by Andrew Garda
It will come as no surprise to anyone who has watched the Immaculate Conception High School boys basketball team play this year that they were given the top seed in the 2020 Essex County Tournament.
The Lions (10-6, 4-1 SEC) have dominated the American Division this season, and if you’re on top of that division, you’re going to get rewarded for it. Along with the top seat comes a bye until the first round on Feb. 8, and home court advantage until the semifinals and finals, which are held at West Orange High School on Feb. 18 and Feb 22, respectively.
The Lions’ first opponent will be the winner of 16-seeded Barringer and North Star/West Caldwell. While there are some opponents who may be tough —Newark Central (12-4, 7-2 SEC) and East Orange (14-2, 11-0 SEC) are both playing good basketball — ICHS looks well poised to make their third straight appearance in the ECT final and perhaps avenge themselves on Newark East Side, who beat them both times.
The road is much tougher for the other two local teams, however.
Montclair High School has yet to notch their first win in the American this season, but by virtue of playing tough in some of their games and just being in the top division, the Mounties end up with a bye until the third preliminary round, which is to be played on or before Feb. 6. Their No. 14 seed landing spot will give them a home game against the winner of the second preliminary game between No. 19 Millburn and whoever wins the first preliminary game between Technology and Newark Academy.
After that, Montclair will become a road team for the remainder of the tournament and would start off with a tough first round matchup with a Seton Hall Prep team that just beat ICHS.
Coming out of the Independence Division, Montclair Kimberley Academy (6-7, 5-5 SEC) has garnered the No. 27 seed and will have to play in the first preliminary game. However, they are a higher seed than their opponent, No. 33 Science Park, so they will have home-court advantage.
Just like the Mounties, if the Cougars win that game they will have to head out on the road and face No. 22 Livingston. If they slip past the Lancers, 11-seeded West Side awaits and beyond them, 6-seeded Columbia.
LIONS ROAR AGAINST DIVISION FOES
The Lions may be in the midst of a slight skid with back to back losses to Seton Hall Prep and Rutgers Prep, but they should still be confident in their ability carrying them through the ECT.
So far this season, Immaculate has beaten their SEC-American opponents all but once, outscored them by 159 points. The Lions are scoring an average of 78.1 points a game, while allowing an average of 55.4 against.
And while it might be tempting to look at last week’s game against Seton Hall Prep and decide the key is to focus on shutting down senior Zion Bethea, who leads the team with 271 points, that may not help as much as you’d think.
ICHS has four more scorers over 100 points — Zayon Marsh with 128, Zakai Zeigler with 137, Jayden Brown with 146 and Amar’e Marshall, who’s not too far behind Bethea with 241 points. Both Marshall and Bethea have dropped 23 baskets from beyond the arc as well.
One thing to watch will be how teams manage Marsh at the glass, as he has dominated there with a team-leading 120 rebounds. Bethea is the next closest with 80, and that’s a steep drop-off.
COUGARS HOPE TO GET HOT
The Cougars enter the tournament on a bit of a skid, having lost four of their last six games, but overall it’s been a nice season for MKA, who seem to fit well in the Independence Division.
The Cougars picked up a very solid win Tuesday night, Jan. 28, overcoming a slow start to knock off West Essex, 61-43.
The Knights jumped out to a 19-8 lead at the end of the first quarter, but MKA outscored their opponents 39-15 in the second half to take control. MKA avenged a 23-point loss to West Essex earlier this month.
Jack O’Connell has been on a scoring tear in recent weeks, scoring 29 points in a loss to Newark Academy Jan. 16, and following that up with a 24-point effort in the Cougars’ narrow 51-49 loss to Glen Ridge Friday evening.
AMERICAN DIVISION A TALL TASK FOR MOUNTIES
There’s no other way to put it — moving up a division has been rough for Montclair.
Last season, one tier lower in the Liberty Division, Montclair went 11-1 with an overall record of 18-7 and notching a win in the 2019 ECT and NJSIAA North 1, Group 4 tournaments.
They were rewarded with a move up to the American, which even in a down year has been far more than MHS can handle. Aside from the fact that the American usually houses some of the best basketball teams in North Jersey, the Mounties have been hurt by the fact that they graduated a dozen seniors last year.
Why nobody took into account that Montclair was going to be exceptionally young during the 2019-2020 season when the decision was made to move them up is baffling, and disappointing. Add in the fact that Montclair has not been producing a ton of home grown basketball talent, and the task seems difficult at best, impossible at worst.
Head coach Gary Wallace has done an admirable job of getting his young team to embrace the fundamentals and hang in games even when they are well behind, and Omarion Jett has carried the offense on his shoulders, scoring 70 points this season.
There are too many young and inexperienced players around him, though, and limits to what he can achieve.
MHS will hang play hard and hang in games, even during the tournament, but this is a team that needed another year in Liberty while they rebuilt after losing too many players.