Football is king among the pros and colleges, but basketball reigns supreme in the realm of New Jersey high school sports.
Loaded with powerhouse teams and big-time players, the Garden State boys hoops scene tips off Friday. Here are 10 story lines to watch for the 2014-15 campaign:
1. Roselle Catholic, the runaway chalk: After winning Non-Public B last winter, the Lions return all their key people. First among them is Kentucky-bound guard Isaiah Briscoe, the state’s consensus top player. There are Division I recruits Chris Silva (South Carolina), Pierre Sarr (Monmouth), Asante Gist and Matt Bullock. And then there’s 6-foot-9 freshman Nazreon Reid, who hails from Asbury Park and already has high-major scholarship offers. Barring injuries, it will be a surprise if they don’t win the Tournament of Champions.
2. St. Anthony, plucky underdog? Sure seems like it on paper. But you never count Bob Hurley out, and he does have players in Wichita State-bound Markis McDuffie and junior big man Taurean Thompson. The Friars visit Roselle Catholic in the Hoops 4 Troops showcase Jan. 2, a potential preview of the Non-Public B final. Good local undercard right beforehand: Rutgers Prep vs. Plainfield.
3. Linden carries the flag: We’re going on 15 years since a public school won the NJSIAA Tournament of Champions (Dajuan Wagner-led Camden in 2000). Newark East Side gave it a good run last year before coming up just short in the final. This year, defending Group IV champ Linden looks like the only realistic hope. The Tigers return a deep, dynamic backcourt led by Otis Livingston, football standout Juwan Dolbrice and Josh Carter. They’ll be battle-tested in Union County, which includes a third juggernaut in the Patrick School.
4. Tyus Battle and T.J. Gibbs, worth the ticket: Battle, a Gill St. Bernard’s junior guard, possesses maturity and fundamentals well beyond his years. That’s why Duke has made him a recruiting priority. The Edison resident gained invaluable experience helping the U.S. under-17 team win a world championship in August. Gibbs, a Seton Hall Prep junior, helped his AAU team win the prestigious Peach Jam over the summer. The Scotch Plains native has two successful older brothers — former Pitt star Ashton and current Seton Hall standout Sterling. They’ll both tell you: The youngest might be the best one yet.
5. Changing of the guard in Non-Public A? What a run it was for St. Joseph-Metuchen, which captured three straight state group crowns during the Karl-Anthony Towns era. Towns is now excelling at Kentucky and the Falcons are rebooting, though they should still be competitive with rising star Breein Tyree in the backcourt. Pope John XXIII might be the favorite to take the reins with coveted big man Moustapha Diagne leading the way, but don’t count out Christian Brothers. The Colts own size and experience in the frontcourt with 6-7 junior Pat Andree and 6-5 senior Jack Laffey.
6. Small school, big reach: Point Pleasant Beach seems poised to return to Group I dominance after falling to Pitman in last year’s semifinals. As a choice school, Point Beach draws players from the region, and Jackson Memorial transfer Jesse Hill, a 6-7 forward, should have an impact. It helps to have a proven playmaker like senior Mike Frauenheim at the controls. A Shore Conference Tournament final rematch with CBA could be epic.
7. Mercer County madness: Two of the state’s most exciting players will be filling up scorebooks in the Trenton area. Ewing senior Trey Lowe, who is headed to Temple next year, averaged nearly 28 points per game in leading his team to the Group III final last winter. Trenton Catholic’s Malachi Richardson (19 ppg) will be taking perhaps the state’s sweetest shooting stroke to Syracuse in the fall.
8. Paging South Jersey: It has a proud hardwood tradition, but the land south of I-195 has put just two teams into the TOC final since Camden won it in 2000. Camden Catholic reached the ultimate game in 2003 and 2010 but fell both times. This year’s top squads from the 609 and 856 area codes could be Camden, Camden Catholic and St. Augustine.
9. Tourney time, all the time: There are tantalizing showcases virtually every week around the state, starting with the Hoop Group’s Tip-Off Classic this weekend in West Orange and peaking with the Prime Time Shootout Feb. 7-8 at Roselle Catholic. For a comprehensive list of major in-season events, visit NJHoops.com.
10. Transfer epidemic: One background issue to watch is the ever-increasing number of transfers, which are more pronounced in boys hoops than any other sport. Earlier this month the NJSIAA membership voted down a proposal to increase the sit-out penalty from 30 days to 45 days. A special committee is expected to make recommendations on the matter in the spring. In the meantime, expect some teams to look much different in mid-January than they do now.
Staff writer Jerry Carino: email@example.com