Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
It is one of the tremendous ironies of the basketball world.
Year in and year out, New Jersey features three of the top high school programs in the nation in St. Anthony, St. Benedict’s and St. Patrick.
Yet New Jersey’s two Big East teams — Rutgers and Seton Hall — remain at the bottom of the conference. When the two teams face off Thursday night at The Prudential Center (9 p.m., ESPN 2), they will bring a combined conference record of 1-13 into the showdown.
“To win in the Big East you have to have a Big East roster,” said St. Anthony coach Bob Hurley, whose team went 32-0 last season en route to the New Jersey Tournament of Champions title and a mythical national championship and sent six players to the Division 1 ranks. “It’s not a forgiving league. [Rutgers and Seton Hall] are not complete teams, but they’re not bad. Neither of them is a bad team. There are no nights off [in the Big East].
“What separates them is just the depth of talent, and they just don’t have it.”
A year ago, St. Anthony, St. Ben’s and St. Patrick combined to go 80-7. The Friars and the Gray Bees finished 1-2 in most national polls, and St. Patrick reached the North Non-Public B title game before falling to St. Anthony.
The three programs combined to send 11 players to Division 1 programs, but only two chose to attend Rutgers or Seton Hall.
Both St. Anthony guard Mike Rosario and St. Ben’s big man Greg Echenique opted to play for Rutgers, where they are now two of the players most heavily counted on by Rutgers head coach Fred Hill.
Among the other nine players who went D-1, two ended up at Kansas in Quintrell Thomas of St. Patrick and Tyshawn Taylor of St. Anthony; two picked Fordham in point guard Jio Fontan and guard Alberto Estwick of St. Anthony. One chose another Big East school in Travon Woodall of St. Anthony (Pitt). Taylor and Fontan, in particular, are both excelling for their respective schools, even though Fordham is struggling.
Several players from the current Jersey high school teams are also committed elsewhere. At St. Anthony, senior wing Dominic Cheek is verbally committed to Villanova. St. Patrick senior guard Dexter Strickland signed to play for North Carolina and senior forward Paris Bennett to George Mason. St. Benedict’s senior guard Tamir Jackson will play for Rice, while junior forward Tristan Thompson, a Top 5 player in the Class of 2010, and sophomore point guard Myck Kabongo are both committed to Texas.
All three programs also have a number of younger players who will end up playing high D-1, namely St. Patrick junior guard Kyrie Irving; St. Pat’s sophomore wing Michael Gilchrist; and the St. Anthony junior trio of Devon Collier, Derrick Williams and Ashton Pankey. The 6-8 Gilchrist and the 6-8 Thompson are both considered potential future pros.“Devon [Collier] can play on the perimeter,” Hurley said of the 6-8 forward who transferred from All Hallows in New York and then scored 19 points and grabbed 10 boards in his debut Jan. 19 in a victory over Xavier Henry and Putnam City (Ok.). “He can play outside. He can put it on the floor. He can be a one-man fast-break. He can take the ball off the backboard and go down court. We really welcome his versatility.”
St. Ben’s coach Dan Hurley, whose team is currently 19-0 and ranked among the Top 3 or 4 nationally in most polls, says Rutgers and Seton Hall have to recruit these types of players harder.
“Besides just getting in their gym and getting them to games, the only way that you’re going to get the kids that put you over the top is to get somebody close to them to get them in front of you,” he said. “Get them to your practices, get them to your games. You get to as many of their games as rules allow. You’ve got to live with these kids because it’s so much easier committing to Texas than it is Seton Hall because it’s perceived as a risk, whether that’s right or wrong.
“Right now there’s got to be a bond because you don’t have the tradition, you don’t have the recent success, you don’t have the NBA players. And plus, all these other [schools] are great.”
Dan Hurley has former players at six Big East programs — Rutgers, Seton Hall, Villanova, Marquette, Cincinnati and Louisville.
He says Rutgers clearly needs a point guard for next year and Seton Hall needs a big man who can finish.
“Rutgers is scouring for a point guard,” Hurley said. “They desperately need a point guard. A good, capable point guard would make them look a whole lot different.
“The Hall getting a big guy who can catch and finish and rebound, that guy would look like [Notre Dame forward Luke] Harangody. They have great guards and wings. I don’t know if they’re as far off as people think, but in that league the difference between the upper echelon and the lower tier is significant.”
Hurley points out that even when Rutgers and Seton Hall add players for next year — Rutgers has two recruits signed from the Class of 2009 and Seton Hall has three talented transfers coming in — the Big East will still be brutal.
“Villanova will have the two Coreys [Fisher and Stokes] and Scottie Reynolds,” Hurley said. “As it stands right now, they will be around for four years. They add Dominic Cheek and Taylor King and the big kid from Montrose Christian [Mouphtaou Yarou]. They’re probably going to get better.
“The league might not be at this level always but it isn’t going to get worse.”
Adam Zagoria is a Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. A contributor to The New York Times and SportsNet New York (SNY), he is also the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker. His articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide. He also won an Emmy award for his work on the SNY mini-documentary on Syracuse guard Tyus Battle.
A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013.
He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.