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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.
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Monday / December 18.
  • St. Ben's, St. Pat's to Face off for Unofficial Jersey Title

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    It isn’t the official New Jersey state championship game, but it might as well be.

    St. Benedict’s of Newark (19-0), No. 2 in the USA Today Super 25, will face No. 9 St. Patrick of Elizabeth (16-2) Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. in an independent game at the Rutgers Athletic Center.

    “If you do win the state and you don’t beat St. Ben’s, you’re still not the best team in the state,”  St. Patrick coach Kevin Boyle said.

    St. Patrick, which features North Carolina-bound guard Dexter Strickland, talented junior guard Kyrie Irving and super sophomore Michael Gilchrist, is considered the favorite by many to win the New Jersey Tournament of Champions this year.

    St. Benedict’s, which has the Texas-bound duo of Tristan Thompson and Myck Kabongo as well as Rice commit Tamir Jackson, is not a member of the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association and thus does not play in the state tournament. Instead, Dan Hurley’s team plays a national independent schedule, including a game against No. 1 Mater Dei on Saturday night in California that will be shown on ESPNU.

    “You try to take it one game at a time,” Hurley said. “The kids are thinking about if we have a great week, when the polls come out next week we’ll be No. 1 in the country.”

    While Boyle and Bob Hurley, Dan’s father and the legendary coach of St. Anthony in Jersey City, have had their battles in the newspapers over recruiting issues, Boyle and Dan Hurley are actually quite friendly.

    “When I was at Rutgers trying to recruit with [former coach] Kevin Bannon there were two guys in Jersey that helped me,  my dad and Kevin,” Hurley said. “I’ll never forget his help in recruiting. Herve Lamizana was my first big recruit as an assistant and Kevin played a big part in that.”

    When Hurley later considered leaving St. Benedict’s for an assistant’s job at Pitt under Jamie Dixon, one of the people who reached out to offer his advice was Boyle.

    “We’re competitors once a year,” Hurley said. “We’ve got a friendly relationship.”

    Said Boyle: “Danny’s done  a terrific job in his time at St. Benedict’s. They’ve quickly become one of the top five programs in the nation. I think we have a basketball respect for each other. I like to consider him a friend.”

    Entering last year’s game, Boyle had been a perfect 9-0 in his previous nine games against the Hurley family. Two years ago, St. Patrick beat St. Benedict’s to knock the Gray Bees from the No. 1 spot in the USA Today rankings.

    But last year Boyle lost both games to the Hurleys, falling to St. Ben’s at the RAC and to St. Anthony in the North Non-Public B title game at the same arena.

    A year ago, St. Ben’s downed St. Patrick 68-62 behind 30 points from Samardo Samuels, now a freshman at Louisville, and 12 points from Kabongo, all from the line.

    “I think last year the kids and myself were carrying anxiety because we hadn’t beaten St. Pat’s since I’ve been at the school,” Hurley said.  “That had been an albatross.

    “You accept all that. We talked about that last year with Samardo and Gregory [Echenique]. We figured out how to beat every team in the country except St. Pat’s. We obviously were able to accomplish that last year.”

    This year’s game should be more of an up-tempo affair, with both teams pushing the basketball.

    St. Patrick’s back court of Strickland (12 ppg, 4 rpg, 2 apg) and Irving (17.8 ppg, 5 rpg, 3apg) might be the best in the state. Irving sat out the state-mandated 30 days after transferring from Montclair Kimberly, but is now playing at a very high level.

    “He’s got a little Chris Paul in him where he can get eight and play great and be fine with that,” Boyle said of Irving. “Or he’s got 4 at halftime but we need him to get 25 and he can get 25 in a  flash.”

    Said Hurley: “What makes them so tough with [Irving] is he shoots it and he’s  a smart instinctive player. He’s not just a talented guy that doesn’t think the game, which maybe you’d be able to take advantage of.”

    Strickland, who scored 29 points in last year’s St. Ben’s game, is also playing at a higher level after missing some time with a meniscus tear.

    “Dexter Strickland is starting to play like a McDonald’s All-American,” Boyle said. “He was out early in the year with a discipline thing. Then he was out with an injury and he still has a torn meniscus, but doctors OK’d him to play. He was in and out of games. Now you’ve almost added in the last 10 days the real Dexter and Kyrie Irving together.”

    Boyle added that “I think at the end of the season, he’s supposed to get surgery.”

    The St. Ben’s backcourt of Jackson (12.9 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 2.4 apg)) and Kabongo (11.1 ppg, 5.0 apg, 3.2 rpg) shouldn’t be overlooked, either. All they’ve done is lead the Gray Bees to a perfect 19-0 start, beating teams like Marietta (Ga.) Wheeler, Chicago Whitney Young and Brooklyn Lincoln  in the process.

    Of course, the marquee matchup will take place in the frontcourt between two potential future pros — Thompson and Gilchrist.

    Clark Francis of the Hoop Scoop ranked the 6-7 Gilchrist a First-Team Hoop Scoop All American, among the top five players in the nation. He is averaging 16 points, 8 rebounds and 1.5 blocks.

    The 6-8 Thompson (19.1 ppg, 9.6 rpg) was on the third team.

    “Mike’s had a very good year,” Boyle said. “If the season ended today, there’s no question he should be a first-team All-State player in New Jersey, and obviously an All-American in his class level. He’s definitely a top 25-35 guy nationally, all grades. So he’s had an outstanding year.

    “I think Tristan Thompson from St. Benedict’s, they have  lot of similarities. They’re both very lanky and long. They both like to rebound and try to push their own rebound. They’re both getting better at that. They make very good plays sometimes. Both sometimes show that they’re still young and that they need to make a little bit better decisions.

    “But I think both going in the right direction. Both need to shoot the ball more consistently to be great college players on the perimeter. But both have a knack for getting to the basket and finding offensive rebounds, getting fouled when they go up with their lankiness. I think Michael’s a tremendous perimeter defender. I think it’s a very interesting matchup and they have a good chance to go against each other a good portion of the game.”

    It should be an exciting game, and both sides can’t wait.

    “For the kids, the ranking and these big games is like our Final Four this weekend,” Hurley said.

    IRVING RECRUITING UPDATE

    Boyle said he could see Irving staying local at Rutger, Seton Hall or Villanova.

    “Kyrie’s got a wide range of interest,” he said. “I think there is the chance that Seton Hall or Rutgers could get him to stay in town. Kyrie has also shown interest in Villanova. There’s a good chance he could stay in the East. He’s just really, really good.

    “Now is the big test for him. He he plays in the St. Ben’s game, the Oak Hill game, these seven or eight games, those are basically your stats.”

    (Photos courtesy Mike Scanlan, St. Benedict’s; Rivals)

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    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.