It is hard to sugarcoat one of the most lackluster regular seasons I can remember. By midseason we already knew there would be just nine schools in contention for the eight FCIAC Tournament berths, which removed a great deal of mystery.
The second half of the year has been an improvement because of backloaded schedules that brought matchups between the top contenders. And homecourt advantage has never been greater. That becomes a factor for Fairfield Warde in the first round.
Just two games separated the bottom five seeds, a testament to the parity we’ve seen.
Trinity Catholic and Danbury were expected to be high seeds at the start of the season. Ridgefield was a revelation; supposed to contend for a second straight title and one of the top four spots. No one saw the Tigers rolling to the regular-season crown.
The hope is the playoffs will bring some good games and that the next week will make up for the two months that preceded it. Maybe we will even get a final the equal of yesterday’s Ridgefield-Warde game, the best one this regular season.
Here’s a look at the four games and some predictions (and listen to the Stamford Advocate’s Scott Ericson and I offer analysis on a new TRR Podcast).
No. 3 Danbury (17-3) vs. No. 6 Bridgeport Central (12-7); Noon. The Hatters would love to avenge their losses to Ridgefield and Trinity Catholic, but they have the toughest draw of the high seeds, a quarterfinal opponent also capable of winning the title. With a win it is possible they will have to then defeat both the Crusaders and Tigers to win the championship. There is a lot to like about Danbury. Jordan Brown has become the go-to scorer for a team that has a number of good options. Denali Burton contributes in so many different ways, even when not putting up points. He truly is Mr. Versatility. Javon Hernandez and Cameron Snow are going to be vital with perimeter scoring. Diante Vines is an underrated talent. The Hilltoppers have been all over the charts this month: wins at Wilton and over Trinity Catholic and Stamford, a 20-point loss to Danbury and, on Monday, falling to Trumbull. Better fourth-quarter performances could have changed the outcomes against Ridgefield and Norwalk. When the Hilltoppers are consistent, they are the team outside the top three with the best chance to win the title. Ra’Quan Riley, Raj Walker and Dajan Fulton are have taken over in different games to diversify the offense. When Central has struggled, the causes have usually been on the defensive end and with turnovers.
No. 2 Trinity Catholic (16-4) vs. No. 7 Stamford (13-7), 2 p.m. Call this the battle of Stamford, Part 2, after the Crusaders won the teams’ meeting last night. The biggest question mark for the Crusaders coming into the year was chemistry, but that has not been a factor at any point. Depth is a question mark, but Trinity also has three of the top 10 players in the league with Contavio Dutreil, Dimitry Moise and Stephon McGill, the player who has been a steadying influence and gained confidence throughout the year. Dutreil is my runner-up for Player of the Year, while Moise has been consistent the second half of the season. The three have to stay out of foul trouble. The hunch is we may also start seeing some more of freshman transfer Akim Joseph, an athletic marvel who is still adjusting to the team’s defensive alignments. This is a tough matchup for the Black Knights because they get an opponent better capable of exploiting their lack of height. Stamford has won close games and received contributions from Jelani Jackson, Tevin St. John, Josh Thervil and Jaden Bell. They will need to hit their 3-point shots to get the win.
No. 4 Fairfield Warde (13-7) vs. No. 5 Trumbull (15-5), 5 p.m. Warde is one of the few teams that can win attacking rather than defending, and the victory at Ridgefield ups the confidence level. Playing on their home court would seem to give the Mustangs a big quarterfinal advantage, but they are only 6-4 there and recently lost both to Trinity Catholic and Stamford as part of a three-game slide that temporarily dropped them in the standings. Sean Conway has been spectacular — the game-winner against Ridgefield yesterday would be talked about for years if it happened in a final — and might be the one player in the tournament capable of hoisting a team on his shoulders. It helps if Matt Becker, Malcolm Brune and Matt Houghton can provide offense when Conway is forced to contend with defenses devised to stop him. The Eagles did a good job to earn their tournament berth and a higher seed than expected. With a final six-game stretch against contenders, they went 3-3, including wins this week over Central and Danbury to qualify. Timmond Williams has had a great second half of the season, Chris Brown is a strong utility player and defense remains a trademark of any Buddy Bray-coached team. Trumbull’s last three wins were at home and the losses on the road, and this is essentially a road game.
No. 1 Ridgefield (17-3) vs. No. 8 Norwalk (12-8), 7 p.m. The cause for concern is the Tigers played an abundance of close games against opponents where they were a decided favorite. The cause for optimism is they won every one and will now be playing strong teams the rest of the way. Brenden McNamara was a given coming in, but James St. Pierre emerged as a strong perimeter shooter and the rest of the team fits well together as puzzle pieces. Ridgefield plays well as a unit, is strong defensively and won’t beat itself. The Bears more than any other team have been playing the “no one believes in us” card as a motivational tool. They used a 9-1 midseason run to provide cushion for what has been a .500 finish. Tyrique Langley has flourished and proven adept at taking over close games late. When Joey Benincaso and Conner Mastropietro are hitting their 3-shots, the Bears put pressure on opposing defenses. There has been talk of recent dissension, and last night’s 79-45 loss to Darien has fueled that around the league. Which Norwalk team shows up Saturday?
Quarterfinal winners: Bridgeport Central, Trinity Catholic, Fairfield Warde, Ridgefield
Semifinal winners: Trinity Catholic, Ridgefield
Champion: Trinity Catholic
It is not often you get an opening-round game that would also be a satisfying final, but that is the case with Central-Danbury. My pick is not anti-Danbury but rather pro-Central. I was ready to pick the Hilltoppers before I saw their draw, but I would also not be surprised if the Hatters won the title. Trinity is a tough matchup for Stamford, it is hard to pick against Warde at home or Ridgefield in the first round. In the end, as I have repeated, if every team plays its very best, I think the Crusaders will win the championship, so I am banking on that happening in what would be a terrific final with the Tigers.