has played the Falcons as tough as the Panthers did, and they could be a tough matchup for many teams in the postseason. Forwards Cam Rogers, Jon Berchoff and Nick Cross are each inside-outside threats, and guards Dom Abate, Jonangel Franco and Josh Cairns each play their roles well. Franco can really make the Panthers go when he’s playing aggressively.
Masconomet still needs one more win to qualify, but with three games remaining and the Chieftains playing their best basketball recently it seems like a formality.
The Chieftains probably aren’t going to win any games played above 70 points; their goal is to play hard defense and win low-scoring affairs. They’ve been successful doing that because of their low-post presence with 6-foot-6 Zach Turcotte and 6-4 Alberto Arenaza. Forward Kevin Martin is also a good player off the bench, and guards Chris Schleer, Tighe VanLenten and Jalen Aho have had good seasons.
The general feeling since very early in the season is that this is Danvers’ section to lose. The Falcons have destroyed almost everyone on their schedule and should be getting stronger now.
Senior guard Nick McKenna returned to the lineup after sitting out a few weeks with mononucleosis. By the time the postseason begins, McKenna should be back to running full-speed. In his absence the Falcons got increased scoring from sophomore guard Vinny Clifford. Junior Kieran Beck also played well when he moved into a starting role.
Danvers’ bench is more battle-tested now, which could mean trouble for postseason opponents because the Falcons’ starting five — McKenna, Clifford, Nick Bates, Danny Connors and Eric Martin — have been excellent all year.
The Falcons still face a big test this weekend in the Comcast Tournament at Babson College in Wellesley. They open with Brighton Sunday (6 p.m.), then play either B.C. High or Newton North.
Danvers already has an impressive resume with its wins this season and a state championship banner hanging in its gym from last year, but the Falcons will not breeze through this bracket. North Reading is undefeated and Whittier and Arlington Catholic are two other strong teams — not to mention Saugus.
Then, of course, there is Wayland, the team that nearly ended Danvers’ season a year ago. The Falcons needed a near miracle to win that contest, which they did, 70-67 in overtime. Guard Jaleel Bell is electrifying and he torched the Falcons for 36 points in last season’s meeting at Lawrence High School.
Also from the North Shore, Hamilton-Wenham locked up its tournament berth last week with a narrow victory over Newburyport. The Generals have played very good basketball since starting the year 1-5, and will be tougher than their seed and record suggest.
James Foye will be one of the better scorers in the section and Henry Eagar and Nikos Lara are solid complimentary players.
In The Paint, a column on North Shore boys’ basketball, runs every Tuesday during the winter sports season in The Salem News. Contact staff writer Matt Jenkins at 978-338-2648, by e-mail at email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter @MattJenkins_SN.
Five for Thought ... Here are five tournament matchups that I'd love to see: 1. Masconomet vs. Beverly: Beverly and the Chieftains met this season in the Panther Holiday Tournament and the hosts delivered a 23-point whipping. That was a much different Masco team than the current edition, however, and a rematch would likely produce a better game. 2. Danvers vs. Wayland: There's pretty much no chance that another game between these two teams could result in a more wild finish than last year's overtime thriller, but the thought of Eric Martin chasing Jaleel Bell the length of the floor for a full 32 minutes is more than appealing. 3. Danvers vs. Wareham: Another rematch, this North-South battle would have to happen once again on the Garden parquet in the state semifinals. The Falcons completely frustrated Wareham star point guard Darien Fernandez last March -- and you can be sure Fernandez would love another crack at Danvers. 4. St. John's Prep vs. Central Catholic: Over the past few years these two programs have become postseason rivals, and another matchup seems fitting. St. John's and Central are widely considered the two top teams in the section currently. 5. Salem vs. Beverly: What could be better than pitting these two rivals up against each other in a win-or-go-home scenario?