Monday, March 2, 2015

PIAA Western PA Boys A Basketball Playoff Preview

The Favorites - Monessen

The WPIAL Championship puts the target on their backs.  The Monessen Greyhounds are definitely the team to beat, and I do not think they will have much of a problem with that. Joe Salvino has been coaching for a long time, and he is one of the best in class A. He will have his team ready for whatever is thrown at them. Justice Rice and Lavelle Rush are two very good guards, and the Greyhounds like to get out and run and push the tempo. Not many teams will be able to keep up with this team.

The Challenger - Kennedy Catholic

The champions from District 10 should be a formidable foe to Monessen, and a potential game with Greyhounds would happen in the Western quarterfinals, not the finals.  The Golden Eagles have one of the most talent, and intriguing players in the entire state and they can ride him to a big run in the playoffs. Sagaba Konate ended up at Kennedy by way of the African nation of Mali, and the 6'8" junior has grown into a legitimate college prospect and was recently offered by Pitt.  Not many people will be able to check the big man at the class A level.

The Local Favorites - Bishop Carroll

Bishop Carroll is 75-6 the past three seasons, including a 52-2 mark the past two years.  The Huskies are 24-1 this season and they play an up-tempo style that is dependent upon full-court pressure for 32 minutes a game. Carroll made it the Western Final last season, and any atmosphere or opponent will not bother some of the more experienced Huskies.  Brandon Martinazzi will most certainly be named all-state once again this season and with him leading the attack - Carroll can beat anybody.

The Dark Horse - Cameron County

Cameron County has a 6'8" senior heading to play division one basketball at Bucknell next season in Nate Sestina. He averages 21 points and 13 rebounds a contest, and is one of the best players in the entire state. He is the type of player that can put the team on his back and go on a run. Cameron County makes the upper half of this bracket that much more dangerous joining the likes of Monessen and Kennedy Catholic. The Raiders can play, and despite the upset in the District 9 championship -  I still think they have as good of a chance as any to represent the West.

The New Guys - Eden Christian

Eden Christian is new to the concept of playing in the PIAA and WPIAL.  Eden played mostly a schedule consisting of other Christian schools until last season. This year the Warriors pulled off a few upsets to advance to the state tournament for the first time. ECA knocked off Clairton and undefeated Sewickley Academy en route to this PIAA tournament berth. The get a tough first round opponent with Kennedy Catholic, but perhaps this team is a little better than we all realized.

The Defense - Southern Fulton

Southern Fulton plays a smothering brand of basketball, and they really can grind out wins. 16 times the Indians have held their opponent to 40 points or less, with four of those games they held the opposition to under 30 points.  This is a tough-minded team that takes on the identity of their coach, Kent Hendershot.  They lost for just the second time all year in the District Five title game, but this team has some skill and they are poised to go up against a very contrasting style against their round one opponent, Vincentian.

The Offense - Vincentian Academy 

As I mentioned, contrasting styles when Vincentian and Southern Fulton will meet up Friday night at UPJ.  The Royals play an up and down, run and gun style that has seen them eclipse 80 points in 16 games this season.  In fact, Vincentian has toppled the 100 point mark three times also.  Think about that, 100 points in a 32 minutes game is no easy task.  They will put the pressure on a slower-paced Southern Fulton team in round one, and they have an offense capable of going on a run for a few games.

The Big Man - Venango Catholic

The story with Venango Catholic is simple; they have a 6'11" player. Devon Zagar is a big force inside for Venango Catholic, and may provide the biggest match-up nightmare of any player in the field. Obviously there are some good big guys in this bracket, but having a near 7-footer is an advantage. Monessen will have a tough time stopping the big man, and if Venango sets the pace and gets their guys in foul trouble, an upset could ensue.

The Youth - Saltsburg

Saltsburg's five leading scorers are sophomores, and the three seed from District Six may be up against it with their youth and inexperience. The Trojans are only 13-11, but they showed some resolve by winning some postseason games. With only two seniors on the roster, it looks like Saltsburg can be a threat for the next two seasons, but it is hard to expect them to take down a good Cameron County team in round one.

