Rahmir Barno (above) and a new-look Imhotep are one of the big storylines of the rest of the 2019-20 season. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
Though high school basketball doesn’t quite have the schedule split that colleges tend to follow, with mostly non-league games before the winter holidays and conference play in the new year, there’s no doubt that the intensity ramps up in January.
Aside from the five-team Delaware Valley League and six-team Inter-Academic League, every other conference in southeastern Pennsylvania has seen its teams play at least a couple of conference games, giving us an early glimpse at which teams are in good shape and who’s got some work to do with district playoffs only about six weeks away.
With three weeks’ worth of results already in the books, it’s not too early to look around and see which races are shaping up as expected, and which teams have totally thrown the predictions for a loop. Here are five questions I have about the next six weeks of the 2019-20 high school season, and how they’ll affect how various playoff pictures look come February:
Has Imhotep Charter’s Public League reign ended?
It had been several years since Andre Noble’s Panthers had lost a Public League game, their last group of graduating seniors going without any losses at home but beating up on their leaguemates the rest of the time, winning the Pub tournament title each of the last three seasons. But Donta Scott (Maryland), Chereef Knox (St. Joe’s), Dahmir Bishop (Xavier) and Jamil Riggins Jr. (Quinnipiac) are all off at their respective Division I schools, and even with Notre Dame commit Elijah Taylor remaining in the middle, there isn’t a team in the country that could lose that level of talent and not suffer a bit of a setback.
That was proven (to some extent) when Simon Gratz handed ‘Tep its first league loss since the 2015-16 season, winning 71-60 on its home court on Dec. 17; in their only other league game, they barely squeaked by King, 55-52. With Constitution, Math Civics & Sciences, Lincoln, Bartram, and Sankofa all hungry for a chance to earn that coveted ‘A’ Division crown, you can bet that Imhotep will have to fight through a couple more close finishes to keep their hold on it.
Noble starts three seniors, including athletic 6-6 forward Kam Roundtree and combo guard Sami Wylie. But after that it’s a lot of youth, albeit promising youth. Two sophomore guards, Naji Reid and Ronny Raphael, round out the starting lineup; off the bench comes freshman guard Rahmir Barno, freshman wing Justin Edwards, and sophomore forward Khalif Crawley. That group of five underclassmen will have to play like seniors and juniors in February and March for Imhotep to have the type of postseason success the program’s been used to the last few seasons.
Roman Catholic coach Matt Griffin (above) is aiming for three straight PCL titles. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Will anybody navigate the Catholic League without a couple losses?
In the offseason, the rumbling seemed to be that as good as the rest of the Catholic League was, Neumann-Goretti had a bit of an advantage over teams like Archbishop Wood, which didn’t have a senior in the starting lineup, or a Roman Catholic squad that had graduated Maryland freshman Hakim Hart and Penn State freshman Seth Lundy. Another league semifinalist, Bishop McDevitt, had seniors (Robert Smith, Ahmir Harris and Jamil Manigo all returned) but didn’t seem to have the firepower to match up with a Saints lineup that includes a senior frontcourt of 6-8 Jordan Hall (St. Joe’s), 6-8 Che Evans (San Diego State) and 6-6 Cameron Young (Bowling Green), among others.
Certainly, Neumann-Goretti has looked the part out of the gate, opening up 8-2 (2-0 PCL) with a 48-point win over Egan and 20-point win over Lansdale Catholic. But they’re not the only ones playing at a league championship-caliber level thus far. Wood, which is 5-3 (1-0) but has played a mix of national-level programs, has played the undeniable Game of the Season thus far, taking MaxPreps No. 4 Paul VI (Va.) to seven OTs, proving their group of juniors can hang with anybody. Roman’s only played seven games this season (5-2, 1-0), including three high-level matchups at the City of Palms Classic in Fla., but they’ve got a future NBA big man in Jalen Duren and some really talented young guards around him, including sophomore Justice Williams and freshman Xzavier Brown. Archbishop Carroll, with two Division I recruits of its own in the frontcourt (senior Tairi Ketner and junior Anquan Hill, plus future D-I sharpshooter John Camden on the wing), is 8-0 (2-0), and a backcourt-led Cardinal O’Hara is 8-0 (2-0) after a great road win at Archbishop Ryan (7-3, 2-1), another team with two Division I recruits in senior wing Gediminas Mokseckas and junior Aaron Lemon-Warren.
What it’s all getting at is that this year’s PCL is another series of landmines no matter which way you navigate it. From what I’ve seen, no program is so good that it won’t take a couple dings during league play, with any of the programs mentioned above and a few others (Bonner-Prendergast and Bishop McDevitt come to mind) able to knock off even the most confident league foe. Fighting for seeding is going to be crucial, especially in the No. 3/No. 6 and No. 4/No. 5 slots, to get home-court advantage for the league quarterfinals. You can beat that whoever gets to the Palestra, there’s going to be revenge on everybody’s minds.
Can anyone in the Ches-Mont catch Coatesville?
Last year, Coatesville went undefeated in the Ches-Mont League, winning all its regular-season and postseason games, taking down Unionville to capture the overall league title under first-year head coach Fred Thompson. But Thompson stepped down in the offseason citing health reasons, and so it’s another first-year head coach, Marc Turner, who’s guiding the Red Raiders in search of a repeat.
