Yags’ Point Forward - Final NPS Team Notes
The ’17-’18 season is officially underway now that the best prep programs in the nation made their opening statements at Albertus Magnus last weekend. I always like to let things sink in for few days before looking back on the action and taking inventory. It helps me to avoid being a prisoner of the moment and allows me not to make snap judgements based on the recency theory. That said, here are some of the things I took away from the 3-day event:
Mt. Zion Made The Loudest Statement…
Coach Roderick Harrison has always been brutally honest when it comes to the state of his Mt. Zion Prep program and isn’t afraid to mix it up with the country’s best. That attitude reflects in the way his team carries itself into battle and how they earn respect every time they take the floor. Last year, even with high-major talent like Teshaun Hightower (Georgia) and Isaiah Whaley (UConn), injuries took their toll on Harrison’s squad and they didn’t take care of business against high-caliber opponents. By the end of the year, he realized that they hadn’t done enough to earn a berth in the Prep Championship but also realized what needed to be done moving forward.
Prior to their matchup against Brewster on Sunday morning, I welcomed Harrison back to New Haven and asked him how he was feeling. To say he was “determined” would be an understatement. Harrison said, “We’re rolling in here at 4-0 but this is the one that counts. This is the one we’ve been looking forward to. This is the one we want!”
Trace Young, Tahj Small and Co. gave Harrison exactly what he wanted, as they pulled off a stunning comeback for a 72-68 win over Brewster, the biggest in the program’s brief history. Young stuffed the stat sheet with 14 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 blocks and 2 steals while Small led Mt. Zion’s balanced attack with 15 points on 6-8 FG and 3-5 3pt.
Trace Young, Kenton Eskridge & Tahj Small came up HUGE during @MtZionPrep's 2nd half surge, leading Coach Harrison's crew to a 72-68 win over Brewster. It also ended Brewster's 38-game win streak at the 2017 @NERRHoops Prep Showcase... pic.twitter.com/b3YTgLri8i— Mike Yagmin (@MikeYagmiNERR) November 19, 2017
While it was definitely an upset, by no means was Mt. Zion’s win a fluke. Young and Small recovered from slow 1st halves and played up to their standard after halftime. The backcourt of 6’2” PG/Wing Kenton Eskridge and 6’ point guard Jayden Saddler gives Harrison two battle-tested pitbulls who refuse to back down and who each hit big shots to keep Mt. Zion within striking distance. Tyler Foster, a 6’6” wing and former Georgetown-commit who spent a season at South Kent, had a big first half and showed off a pretty mid-range game.
When you add 6’5” wing Tariq Johnson, 6’9” big Andre Rafus and 7’2” big Jordan Wilmore, one of the more intriguing prospects in the 2020 class, it would be crazy not to consider Mt. Zion a serious contender going forward. As long as Harrison’s squad stays healthy and maintains the same level of hunger, it would also be crazy not to expect them to make a return trip to New Haven in March.
…But Woodstock Was A Close 2nd!
Tony Bergeron’s first-year program was able to squeeze six games into their schedule before heading to the Prep Showcase, which finally gave a New England program equal game experience heading into their matchups with Hargrave and Montverde at this time of the year. And it paid off in a major way.
Luis Rodriguez, a 6’6” wing, and Tre Mitchell, a 6’9” big in 2019, came into the weekend as Woodstock’s most sought-after prospects and played like it from start to finish. Rodriguez wreaked havoc defensively against Hargrave until he found his rhythm offensively and pumped in 15 2nd half points in a 91-86 win. Mitchell scored 17 points to go along with 8 rebounds, 2 blocks and 2 steals. Rodriguez returned to score 14 points in Sunday’s win over Montverde while Mitchell once again filled it up with 15 points, 8 boards, 3 assists, 3 steals and a block.
While the duo of Rodriguez and Mitchell led the way, it is Woodstock’s depth and the fact that anyone on their roster can break out on any given night that makes them truly dangerous. Against Hargrave, it was Marquis Moore who came off the bench to knock down consecutive 3’s and bust Woodstock out of a mini scoring slump. Joey Kasperzyk added 8 points with his maniacally aggressive style and Lehigh-commit Jeameril Wilson chipped in with 12 points and 5 boards. Towson-bound point guard Jakigh Dottin finished with 19 points and knocked down 8 consecutive free throws in the final minute to close the door.
Constant pressure, controlling the pace and solid contributions from the entire roster earned @WAPrepHoop a 89-78 win over Montverde along w/ a 2-0 weekend at the 2017 @NERRHoops Prep Showcase.... pic.twitter.com/4FyQnas6F3— Mike Yagmin (@MikeYagmiNERR) November 19, 2017
Against Montverde, uncommitted 6’3” wing Tyrone Perry ripped off consecutive treys to begin the game and refused to slow down until the 89-78 win was sealed. Perry finished with 21 points (8-11 FG/5-7 3pt) and 5 rebounds in 22 minutes of play. Wilson continued his efficient weekend, going a perfect 8-8 from the floor, 1-1 from 3 and 4-4 at the line to finish with 21 points. Members of the national media were impressed with the 6’7” Wilson’s polished skillset, physical presence and well-rounded floor game, often referring to him as a “steal” for Lehigh.
