February Madness

by Jay Mumford aka “J-Zone”

High school hoops is a niche market in NY. Especially league games. You see a few old timers in the stands, a few hoops heads with flexible work schedules like myself, students, some parents…maybe (gasp) a college scout? Well, sadly most scouts wait until its too late and their top prospect is in some televised tournament and has 1000 college letters already stacked on his kitchen table. Anyway, I’m here watching St. John’s get a good ol Knicks-style drubbing at the hands of Georgetown -gotta love NY teams, we keep it consistent- and I’m wondering what their scouts are up to these days. The Johnnies or any local program for that matter, as so many local programs seem to miss out on so many local players. Then it hit me that maybe throwing some hints as to what I’ve seen on my weekday afternoons in these flu- filled gyms may be of some use.

As the playoffs start this week, the best high school programs in the Metro NYC area (NYC & Westchester County) prepare for battle. I’ve spent a lot of money on gas, tolls and Airborne (I swear that stuff stops working after a month) to see some hoop…so make my $147.17 worth something please (yea, I’m writing this stuff off). Keep in mind I never got the chance to get out to the Catholic Schools (most of them get a lot of press anyway) or Long Island (next time I got y’all!), and I just skimmed the surface on some of the solid public school programs out here. So now that the league games are out of the way, here’s a NYC commuter friendly guide to the season and the upcoming playoffs.

Business As Usual.

Some teams seem to have a stranglehold on public HS ball and can compete with prep and CHSAA programs that are known for providing scholarships for only the elite. Mt. Vernon HS has long been a pillar in NYC area basketball. Whether regular season, playoffs or AAU, the Knights have run through Westchester County, grabbed the federation title and dominated tournaments for decades, whilst producing NBA stars like Ben “Knick Killer” Gordon. With West Virginia bound 6’7 senior forward Kevin Jones at the helm being a player most teams cannot defend, viable second and third scoring options Sherrod Wright and Jordan Lessane, and three more years of leadership with a solid freshman point guard (Jabari Hinds), the saga continues.

The same can be said for Brooklyn’s Lincoln and Boys & Girls. In accordance with the pre-season assumption they would be #1 and #2 in the PSAL, they’ve proven that their best PSAL competition within city limits is themselves. Evidence would be their first meeting resulting in an OT Lincoln win and the second going to Boys by a point. Having top ranked players like Lance Stephenson and Patrick Jackson, respectively, doesn’t hurt. Speaking of Mr. Born Ready TV, Stephenson has proven that he’s the best high school talent Metro NYC has to offer. His advantages in size and ability at this level are so extreme he seems bored at times, like he’s playing biddy ball at 17. And he’s only a junior. Frightening. But Lincoln’s true ex-factor is the underrated Darwin “Budda” Ellis. The steady and solid shooting PG is in the shadow of a phenom…place him on any other team in the city and he’s a star. Truthfully, most of that team falls in that same category.

Most people won’t hear about Staten Island’s Curtis HS unless they like riding boats and crossing overpriced bridges. But its safe to say those not living amongst the Wu-Tang are missing a chance to see one of the city’s best and a regular playoff contender, whom I might add lost to Boys & Girls at the hands of a buzzer beater. Peekskill is also too far away for many to see in league action, but being undefeated at press time and the play of Syracuse bound Mookie Jones ensure the alma matter of Elton Brand is rolling. Let’s not forget, Kennedy (Bronx, NY) is also undefeated in league play and the one stain on the Lincoln dynasty of the last 6 years. Campus Magnet has taken over Queens in the rankings, so it will be interesting to see them match up with the other boroughs. There are plenty of teams consistently turning in solid seasons so anything is possible, but Lincoln and Boys (PSAL) and Mt. Vernon (Section 1) look like there’s no slowing their roll.

Hard Times.

Every top tier team must hit a bump at some point. Ron Naclerio is one of the NYC’s most respected and storied coaches, whose Cardozo team -although recently falling deep in the playoffs- is known for flat out crushing the rest of Queens and pulling in some of the borough’s best ballers. But the latter is a problem when it affects roles and some of your top players transfer out.

“When (main scorer) James Southerland transferred, that really hurt us. We lost some key players we were supposed to have. Honestly now, we’re not a great offensive team and we lost a few close games but people talk about us like we’re the Knicks!”, said Naclerio. A high playoff seed is evident due to their Queens AA league having a fair share of struggling teams, but Naclerio knows the playoffs are not a best of seven series. “We have very quick guards and if they can control the tempo, we can still upset a lot of teams come playoff time.”

Canarsie’s Yves Jules, one of the city’s most athletic players, will have on a Hofstra Pride jersey a year from now. But we’re living in the present, and although Canarsie snuck into the playoffs, a 5-8 league record is far below what many expected. Current Hofstra baller Nathaniel Lester was the one that lead this team to the PSAL semi-finals the last 2 years, but almost as detrimental as Lester was Brian Cummings’ (arguably the best shooter in the PSAL) 20+ PPG being on the inactive list all season. Add to that being in the toughest division in the PSAL (Brooklyn AA) and some close losses, it’s safe to say 07-08 wasn’t the typical Canarsie season. But they’re in the playoffs with a low seed, so an upset is the key for the Chiefs.

