By Jerome Taylor (@ThatGuy_Rome)
(Ed. Note: This story is part of CoBL’s “Prepping for Preps” series, which will take a look at many of the top high school programs in the region as part of our 2022-23 season preview coverage. The complete list of schools previewed thus far can be found here.)
Last year’s league MVP is in his first fall semester at Cincinnati, and his first-team All-Catholic League teammate is in the same situation at Hofstra.
And still, after the departure of Dan Skillings (Cincinnati) and Khalil Farmer (Hofstra), Roman Catholic’s expectations for this year are the same as they have been for decades.
“At Roman, we have expectations of ourselves every year,” Roman head coach Chris McNesby said. “We're going to come and compete every night. I think hopefully we're a tough out.”
Roman Catholic senior Xzayvier Brown, above, and teammate Anthony Finkley are both headed to St. Joe's next season. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Last year, after achieving the best record in the regular season, Roman lost to Neumann-Goretti by two points in the PCL semifinals. The Cahillites went on to win the PIAA 6A state title over Archbishop Wood later in the season.
Senior Saint Joseph recruits Xzayvier Brown and Anthony Finkley and sophomore Shareef Jackson will lead this year’s team. The trio will try to replicate Roman’s regular season and state tournament success and improve their PCL postseason result.
“I feel like this team is more than capable of winning what we all want to win, which is the Catholic League, City and States,” Brown said. “Losing our seniors doesn't change our goals… Me and Shareef got to the Palestra [last year]. So I think we all are setting that goal to get back and to win it all.”
To accomplish those goals, McNesby wants his team to focus on the defensive end to develop chemistry on a team that will be relatively new to each other.
“It's tough to lose the scoring of Khalil and Dan, but I think any good basketball team is going to be good defensively … we're always gonna put a priority on that end of the floor,” McNesby said. “With X, Ant and Shareef, we'll be able to score, but I think if you defend you're always going to give yourself a chance. So we put a premium on that end for sure.”
“I think that's a development thing in terms of chemistry. I think we have guys who want to [play defense] and are coachable. … Great defensive teams have a chemistry about them. … So that will be one of the areas we'll be working towards to get us somewhere good in February.”
Jackson, the son of former Roman and Temple product and Philadelphia 76er Marc Jackson, averaged 4.6 ppg and 5.7 rpg in about 17 minutes per contest last season as a freshman.
There are plans for the 6-7 sophomore to be a more integral part of the offense and also play a critical role defensively.
“I've seen him become more vocal … y'all seen a little snippet of it, but his post-game is crazy,” Brown said of Jackson’s improvement this offseason. “Like he really knows how to play out the post. Defensively, I've seen a lot of improvement, just being able to slide his feet and play good defense.”
Another part of the core trio that McNesby noted is Finkley, a 6-7 forward who will make his Cahillite debut this year.
Finkley started his career at West Catholic prior to transferring to national prep powerhouse Huntington Prep, in Huntington, West Virginia last fall. He was back in the city at Roman by January but had to sit out due to PIAA rules.
This will be the first time future St. Joe’s teammates Finkley and Brown will play PCL basketball together, but they’ll surely have some chemistry already, considering they share the court on the AAU circuit with K-Low Elite.
Before the duo shares the court at St. Joe’s, Finkley will play an essential role in replacing some of the production from Skillings that won’t be there this season.
The longest-tenured member of the trio is Brown. The 6-2 guard averaged 14 points and six assists per game last year, good enough to earn a first-team All-Catholic League nod. His story is different from his classmate’s when it comes to his tenure at Roman, considering he’s been competing and contributing to Roman’s success for all four years, including a 21-2 record in the PCL in the last two seasons.
“I remember going in, just trying to find minutes on a team with super high-level talented players and just as a freshman, just trying to help them and get minutes as l fast as I possibly could,” Brown said about his time as a freshman. “Doing whatever I needed to do in practice to earn minutes and earn the coach's trust… I was just trying to do all the little dirty work just to help the team.”
Roman Catholic senior Anthony Finkley sat out last season due to PIAA rules but should be one of the top players in the PCL. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Brown’s style of play has drawn similarities to another guard McNesby coached during his first go-round at the helm of the Cahilites from 2009-2015.
“I coached Tony Carr, and there's a lot of similarities in their pace and the way they play, see the floor and lead. … Both just great teammates, likable guys, they bring their other guys along,” McNesby said.
Carr now plays professionally in Denmark after playing collegiately at Penn State. But in high school, he led Roman to two state titles and two PCL championships. Brown has already checked off the state title, but he’s still looking for his Catholic League championship.
“[Winning the PCL] means everything to me. I’ll do whatever it takes to get one,” Brown said.
To get what he wants, he knows it means he and his teammates will have to play a selfless brand of basketball and develop chemistry quickly.
Several of his teammates will scrap every day in practice to carve out a role in a rotation that is developing day-to-day. According to McNesby, four to five spots need to be sorted out on his roster.
Some players trying to earn consistent playing time this season will be senior Jermai Stewart-Herring and junior Robert Cottrell. Stewart-Herring transferred from St. Elizabeth in Delaware, where he won Diamond State Conference Player of the Year. Cottrell will be playing his first season with the Cahillites as well, but the change in his commute to Broad & Vine won’t be as drastic after spending last year at Simon Gratz.
Though having an uncertain rotation presents challenges, there’s an opportunity for the Cahillite coaching staff to be creative in how they disperse their talent on the court based on the matchup.
“If we need a little bit more frontcourt help, we can go one way. If we need guard help, we go another way,” McNesby said. “But those guys are gonna have to earn it.”
Brown wants to shield those who earn their way into the rotation from what he went through last year.
“I can't forget that feeling of losing last year,” Brown said. “I'm gonna just try to tell my team what it felt like, so we won't ever have to feel that feeling.”
The team will have to navigate through the ever-challenging Catholic League to avoid that feeling. This year that means getting past hungry West Catholic and Archbishop Ryan teams. Of course, perennial rivals Archbishop Wood and Neumann-Goretti will pose threats, not to mention all the other dangerous teams in the league.
To be the last team standing in this league, McNesby knows his team will have to develop by the end of the year.
“I think we’ll really get better as the year goes along,” McNesby said. “Where they'll start in November-December will be one kind of level. As the year goes along, the fun for me as a coach is to see these guys really grow and develop, which I think is gonna be good.”