The Deeper Sleeper - Farrell

Farrell comes in as the second representative from District 10, but don't forget they spent the majority of the season ranked in the top five of the state. The Steelers are an athletic bunch and Farrell is one of the more storied basketball programs in Western PA. Farrell has played a loaded schedule, and their four losses have all come to quality teams.  The Steelers have also put up some impressive wins for a class A team, and they could easily be the team to come from out of the pack to win the lower half of the bracket.

The "unLuck" of the Draw - Jeannette

Jeannette made a big run to get to the WPIAL championship and gave Monessen a good game in the final at the Petersen Events Center. So with that, you would think a reward or an easier first round would be coming the Jayhawks' way, but that is not the case. Jeannette has to deal with Farrell in the first round, a team that was ranked second in the state rankings as recently as last week. (For perspective, Monessen was ranked sixth.) Jeannette has a tough game, but they are a talented and athletic team that can match what Farrell can bring.  Julian Batts is as good of a guard in the bracket, and could lead them to a first round win, and perhaps a run beyond.

The Experience - Clarion-Limestone

Clarion-Limestone has a senior laden attack, and it led them whole way to a District 9 championship. The Lions finished last season with three straight losses to some quality teams like Ridgway, Johnsonburg, and then Bishop Carroll in the PIAA playoffs.  Clarion-Limestrong finished stronger in the district this time, and they look like they are a more capable team to make a run in the state playoffs. CL knocked off Elk County Catholic and Cameron County, the two proverbial favorites to win District 9 initially.  If Clarion-Linestone can continue their improved play, they will be a tough out.

The Longshot - Portage

I like Portage's first round draw, and I think the Mustangs have a chance to pick up a state playoff win when they take on McConnellsburg on Friday.  Portage played some good basketball down the stretch, and despite the lopsided loss to Bishop Carroll in the district final, I would say Travis Kargo's team accomplished a lot this season. If they make it to the round of 16, Portage will have a difficult showdown with Monessen, but Michael Bryja (21 PPG 10 RPG) and company will give it the best they have.

The Road Warriors - Elk County Catholic

Elk County Catholic finished third in District Nine with a 25-2 record. They are a very good team, but they are walking into a hostile environment for a state playoff game. The Crusaders are going to play one loss district champion, Bishop Carroll of district six.  The game is going to be held at Central Cambria, which is literally right next door to Bishop Carroll.  Obviously ECC is a talented team, but having to deal with a good Bishop Carroll team and their home crowd will be a tough task.

The Consistency - North Catholic 

It may not be talked about much, or enough, but North Catholic is in the PIAA Tournament for the ninth straight season. Dave Long's program is a consistent force in the WPIAL and has been a factor in either class A or AA for some time now.  The Trojans are 16-10 this season, and they earned their way into the PIAA tournament by defeating Sewickley Academy and Cornell in play-back games and those two pretty solid teams.  NC could be team to be reckoned with in a playoff setting.

The Unknown - McConnellsburg 

The Spartans have a solid 16-7 record and have beaten some good teams throughout the year, I just have a hard time gauging what they are capable of doing in the state tournament. They open up with Portage at Hollidaysburg, and that should be a very competitive and winnable game. After that, it probably gets tricky with a potential date with Monessen.  The Spartans are not a big offensive team, and may struggle keeping up with a faster paced team.

The Picks

Monessen over Venango Catholic
Portage over McConnellsburg 
Cameron County over Saltsburg
Kennedy Catholic over Eden Christian
Bishop Carroll over Elk County Catholic
Farrell over Jeannnette
Vincentian over Souther Fulton
Clarion-Limestone over North Catholic

Monessen over Portage
Cameron County over Kennedy Catholic
Farrell over Bishop Carroll
Vincentian over Clarion Limestone

Monessen over Cameron County
Farrell over Vincentian

Farrell over Monessen

Sunday, March 1, 2015

PIAA Western PA Boys AA Basketball Playoff Preview

The Favorites - Aliquippa

The Quips enter the state playoffs with an unblemished 25-0 record. It marked only the second time Aliquippa made it through the WPIAL with an undefeated record. It was their first District Championship since 2007.  The Quips have a star-studded team with quick guards and athletic forwards, and they have the makeup of a team capable of winning a state championship. Stephon McGinnis and Jassir Jett are two very good guards, and they separate the Quips from the pack. Toss in one of the best football players in the state like Kazeon Pugh, and you have a team that is tough to defend from a physical standpoint.  The pressure is on, but Aliquippa is definitely the team to beat.

