NEPSAC AA Tournament Preview
The NEPSAC’s controversial last-minute decision to deny Commonwealth Academy, a team loaded with talent and toughness that finished 19-2 in conference, the opportunity to play in the AA Tournament removed a program that likely would have been the two seed and certainly a contender for this year’s championship.
Vermont Academy enters the field as the top seed, a fate which seemed certain regardless of Commonwealth’s fate, while Cushing Academy lurks as a dangerous number two.
Vermont begins tourney play against #8 Kimball Union, intent on claiming the first NEPSAC Tournament title in the program’s history. Alex Popp’s team has the talent and depth to do exactly that. Led by Miami-bound wing Bruce Brown, Xavier-bound big man Tyrique Jones, and breakout prospects Christian David and Bailey Patella, Vermont has the versatility to beat opposing teams in a number of different ways. While Brown is deadly in transition and David best known for his three-point prowess, both are seasoned and well-rounded weapons. Jones is a bully in the post, turning missed shots into easy buckets. Meanwhile, the 6’5” Patella demoralizes opponents late in the shot clock with precision cuts to the basket and the ability to score at all three levels. The rotation is filled out with Patrick Fisher, a gutsy leader and true point guard, and the combination of Kendrick Gray and Marcus Santos-Silva, who provide athleticism and power on the frontline
Kimball Union finished the season with an 8-9 record in conference, after losing six of their last 8 games, but was able to earn the final seed over a Masters team that finished 9-8 and had a late season out-of-conference upset over Putnam Science Academy late in the season. KUA will need big performances from senior leaders 6’8” Nathan Knight and 6’7” Luke Rosinski on both ends in order to pull off an upset of their own.
Vermont won both games between the two teams in the regular season, 74-64 in mid-January and 85-64 last week. #4 St. Andrew’s takes on #5 Tilton for the right to play the winner.
St. Andrew’s brings a roster littered with high-upside underclassmen who have put together an impressive season for Coach Mike Hart. Offensively, Hart will look to knockdown shooter Cole Swider to spread Tilton’s defense and open things up for long, athletic big men Aaron Wheeler, Sammy Friday, and Terrell Brown. Point Guard Keyshaad Dixon teams with seniors Eric DAgguano and Nate Duda to give St. Andrew’s a backcourt any NEPSAC coach would be happy to have.
Led by Rice-commit Robert Martin Jr, who has capitalized on the opportunity to be the featured offensive weapon after spending the first portion of his prep career complimenting other stars and doing whatever his team needed, and uncommitted 6’2” guard Brett Hanson, Tilton boasts a pair of veterans who have as much experience as anyone in AA. Martin Jr. is a constant triple double threat, going to work in the paint or from the wing depending on the matchup and distributing the ball just as well as he rebounds it. Hanson is an underrated athlete who can also score from deep or take it to the rack and has thrived in his final season in the NEPSAC. Tilton’s attack doesn’t end there.
Sophomore sensation Marcus Zegarowski gives Tilton one of the most talented young guards in New England. His ability to get to the basket and finish from a variety of angles has frustrated NEPSAC defenses all season. Junior wing Ryan Layman rounds out a Tilton quartet that confidently matches up talent-wise with anyone in their conference.
St. Andrew’s took the only game between the two teams during the regular season, with a 78-68 victory at home.
On the other side of the AA bracket, #2 Cushing Academy, who has knocked off both NMH and Vermont within the last month, earned the opportunity to play #7 Holderness in the opening round.
Cushing is led by the dynamic backcourt of juniors Makai Ashton-Langford and Wabissa Bede, whose exceptional skillsets complement one another and wreak havoc on a nightly basis. Ashton-Langford returned from an early season hand injury and is rounding into peak form at the right time. Recent scoring outbursts and extended in-game looks at his prodigious talents will lead some to make Cushing the favorite in their brackets. Bede’s explosiveness and sturdy frame allow him to finish through traffic, giving defenses a different look from possession to possession.
6’8” Jarrod Simmons is just starting to blossom as a player but still gives Cushing a force down low and someone opposing coaches must account for on both ends of the floor. 6’5” Greg Kuakumensah provides toughness and athleticism, benefiting from the attention which is justifiably paid to Ashton-Langford and Bede.
Holderness will rely heavily on sophomore Philmon Gebrewhit and future St. Michael’s guard Thomas Jackson to provide some firepower offensively and slow down Cushing’s explosive guards, both on the perimeter and in the lane. Junior Suhkmail Mathon anchors the frontline for former Boston College assistant coach Woody Kampmann, and will go head to head with Simmons. The two teams did not play during the regular season.
#3 Cheshire Academy faces off against #6 Worcester Academy for the right to play the winner.
Cheshire Academy comes into the ’16 postseason having won 5 straight games after a 78-74 overtime loss to Vermont Academy in early February at the National Prep School Invitational. While they didn’t come out on top, the game reinforced the fact that Kevin Kehoe’s team is a legit contender in AA. Penn-bound point guard Ray Jerome, Hofstra-bound wing Elijah Pemberton, and Holy Cross-bound guard Clayton Le Sann give Cheshire a smart, athletic, and fundamentally sound backcourt that can attack defenses in a variety of ways.
6’10” Jose Martinez absolutely refuses to back down from anybody and gives Cheshire a dynamic defender who can also hold his own on the offensive end. Speaking of dynamic….7’2” big man Chol Marial has the size, length, and skill to be one of the best prospect in the country. Marial is in the early stages of his development, but the 16-year old freshman has left a larger impact on games as the season has worn on. A natural shot blocker with fluid mechanics on his jump shot and improving rebounder who uses his length to make up for his lack of posterior strength, Marial possesses the tools to ruin an opposing team’s game plan on both sides of the ball. Don’t be surprised if we look back at this year’s postseason as the time Marial’s production began to jive with his potential.
On the other side, #5 Worcester Academy will be dead set on stopping that from happening and can point to their previous meeting with Cheshire as proof that they can.
Featuring a variety of size on the wings and in the paint, Worcester has a group of players with similar measurables but vastly different skillsets. 6’8” big man Kevin Marfo is the main cog in the middle for Worcester, providing a sturdy and stable presence down low. 6’7” James Wells is an underrated threat who can put the ball on the floor just as easily as he can pull up from distance. 6’5” Bryant-commit Tanner Johnson has sneaky explosion and always finishes with a larger stat line than you would suspect after watching Worcester’s games. 6’6” duel-sport prospect Caden Dumas brings a football player’s mentality to the floor and combines it with his ever-improving basketball skill set. In the backcourt, uncommitted 6’1” point guard Nelson Barrino looks to continue piling up huge performances after finishing the regular season with multiple impressive games.
Worcester won the only regular season game between the two teams, a 76-67 battle that got physical toward the end. Don’t expect these two teams to have a friendly chat about where they’re going to dinner at any point.