Every school has now played at least half its schedule heading into tomorrow night’s games, and it is further apparent this boys basketball season is unlike any in recent memory. The standings and the eye test show a number of coinciding factors that have caused a seismic shakeup from recent tradition.
The teams that have accounted for the last 24 titles — Bassick and Harding departed the conference two years ago — are currently a combined 13-32 in league play. Remove Trinity Catholic and St. Joseph, which won one title in that stretch, and the record sinks to 5-24. Unless the Crusaders can gain some traction, this will mark the first time since 2000 that a school from outside Stamford or Bridgeport captures the championship. The odds are good we will have a first-time winner.
What is happening? The biggest factor is the top teams are no longer as dominant as they were several years ago. There are no Division I players capable of taking over a game, or a Jeremiah Livingston, the key factor in the first of Westhill’s back to back wins two years ago.
Wilton and Warde, the current frontrunners, have nice squads, but also weaknesses that would have been easier to exploit by past contenders. The Warriors have been better able to compensate for a lack of height. Warde’s depth is an uncertainty and was a reason for last week’s loss to Wilton, as was the inability the close out a game defensively it had led by 10 points at halftime.
The counterargument, valid, is that the schools don’t have to match up to the past, just be the best in the present. But it has allowed a number of schools the opportunity to stay in contention because the talent gap has contracted. Trumbull and more so Darien have been the biggest surprises to date because of the ability so far to win close games.
Since there are fewer dynamic scorers, many of the better teams have succeeded by playing strong defense, which is a great equalizer. For all of the hype surrounding Wilton’s up-tempo game and 3-point wizardry, it excels at the defensive end of the floor. That is certainly the case in Trumbull; most of its games are played in the 50s.
Another factor: the league in recent years has seen a new group of bright young coaches. Carl Charles retired from Ridgefield a year ago, and recently Jim Moriarty stepped down at Stamford and Vito Montelli at St. Joseph. Some schools have gone through a cycle of undistinguished coaches and finally made good hires.
Geriak was turned down at a number of schools before landing at Wilton. Danny Melzer did a great job at Stamford, his alma mater, and now in his first year at New Canaan opponents no longer find certain victory. You have John Dailey at Ludlowe, Andrew McClellan at Ridgefield, Colin Devine at Staples and Ryan Swaller at Warde. Casey Bock has kept Danbury in the race with limited contributions from his best player, Marcus Fox, who has been injured. Good coaching has taken on even greater importance in the current landscape because it can mean an extra win or two, and that can mean the difference in an FCIAC playoff spot.
Then there is Charoy Bentley, the choice here so far for Coach of the Year at Darien. The school has some good pieces but Bentley, like his father did at Harding with far superior personnel, has his players working hard and with greater fundamental skills. Hopefully the Blue Wave will get to hold on to Bentley; he played and currently teaches at Harding, which has an interim coach in place.
Throw all these ingredients into the blender and you have a season where Wilton, Warde, Trumbull and Darien have joined Danbury leading the battle for the top playoff seeds. Of the first four only Trumbull has even won or reached the championship, and that was 33 years ago.
There seems to be a 50-50 split between longing for the old days and superior play and those willing to accept the tradeoff to get new players to the table.
No matter your position, this has been a boys basketball season so far unlike any we have seen. And that is probably not going to change.