The Local Favorites - Blairsville

The Blairsville Bobcats defeated West Branch for the District Six crown on Saturday to set their record at 22-4. Blairsville has an athletic team and could surprise some of the WPIAL teams out there with their size and athleticism.  Blairsville is paced by 6'4" forward, Troy Williams. He is the team's leading scorer and can explode for some big games in a playoff setting. Rahdezz Henderson is a grown man in the post, as he will be going to Slippery Rock to play Defensive End next season, but he also happens to be a very talented high school basketball player.  The big three for Blairsville is rounded out by senior guard, Cameron Livingston, who is second in the team in scoring. Blairsivlle has the ability to make a run in the playoffs, more so than any of the other local teams.

The Challengers - Lincoln Park

Lincoln Park sustained an upset in the quarterfinals of WPIAL, and forced the Leopards to win a pair of play-back games to earn their berth in the state playoffs. Maybe the loss to Quaker Valley could have been a wake-up call for the defending class A state champions, and it showed them that the move to AA should be a little more challenging. Lincoln Park is paced by a pair of dynamic guards in sophomore Renell Cummings and senior Antonio Kellem. Lincoln Park gets a tough draw with West Middlesex in round one, but I can assure you that Lincoln Park isn't an ordinary 5th seed from the WPIAL - they are a state championship contender.

The Longshot - Central Cambria 

Central Cambria gets a rough draw in round one having to go to Pittsburgh to take on the undefeated Aliquippa. OK this draw may be a little more than rough, if Central Cambria wins this game it may require a movie script -  they are that big of underdogs.  Central Cambria enters the state playoffs with back to back double digit losses to close out the district six playoffs.  The Red Devils' hope could be resting with a talented and big freshman, 6'5" Matt Holsinger.  If the next brother in the long line of Holsinger's can control the paint and the Red Devils play a slow-it-down style of game, that would be Central Cambria's best chance right there.

The Darkhorse - Greensburg Central Catholic 

GCC has a favorable draw in the playoffs, and could realistically find themselves Western semifinals if they take care of business like they should. The Centurions have an impressive 23-3 record to date, and they come battle tested.  GCC always plays a tough schedule and they still have some pieces from last season's run to the Western Final, most notably Romano Sebastiani.  If Sebastiani can post some big games here in the playoffs, he could lead Greensburg Central on a run.

The Sleeper - Quaker Valley 

Quaker Valley already proved they can beat elite teams by knocking off Lincoln Park in the WPIAL quarterfinals. The Quakers have a senior-laden team led by 6'5" senior Chris Conlan. The senior big man can be a double-double machine as he averages 15 and 8 on the year.  Quaker Valley is led by one of the best coaches on this end of the state in Mike Mastroianni and he usually can pull the best out of his teams. Look for the Quakers to give it a good run here in the state playoffs.

The Snub - West Middlesex

Often the case when you win a district championship, you at least get one easy draw before it starts to pick up in the second round. Unfortunately for the Big Reds, it did not work out that way as they get Lincoln Park in the first round.  Of the three District Ten teams that made it to the state playoffs, West Middlesex likely got the toughest draw despite winning the championship. Now I do not want to make it look like West Middlesex has no chance, because this is a very good basketball team and they certainly can beat Lincoln Park.  West Middlesex has a beast in the middle in Trey Stuanch, and he could certainly overpower Lincoln Park in the paint. Of all the first round games, this is likely the best match-up. Good for basketball fans, tough on the teams.

The Defending Champs - Seton LaSalle

Hey let's not forget about Seton LaSalle, the defending Western PA AA Champions from last season. The Rebels went 30-2 last season, they won the WPIAL and represented the West in the state championship and lost to a very good Constitution team from Philadelphia by two points in Hershey. The two stars from that team moved onto UPJ to continue their careers, so how do they follow that up? Well, Seton LaSalle is 23-3 and gave Aliquippa a game in the WPIAL championship. Seton LaSalle has the ability to make another run, as the cupboard certainly isn't bare. Watch out for the Rebels.

