Yags’ Point Forward - National Prep Championship Preview
The National Prep Championship returns to New Haven, Connecticut and Albertus Magnus College with opening round action set to tip Wednesday morning at 9:30am.
Mike Yagmin previews all of the contenders:
Like the great Brewster teams from the recent past, the '16-'17 version of the Bobcats is led by a group of high-major guards that are physically gifted and mentally tough. Jason Smith's squad has controlled the pace of play for the overwhelming majority of their season, which eventually exposes their opponent's weaknesses and breaks their will to compete. Brewster has systematically dismantled everyone on their schedule and roll into the Prep National Championship with an average margin of victory of 26 points per game (outscoring opponents 91-65 on a nightly basis) on the season.
The 4-headed guard/wing monster of Makai Ashton-Langford (UConn-commit), Thomas Allen (NC State), Curtis Haywood II (Georgia Tech) and Michael Okauru (Florida) jelled throughout the preseason, became a matchup nightmare early in the season and never looked back. The group plays into one another's strengths and makes up for one another's weaknesses almost seamlessly. Ashton-Langford is a relentless penetrator who demands constant attention and creates open looks for the remaining trio. Allen is a dead-eye marksman who confidently leaves that goose neck hanging in the air longer than anyone in America. Okauru and Haywood are both pitbulls who have already perfected the market's keystone philosophy of supply-and-demand. Whatever Brewster needs on a particular night or against a particular lineup, the two 6'4" wings provide it in heavy doses.
Brewster has also punished their opponents in the paint and on the boards. Thanks to 6'9" Lithuanian import Lukas Kisunas' punishing style, 6'8" NYC-native Sidney Wilson's ability to play above the rim and the bounce/strength/length combo that 6'8" Purdue-bound Aaron Wheeler provides on a nightly basis, Brewster can mix, match and adapt against any team's best lineup.
Armed with the rare ability to play any style at the highest level, Brewster comes into the Prep Championship with a perfect 30-0 record which includes an 8-0 record against teams in the field.
Brewster received a 1st Round bye and will face the winner of Wednesday morning's matchup between Notre Dame Prep and Massanutten Military Academy. Tip-off is scheduled for 2:45pm on Wednesday.
HARGRAVE MILITARY ACADEMY
After winning the 2016 National Prep Championship, expectations were raised for A.W. Hamilton's outfit coming into the '16-'17 season as Hargrave went from being the hunter to the prey. True to form, Hamilton reloaded around Ohio State-commit Braxton Beverly and flipped the script on anyone who thought Hargrave would be susceptible to a championship hangover.
Beverly comes back to New Haven looking to repeat surrounded by a loaded cast. 6'2" West Virginia-commit Brandon Knapper assumed primary ball-handler responsibilities for long stretches early in the season when Beverly wasn't working to return to full health. Antwan Walker, an explosive 6'8" Georgetown-commit, and Naji Marshall, a versatile 6'7" offensive-minded power wing headed to Xavier, give the two playmaking guards explosive weapons to work with in the post and on the perimeter.
Another member of the 2016 title team has made a big impact in Hargrave's run to repeat. After giving Hargrave short intervals of productive minutes last season, 6'10" Marshall-commit Iran Bennett got himself in better shape and has seen his role increase along with his stamina. Bennett is still a few pounds away from not being mistaken for an NFL lineman but the way he now uses his size to his advantage on both ends is night and day from last year.
Fellow big man 6'8" Tanner Robinette, also a Marshall-commit, 6'5" wing Clayton Hughes (UNC Wilmington) and 6'2" Jordan McKenzie (Stony Brook) also contribute on a Hargrave roster that goes 10-deep with players already committed to D-1 programs.
To describe the Hargrave offense as "high-scoring" would be doing them an injustice. Hamilton's crew outscored their opponents by an average of 34 points per game (average score of 115-81 in 38 games played, won 3 games via forfeit) and bring a 41-1 record with them into their title defense. Their only loss of the season was to Fork Union (73-70) on a half court buzzer-beater on December 10th.
Hargrave received a 1st Round bye and will play at 6:15pm on Wednesday. They'll face the winner of Wednesday afternoon's Tilton-South Kent matchup.
PUTNAM SCIENCE ACADEMY
Putnam has taken a circuitous route while earning the opportunity to play for a National Prep Championship this season. Tom Espinosa's team weathered the storm after losing one of the nation's top prospects (Hamidou Diallo) to one of the nation's elite college programs (Kentucky) and still managed to navigate their way through one of the toughest schedules in the country on their way to New Haven.
Eric Ayala, a 6'5" point guard with elite size and play-making ability, didn't waste any time assuming leadership responsibilities after Diallo's mid-season departure. Ayala has shared ball handling duties with battle hardened floor general Jaheam Cornwall throughout the season, moving on and off the ball while serving as a consistent level-headed presence to a program whose season seemed tumultuous at times. After a few disappointing losses early in the season, Ayala and Cornwall have Putnam playing their best basketball of the season and make them a legitimate title contender.