So far, so good for Coatesville, who’s opened up 5-2 (3-0 Ches-Mont National) to establish itself atop the division, where it intends to stay all season long. The Red Raiders already passed their first two big tests with relative ease, going down to West Chester East on Dec. 19 and storming out with a 64-40 win, two days after they beat Downingtown West by eight at home. The other division contender, Downingtown East, visits Coatesville on Jan. 2. Coatesville plays all three of those schools in a row from Jan. 21-28, which could be a chance for the division to get wild, or for them to slam the door completely.
The Red Raiders boast a tremendous backcourt that centers around seniors Jhamir “Jig” Brickus and DaPree Bryant, who have scored a combined 3,000+ points during their four years as significant varsity contributors/starters. The Red Raiders can score from all five positions, play some of the best defense around, and don’t get fazed by big games or moments. Great Valley (5-5, 2-0) and West Chester Rustin (6-2, 2-0) are leading the Ches-Mont American at the moment, though I’d put the odds on the Ches-Mont final being an All-National affair. But if WC East –– the only other team in the league with a current Division I recruit (future Delaware wing Andrew Carr) –– and the other National squads can’t really hang with Coatesville, I’m not sure who’s out there in the American who can.
Owen Kropp (above) and Methacton are one of several serious contenders for the District 1 6A crown. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Who is the best 6A team in District 1?
One of the biggest prizes up for grabs at the end of the season is the District 1 6A trophy, given to whichever of the Philly suburbs’ largest programs survives the 24-team bracket which follows the individual league tournaments. The last three years, the district’s big schools have all played under the reign of Abington Senior High School –– Charles Grasty’s Ghosts, led by 2019 grads Eric Dixon and Lucas Monroe, as well as 2018 grad Robbie Heath, have captured three consecutive district crowns, toppling Plymouth-Whitemarsh the first two years and Coatesville last season to cap off a tremendous run.
But Dixon is now at Villanova and Monroe at Penn, and Heath at West Chester after a prep school year, and so it’s senior guard Manir Waller and Co. who have to carry the Ghosts’ tradition, which they’ve done so far to the tune of a 3-0 record in SOL-American conference, though just 4-4 overall. But while Abington goes through its growing pains, with a number of previously-untested juniors in the starting lineup, several other programs are trying to stake their claim as the top dog in District 1 6A.
There’s a few contenders, but no clear No. 1 at the moment. The top team in the current official District 1 6A power rankings is Abington’s league rival Cheltenham (8-1, 3-0 SOL-American), which just staked its claim with a 63-56 win over one of the other contenders, Ches-Mont favorite Coatesville (5-2, 3-0), which is led by the senior backcourt of Jhamir Brickus and DaPree Bryant, who’ve scored more than 3,000 combined points for the Red Raiders. Also up there is Pennridge (7-1, 2-0 SOL-Continental), even though the Rams graduated a loaded class last year, led by Navy freshman Sean Yoder and forward Jon Post, who’s now playing football at New Hampshire.
Though they’re just No. 8 in the current rankings, Methacton (8-1, 3-0) has looked the part, with Colgate-bound Jeff Woodward in the middle and senior guards Owen Kropp, Brett Eberly and Erik Timko all with a ton of talent and chutzpah; the Warriors hung with PCL contender Roman Catholic and have beaten everybody else they’ve encountered, mostly by double digits. Lower Merion (6-1, 3-1 Central), Bensalem (8-1, 3-0 SOL-National) and Central Bucks South (7-2, 3-0 SOL-Continental) are all off to strong starts as well.
Is Radnor for real?
The Central League is one of the few where every team has played the same amount of games: everybody’s four deep into a 16-game league schedule, each of the 12 teams playing five opponents twice and the other six once each. And so far, everybody’s taken at least one loss –– except Radnor. Jamie Chadwin’s Raiders sit alone at 4-0 in the league (8-1 overall), perched at least one game above the rest of the league. They’re led by senior forward Jack D’Entremont, who’s averaging around 17 points and seven rebounds per game, but junior point guard Lew Robinson, junior guard Jahmir Dixon, and senior forwards Josh Savadove and Pat Boujoukus all play critical roles.
Right behind Radnor with one loss are many of the league’s typical contenders, including Garnet Valley (7-1, 5-1), Ridley (3-2, 3-1), Penncrest (9-1, 3-1), and Lower Merion, all of whom have reason to think they could be there at the end. Garnet Valley, which has been a contender for several years under Mike Brown, has two potentiall All-Conference First Teamers in juniors Neel Beniwal and Carl Schaller; Penncrest boasts a terrific junior big man in Denzel Boyer and senior guard Marquis Tomlin; Lower Merion has 6-9 sophomore Demetrius Lilley anchoring a strong guard rotation including senior James Simples, sophomore Jaylen Shippen, and freshman Sam Brown. Radnor’s already beaten one of those four, with a tough two-point win at Penncrest; they’ll play Garnet Valley (Jan. 7) and Lower Merion (Jan. 16) at home and Ridley (Jan. 22) on the road.
The Central League is unique amongst area high school leagues in that its playoff schedule is flexible. Normally, four of the teams qualify for the Central League semifinals; however, if the league champion goes undefeated, it gets an automatic pass to the finals, with only the No. 2 and No. 3 seeds playing for the right to face them. Radnor’s a dozen wins away from making that happen, and the odds are still fairly low, but you can bet all those other one-loss programs will be giving it all they have to avoid potentially being that left-out No. 4 seed.
(Ed. Note: The Central League is now a six-team playoff, no matter what happens during the regular season. The top two seeds get byes, while No. 3/6 and No. 4/5 will play in an opening round before the semifinals and then championship. This is a new rule for this year and I was totally unaware).
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