The Youth - Bellwood-Antis

Bellwood-Antis does not have a senior at the top of their regular rotation, and it is possible Bellwood is "a year away" from a deeper run in the playoffs.  The Blue Devils are paced by all-everything junior forward. Nathan Davis. Davis leads the team in scoring (25 PPG), rebounds (9 RPG), and assists (5.7 APG). Bellwood went 5-17 last year, and they have made quite the improvement to 20-6 this season. Bellwood has a favorable draw and nothing to lose, watch out for Brent Gerwart's team.

 The Deeper Sleeper - Neshannock

Neshannock enters the state playoffs on a bit of a skid, but they still are a dangerous team. The Lancers played a difficult schedule. Three of their eight losses have come to one Lincoln Park this season, so take away that and they have fared well against everyone else.  Neshannock has talent, and they are battle tested. Despite them being a six seed from the WPIAL, they absolutely can give District Six champ Blairsville some trouble in the first round.

The Local Sleeper - West Branch

West Branch gets a 14-11 Mercyhurst team in the first round, and that could be one of the better draws of any local team in the playoffs.  West Branch should benefit from Mercyhurst making a long trip to come play them Saturday.  Truth be told, I'm already surprised by West Branch and they are a much better team than I realized. I'll readily admit I was wrong about the Warriors.  The Warriors can stroke the three, and if they outside shots are falling - West Branch could be moving onto the Sweet 16.

The Hot Streak - Chestnut Ridge

Chestnut Ridge enters the playoffs having won six straight, and they appear to be playing their best basketball of the season. They avenged an early season loss to Berlin by defeating them in the District 5 championship game by taking down them down by 12 points on Saturday.  Ridge has a very good player in Tyler Wiley, and they will need him to be on his A-game when they take on Greensburg Central Catholic on Saturday.  Ridge is hot right now, and this is the best time of the year to be hot.

The Bad Note - Fairview

Fairview had an excellent 20-2 regular season, they won their first round playoff game over Reynolds. Things were looking good with a state playoff berth clinched, but a 32 point loss to West Middlesex in the District 10 championship game certainly gives them a different outlook heading into the PIAA playoffs.  It sends this team into the state playoffs on a bad note.  It is one thing to lose a championship game, it's another to lose by that much and you have to question which way this Fairview team is trending going into a first round game against Quaker Valley.

The Grinders - Cranberry

Cranberry is not a flashy team, and will have games played at their pace in the postseason. The Berries (best nickname in the field) have played some lower scoring games this season, and Patrick Irwin's team will typically dictate the tempo. Look for Cranberry to try to slow down against a much more athletic Seton LaSalle team in the first round.

The Record - Mercyhurst Prep

The Lakers from Mercyhurst Prep have a 14-11 record, and that certainly has to raise some eyebrows.  Look a little deeper, and you will see Mercyhurst started the year 2-5, and they definitely changed their fortunes once the calender flipped to January. They are a dangerous team with Chris Vallimont in the middle. The 6'5" senior could certainly give West Branch some troubles in the first round.

The  Long Ball - Redbank Valley

Redbank Valley takes a lot of three pointers with Jake Dougherty and Devin Shumaker leading the way. The two senior guards have both attempted well over 100 three point shots this year, and they are the two leading scorers for this team.  If Redbank Valley has a run in them, it may be with the three-point shot.

The Picks 

Aliquippa over Central Cambria
Quaker Valley over Fairview
Mercyhurst Prep over West Branch
Bellwood-Antis over Redbank Valley
Lincoln Park over West Middlesex
Seton LaSalle over Cranberry
Greensburg CC over Chestnut Ridge
Blairsville over Neshannock

Aliquippa over Quaker Valley
Mercyhurst Prep over Bellwood-Antis
Lincoln Park over Seton LaSalle
Greensburg CC over Blairsville

Aliquippa over Mercyhurst Prep
Lincoln Park over Greensburg CC

Aliquippa over Lincoln Park