Contributions from future-Sacred Heart wing Chaylyn Martin (6 points, 4 assists, 3 rebounds, 2 steals in 19 minutes over two games) and 6’1” point guard Chris Childs (6 points, 2 assists in 8 minutes vs Montverde) speak to the depth Bergeon has at his disposal. It allowed the likes of Elijah Buchanan and Dibaji Walker, two legitimate mid-major D1 prospects who have come up huge for Woodstock multiple times early in the year, to be less effective than usual in New Haven without effecting the bottom line.
When Woodstock puts it all together and clicks on all cylinders, which we haven’t even seen yet, they are capable of beating anyone in the country.
Things Might Be Wide Open In ’17-‘18
While Woodstock and Mt. Zion propelled themselves into the early-season contender discussion, the weekend left me with exponentially more questions than it gave me answers in terms of who should even be considered the “favorites” this season. While things will play out between now and March, a handful of teams let us know what they’re all about from either a team or individual talent perspective.
Brewster still owns the most talented roster in the nation from top-to-bottom and will have the most experienced coaching staff when it comes National Title time. But for some reason (maybe the fact that we’re still talking about stubborn young athletes who have experienced some early success in their lives), Jason Smith’s team didn’t want to follow the championship blueprint in New Haven and they paid the price. The ball stuck too often, players tried to do their own thing, bad possessions compounded on both ends of the floor and it resulted in Brewster’s 38-game win streak getting snapped. When Sherif Kenney, Isaiah Mucius, Derek Culver, Lukas Kisunas and Miles Norris are sticking to Smith’s script and allowing their talents to play off one another, they are nearly unstoppable. When they are all trying to prove a point and are more worried about winning their individual matchup, they proved they are just as susceptible as any other team.
IMG finds itself in a similar situation. In today’s guard-driven game, the backcourt of Anfernee Simons and Eric Ayala should be impossible to game-plan for and a nightmare to contain. But, until they learn to play off one another and find a common ground when it comes to ball-handling duties, they are just two uber-talented players who happen to wear the same name on the front of their jersey. Unfortunately for the rest of the pack, I’d consider the likelihood of Simons and Ayala figuring it out to be quite strong, given their history of unselfish play alongside other prominent prospects. Jaylen Sebree and Jayden Hardaway give IMG two more perimeter threats capable of rattling off points by the dozen, making John Mahoney’s squad that much tougher to defend. Their offensive upside is scary.
A third perennial contender ran hot-and-cold in New Haven. Prior to their second game, many in attendance were calling John Carroll’s Northfield-Mt Hermon crew the most impressive team in the field. For good reason too, as Nate Laszewski and Noah Kirkwood came through with tremendous efforts on Friday night’s win over Sunrise. But they returned on Saturday and came out flat against a strong Massanutten squad. Carroll eventually decided to play the majority of his second unit for the final 8-minutes of a close game, simply because they gave him the best chance to win on this particular night. While it speaks volumes for NMH’s depth, it will be interesting to see how Laszewski, Kirkwood, and Chuck Hannah handle their larger roles as go-to guys within the offense on a nightly basis this season.
Massanutten and Scotland Campus joined Woodstock and Mt. Zion in the group of National Prep Championship-hopefuls that went 2-0 on the weekend. Penn State-bound point guard Rasir Bolton proved that he’s one of the elite floor generals and most consistent forces of nature in prep basketball. Bolton’s ability to stretch the floor well beyond the arch forces defenders to push up on him, at which point he uses an explosive first step to make them pay the price. Tyrese Martin, a future-Rhode Island Ram, gives Bolton a 6’7” wing to defer to when defenses key on him specifically. Along with high-major 2019 prospects Mekhi Long and Mahamadou Diawara, Massanutten going to be a handful for any team they face this year.
Scotland was led by 6’1” guards Koreem Ozier (more on him later) and Barry Brown on this particular weekend but Chris Chaney’s squad runs deep with athletic wings to go along with great size in the post. 7’1” Aristide Boya is a Bradley-commit who makes his presence felt on the glass while 6’7” wingspan big man Karim Coulibaly is a high-major prospect in the 2019 class. While Scotland took care of business with two impressive wins, Chaney is guaranteed to have his team playing at an even higher level as the season rolls along.
On a mission to prove that their program is built for the long haul, @SpireMbbAcademy came into New Haven and got a big 105-91 win against a strong Tilton squad. Jalen Pickett, Dom Welch & Co. look primed for a strong year out of the @Power5ConfNE.... pic.twitter.com/lLJ9dbyxVi— Mike Yagmin (@MikeYagmiNERR) November 19, 2017
Meanwhile, SPIRE’s 4-headed perimeter monster of Dom Welch, Caleb McConnell, DeVon Baker, and Jalen Pickett make them a team that nobody wants to run into in tournament play. While they only played one game over the weekend, they maintained a double-digit lead on Tilton throughout and there’s reason to believe their ceiling is as high as anyone offensively.
When I take the small amount of information I gathered from each program in New Haven and combine it with what I know about some New England programs that weren’t in attendance, I can only make one definitive statement: ’17-’18 has the all the ingredients to be one of the more chaotic and unpredictable seasons in recent memory. And I’m gonna love every minute of it!