by Andrew Garda
The Immaculate Conception High School boys basketball team had an outstanding season in 2017-18, with appearances in the Essex County Tournament final and the NJSIAA State tournament semi-final, along with an impressive 20-9 record.
Close isn’t good enough though, for the Lions and head coach Jimmy Salmon.
Getting to the next level will be hard this year however, as the team will be without Jalen Carey, a 2,000-point scorer now playing regular minutes at Syracuse University, and Justin Winston, who topped 1,000 points in his ICHS career.
“I think we can challenge to win every game we pay,” Salmon said. “Now, does that mean we will? I don’t know. We’ve got one senior, so I don’t know how mature we are. We’ve got talent, and I’m not here to deny that. I don’t know if we have maturity, but we definitely have talent.”
That maturity of the team, or potential lack thereof, is one of the keys to any success the Lions have this season, as they try to replace Carey and Winston.
“I don’t think we are as deep because Jalen [Carey] and Justin [Winston] were both 28-minute-a-game guys. So really when you were looking at depth, you were really only subbing for the other three players on the floor,” Salmon explained. “So that was what I think made us deeper because that’s where we had that veteran leadership and those guys carrying that kind of minutes.”
No one player is going to replace the minutes either Carey or Winston compiled, much less their production on the floor. So Salmon and his staff will be rotating in multiple players to pick up the slack.
Salmon is optimistic that his team is up to the task.
‘I think we can play any eight guys at any time, but no one has the experience [Carey and Winston] did,” he said. “But this team is very interchangeable, I think we can even go as deep as nine if we had to. I don’t think we should be pitied by anyone for any reason, but we look to contend.”
Key to contending will be the play of ICHS’ guards. Salmon will run most of the game through them, so they will have to manage the plays, handle the ball in transition and moving it around the perimeter and making sure everyone else is where they need to be.
“Our guards are Zion Bethea, Amare Marshall, and Jarden Brown,” he said. “They are our probable starters and as they go, we will go.”
Along with that trio of guards, the Lions will look to Elijah Hutchins-Everett and the team’s lone senior, Nick Jordain.
“[Hutchins-Everett] is a top fifty player in his class in the country,” Salmon said. “He’s 6-10, so clearly we’re looking to play through him. And Nick is very, very much improved and he’s 6-8. They’ll both be two constants we [can lean on] and we’re going to be able to count on those guys for double-doubles every game. I think they’re that good.”
Even with the talent he has, though, Salmon knows there is a lot of work to be done, and he is going to have to drive his team hard to succeed in the always ultra-competitive American division. On top of that, Salmon prides himself in putting together an aggressive non-conference schedule every year.
“I’m going to always try to get the best schedule I can,” he said. “I think we’ve done that and either we’re going to get our head handed to us or we’re going to upset some people. But I like our team, I like our chances, and I’m ready to play.”
The idea is that, win or lose, his team will be battle-tested by the schedule before the ECT and NJSIAA tournaments, so they are ready for the high level of competition both will produce. It’s a long, hard road though, and Salmon is grateful for the support of both the ICHS community and the parents of his team as well.
“Fortunately, we have a group of kids and parents who all buy in,” he said. “Not questioning anything, they’re not sitting in the stands, making their own plans. I really like this group and I hope that takes us somewhere.”
The road to whatever that somewhere looks like starts at home against Seton Hall Prep Friday night, Dec. 14, 8:30 p.m., although “home” in this case takes place at Elizabeth High School due to the small size of ICHS’ home gym.
Then the Lions are off and running through a schedule which has games against Roselle Catholic, St. Benedict’s, Imhotep (PA) and Bergen Catholic, as well as two top-tier holiday tournaments — the City of Palms in Florida and the Jingle Bells Jubilee at Paterson Kennedy.