Putnam sports a 19-2 record over their last 21 games heading into the tourney and are fresh off winning the inaugural Power-5 Conference Tournament title this past weekend in Fitchburg, MA. A balanced attack that starts with Ayala and Cornwall also features the deepest group of big men in this year's field.
Malik Ondigo, a versatile 6'10" weapon on both ends, has come into his own over the course of the season and has become one of the most coveted big men in the nation at this point in the season. Ondigo is joined on the front line by 6'9" Alexis Yetna, a double-double machine whose energy and aggression has been contagious during Putnam's run of success. 6'8" post presence Isaac Kante brings a rugged toughness to a group that is as individually unique as it is deep. 6'10" Xavier-commit Kentravious Jones joined the Putnam party midway through the year but his elite size and wingspan (7'3") have allowed him to make an impact down the stretch.
The ability to battle through and overcome adversity has carried Putnam and given them the character necessary to make a run to a title. Their sterling 32-6 overall record gives them a 1st Round bye and pits them against the winner of Wednesday morning's Cushing-Fork Union 1st round matchup.
NORTHFIELD MOUNT HERMON
John Carroll's veteran group returns to the National Prep Championship led by the backcourt duo of Davidson-commit Kellan Grady and North Carolina-commit Andrew Platek. Alongside fellow battle-tested vets Jerome Desrosiers (Princeton), Tomas Murphy (Northeastern) and Matt DeWolf (Brown), Grady and Platek look to cement their NMH legacy by making a run and bringing another National Championship to Northfield, MA.
Grady's elite size and smooth actions from the lead guard position have allowed him to dominate for stretches throughout the season. Platek's consistent stroke from beyond the arch and relentless motor on both end of the floor have given him the opportunity to play at the highest level of college basketball next season. 6'9" junior Nate Laszewski has shown the tendency to get hot in some of NMH's most meaningful games over the last two seasons. Desrosiers and 6'7" wingspan big man Chuck Hannah have attracted suitors from all levels of college basketball with their desire to battle in the post and their will to win individual matchups on a nightly basis.
The pieces are there. Their roles are clear at this point. This group has yet to click on all cylinders for 40 minutes and put together their defining performance. The potential of that performance coming at some point this week is reason enough for an opposing coach to lose sleep prior to their matchup. The team trying to ensure that performance doesn't take place..........
SPRINGFIELD COMMONWEALTH ACADEMY
As an inner-city prep school operating with a budget that would represent a fraction of the allotted amounts provided to the majority of their fellow New England programs, SCA's first home grown graduating class has already surpassed the expectations of the region's basketball community by reaching the National Prep Championship in just their fourth season.
However, the goals and expectations of head coach Tony Bergeron and 6'7" Saint Louis-commit Hasahn French have always been far greater than those of outsiders. SCA heads into the New Haven confident that they can make a run after proving that they could play with anybody over the course of their strong schedule. SCA is one of two teams in this year's field that have played the perceived top-3 seeds; Hargrave, Brewster and Putnam Science.
While their full court trapping pressure defense is at its best with a revolving door of quick athletes, SCA's offense flows through French. The future-Billiken has been one of New England's elite players throughout the season, consistently posting eye-popping double-doubles with the occasional triple-double mixed in. French is simply a different cat, motivated by winning and maniacal about winning possession on both ends of the court.
Throughout a freakishly injury-riddled season, point guard Derrick Ellis and wing Jonathan Duvivier have provided SCA with a steady and productive duo that can be relied on game after game. Ellis' ability to prod into the lane on demand and finish at the rim is as good as anyone in the region. Duvivier isn't sexy in any one particular category from the outside looking in but he's as impactful as anyone once you take a quick glimpse at the final box scores. Duvivier's ability to stretch the floor and knock down shots has been a welcomed addition for Bergeron's team after the season-ending injury to LIU-Brooklyn-bound Shyheim Hicks and the untimely ankle injury to 6'3" wing Malik Pouncy. Jordan Hardwick, a 6'8" athlete with a world of potential, has come on of late and will be a key if SCA makes a run into the second day.
SCA's Wednesday night game (8pm) against Northfield-Mt Hermon will be one the most highly-anticipated matchups of the season. Polar opposites in terms of style, history, socio-economic background and philosophy, everyone in the basketball community will find themselves inherently pulling for one side almost immediately. It's human nature and the beauty of sport!
NOTRE DAME PREP vs MASSANUTTEN WEDNESDAY @ 9:30am
Ryan Hurd leads his ND Prep program to another appearance in the National Prep Championships behind the guard combo of Charleston-commit Zep Jasper and the uncommitted but highly-valued 6'2" Devante Jones. The two get it done in different ways but both get to the rack at will, finish around the rim and are dangerous from beyond the arch. Their ability to spell one another and split primary ball-handling duties gives ND Prep different styles without changing personnel.
After being sidelined with an aggravating foot injury early in the season, Melo Eggleston is coming into his own at the right time of year. The 6'8" Wake Forest-bound wing has started to show the type of athleticism and offensive versatility that made him such a great addition to Danny Manning's 2017 recruit class.