Westchester Powerhouse White Plains boasts one of the greatest (Sean Kilpatrick-26 ppg) and the most athletic (Rashad James) players in the entire Metro NY area. Their record is decent (14-6) but rebounding, breaking full court pressure and helping Kilpatrick and James with the scoring are areas yet to be solved. Evidence would be a 20 point loss to Mt. Vernon where Kilpatrick poured in 33 of his team’s 55 points (reaching his 1,000th career point). The Kilpatrick/James duo, nonetheless, is worth the price of admission as Kilpatrick is a man amongst boys and James is hands down the best dunker out here. I hear St. John’s is looking at Kilpatrick. Whatever it takes Norm, your rep is on the line!

These powerhouses didn’t finish the season with flying colors, but still made the playoffs. Some aren’t that fortunate. Grady HS is a known force when it comes to b-ball in NYC. Lincoln’s across Ocean Parkway rival has gone to the city finals twice in the last decade and regardless of whether or not they have a superstar, the Falcons never bow out before the quarterfinals. However, foreign tough times have hit as evidenced in finishing 1-13. The head coach has since resigned due to health reasons and Grady won’t see the playoffs for the first time in almost 30 years.

“We had talent but there were some chemistry problems”, said senior guard Peyton Mullings, who transferred to Grady from Far Rockaway HS for his final two seasons- a move that would have given him more presence in the win column in just about any other two years in Grady history. But despite the look of things, there’s a silver lining. “Even with everything that happened this year, I’m glad I came to Grady and played in the toughest division in the city. We played some of our best games to finish the season.”

Signs Of Change.

On the flipside, sometimes an under the radar or flat out unknown team can present something worth watching. Even if a program isn’t a federation or PSAL champ contender, sometimes seeing a team rise from the doldrums to grab a high seed or a player with D-1 potential take the hard route of bringing his neighborhood school some notoriety -and elude the 20-mile-commute-to-attend-a-top-school route- is worth the ink.

Yonkers, NY is a football city, and the fourth largest in NY state. The Cross County Parkway that splits it has been renamed after the DeMatteo brothers, two football coaches from cross-town rival schools, Roosevelt and Gorton. NBA baller Mark Blount is a Yonkers native and he attended high school two towns away. More like NYC than the rest of Westchester County, there are five high schools to divide the city’s talent. When they compete with local Section 1 programs featuring all of the city’s best on one team (like top dogs New Rochelle and Mt. Vernon), it’s safe to say Yonkers public schools usually come up short. But all hope isn’t lost. The aforementioned schools have produced winning records and even earned respect from opposing coaches of top programs.

“They’re really athletic and they run the floor very well”, said Mt. Vernon assistant coach Brian Pritchett of Roosevelt. “(Their second year head coach) Ken Stevens is in a lot of NYC tournaments and Yonkers is a big city with a lot of talent, so their program will come together.”

After recording a 9-26 record over the two previous seasons, Stevens (who is also the founder of the legendary Dyckman hoops tournament in the Bronx) has coached Roosevelt to a 15-4 record, a tournament championship and a playoff seed for the first time in years. The difference?

“Our work ethic and conditioning are really good this year”, said senior PG and co-captain Wayne Custis. “We never get tired. In the last few years our gas would just run out in the third quarter.”

It also helps when one of the top scorers in the area transfers in. Junior wing Winston Graham has brought immediate results after coming from the much higher touted Our Savior Lutheran program to contribute 22 PPG. Already in the rankings for the Class Of 2009 for his shooting touch and versatility, Graham’s reason for coming to Roosevelt wasn’t even hoop related.

“I didn’t know about their basketball team, I just came to work on my grades”, said Graham. “I saw they had a team so I joined, but now that I’m here I’m going to help bring more to the table.”

Across town, Gorton has also shown significant improvement. A 13-7 record may not be intimidating but the program made the playoffs, largely due to the upside of junior guard Chris Ranglin. Averaging 17 pts, 5 boards, 5 assists and a criminal 5 steals per game, Ranglin has taken the load for Gorton throughout the season. A 33 point outing against Roosevelt cemented him as a top area talent, albeit an underrated one, trying to create a buzz at home rather than go prep or borrow an address.

“I want to help my team out, (help) people I know in Yonkers and bring my name up by bringing my school up”, Ranglin said.

Well, the playoffs start this week and I feel my third cold coming on. Airborne is worthless. But if you’re a hoop fan and have a chance to check out some games, it’s worth a little 4 day cold. Especially since NBA and NCAA hoops lack so much in this town as of late. Apologies to all omitted, I just can’t be everywhere all the time. If I’m sick now, doing that would kill me for sure.

For schedules and info

www.maxpreps.com www.psal.org www.mountvernonbasketball.com