Massanutten heads back to Albertus after battling tooth and nail with Putnam Science and Commonwealth in the National Prep Showcase back in November. Those two games didn't result in wins but let Chad Myers' squad know that they belong on the floor with any team in this year's field.
After exploding onto the national scene with a huge performance in New Haven to begin the year, future Ole Miss Rebel wing Jamarcko Pickett has rode the momentum to a phenomenal prep season despite being a marked man and the unquestioned primary offensive weapon in Massanutten's offense. A young man named Frank Mason Jr went through a similar prospect process four years ago at Massanutten and was recently named a unanimous 1st Team All American after his tremendous senior season at Kansas.
Uncommited 6'3" wing Charles Falden has also taken his game to a different level this season and recently earned an offer from St Bonaventure as a reward for his efforts. Falden's ability to create at the rim and on the perimeter is the perfect compliment to Pickett's multi-faceted offensive repertoire and keeps the floor spread accordingly.
These two teams kick this year's tournament off and play for the right to face Brewster Academy later in the day at 2:45pm
CUSHING ACADEMY vs FORK UNION MILITARY ACADEMY @ 11:15am
James Cormier's first season leading Cushing program couldn't have been scripted any better. Behind the Best Leader in America and a suffocating defense that has been New England's best from start to finish, Cormier's crew has earned the right to be mentioned with the premier programs in the nation.
6'1" Virginia Tech-bound point guard Wabissa Bede, Cushing's aforementioned leader, has continued to polish his individual game while raising the level of his teammates' play to previously unforeseen heights. A legitimate weapon scoring at all three levels offensively, Bede might be even better on the defensive end where his elite instincts really shine through. While Bede's abilities can guide a team far, Cushing's success this season was equally a result of the players surrounding him.
David Duke, a 6'4" PG/wing blessed with electric athletic ability and the type of high-ceiling potential that has programs like UConn, Kansas, Providence and Florida competing for his services, has come into his own during his first season with Cushing. Duke's signature performance thus far was his dynamic performance in Cushing's AA championship game win over Tilton, driving home the fact that Duke is literally bringing his game to new heights each and every day.
Uncommitted 6'5" wing Greg Kuakumensah has been the unsung hero for Cushing all season, providing help on the perimeter and in the paint while negating the opposing team's perceived offensive mismatch night in and night out.
Like Cushing, Fork Union is no stranger to shocking an entire region with their performance on the court this season. Matt Donahue's club is the only team to beat Hargrave this season, on a dramatic half court buzzer-beater in December. They also have recent winning memories from their last trip up north after taking care of business against St Thomas More at the beginning of the year.
Labeling this FUMA team as a scrappy bunch of overachievers would do them no justice, as LePear Toles, Lamont McManus and Darian Peterson are all worthy college prospects whose competitive nature allows their skill sets to play up multiple levels. Entering the Prep Championship with a 26-5 record, FUMA is road tested and quality approved at this point in the season.
TILTON vs SOUTH KENT @ 1pm
Both of these programs entered the season with a lot more questions than answers regarding their status as contenders. For two perennial powerhouse programs in New England, it may have been a welcomed breath of fresh air to play free of expectations while entering each game with a chip on their should and something to prove. It certainly resulted in success.
Marcus O'Neil's team is led by one of the premier playmakers in New England, 6'2" junior point guard Marcus Zegarowski. Equally adept at attacking the basket, knocking down 3's on the perimeter and creating open looks for his teammates, it's become imperative to mention Zegarowski when discussing the top prospects in New England's 2018 class.
Tilton is also equipped with threats on the wings and in the paint, allowing Zegarowski to operate with options as his disposal. Pittsburgh-commit Terrell Brown is one of the most versatile big men in this year's field, blessed with a soft touch from outside and an evolving post game packed into a strong 6'10" frame. Max Zegarowski is a 6'7" marksmen with the ability to score in bunches from beyond the arch. 6'5" Bryant-commit Ryan Layman will prove to be one of the steals in New England's 2017 class and has developed into a versatile playmaker of his own at Tilton.
Heading into New Haven with a 22-8 record and wins over some of the nation's top programs, Tilton has to be considered a dangerous dark horse in this year's field.
Bill Barton leads South Kent back to the National Prep Championship with a group of dynamic guards and wings that can facilitate for another and create mismatch issues with their speed and athleticism.
Malachi De Sousa, a 6'7" junior wing with a developing inside-outside game, and dynamic 6'4" junior PG/wing Anthony Kelley may be South Kent's best long-term prospects and have been relied upon for consistent production throughout the season. 6'2" point guard Kevin Smith has given South Kent the type of energy and improved play throughout the season necessary to reach this point. 6'4" future-Cincinnati wing Trevor Moore is a perimeter threat who can get hot in an instant and immediately swing a game's momentum in his team's favor.
As long as 6'2" point guard Alex Villarino can return to full health after battling an ankle injury for the latter part of the season, this matchup has the potential to be one of the day's best.