What has changed from our expectations two months ago?
Danbury was the preseason favorite and will be cast in the same role as the FCIAC boys basketball playoffs prepare to kick off Saturday afternoon. The Hatters and Trumbull have clearly established themselves as the teams to beat, but the gap is narrow.
The Eagles slightly exceeded expectations while Stamford did so by a large margin. Otherwise, we had an assortment of teams with different strengths but similar overall skill levels that were capable of and indeed did take turns beating each other on every night.
Will the Hatters complete the end-to-end run, ending a 24-year drought? Will Trumbull, the only league team to defeat them, win their first title since 1983? Which low seed is best fitted to play Cinderella?
No. 3 Stamford (14-6) vs. No. 6 Westhill (13-7), Noon: Two city rivals enter the tournament traveling in different directions. Stamford crawled to the finish line after being the surprise team in the league this season, a title it has not shed despite losing three of its final four games. The lone victory was against winless Bridgeport Central. More troubling is how offensively challenged the Black Knights have become, and this from a team that has had trouble scoring most of the year. They have averaged just 34.3 points in their recent defeats, including a season-low 27 in the penultimate game against Fairfield Ludlowe. Jay DeVito has carried the offense all season, but he is going to need a little support in the postseason or Stamford’s stay will be a short one. Defenses that have cracked down on DeVito will be even more determined to remove him as an option. The one constant has been the defense, and the performance on that end of the court should not be minimized. Still, as Stamford coach Danny Melzer said after the Ludlowe game, you can only succeed solely by stopping other teams for so long.
In contrast, the Vikings come in having won six of their previous seven games, including decisions over both Ridgefield and Ludlowe. However, those are the lone two victories against the seven other teams in the playoff field. At 7-6, it was uncertain if Westhill was going to get the chance to defend its title. The catalyst, as he has been all season, is Mr. Double-Double, Tyrell Alexander, who for the past two years has been making that achievement the norm rather than the exception. Alexander has received little talk in the fun-for-discussion MVP race, and unfairly so. Alexander is going to continue to need support for the Vikings to ride their hot streak and make a deep run. He has been getting it from one or two sources on different nights, usually either Parrish Rowell, Vashon Natteal or Lenold August.
No. 2 Trumbull (17-3) vs. No. 7 Ridgefield (11-9), 2 p.m. If these teams come anywhere close to putting on the same show they did last Monday night, the Ludlowe gymnasium will be rocking. The Eagles’ Jack Moore hit a go-ahead 3-point shot with 1.4 seconds remaining in regulation, only to see the Tigers’ Chris Longo hit a game-tying heave from halfcourt before Trumbull won in overtime. The Eagles have the best combination of size and perimeter play in the field. Moore has stepped up from being a supporting player a year ago to perhaps being the league’s most outstanding player. Moore has been able to take over because he has enough of a supporting cast that prevents defenses from cheating. The Eagles’ best nights have come not with Moore scoring over 30, but when the attack is balanced, with guards JJ Pfohl and John McElroy getting points on the perimeter or drives to the basket, and Ben McCullough, Chris Lyons and Eddie Giovannini doing the inside work. Trumbull’s one weakness may be teams with speed.
Trumbull won’t have to worry about the Tigers in the speed department, but they are one of the few teams with the interior personnel to match up with its height. Ridgefield has five players who are 6-3 or taller and can bang away inside, led by Matt Saporito. They also are one of the league’s better defensive teams, so it will be an interesting chess match how they guard the Eagles five days after their first meeting. Longo has stepped up to lead the offense and carried the team during a few slumps. Ridgefield started the year 0-3 — all non-league games — but since then has just one two-game losing streak. It lost by a point to Danbury in overtime. This is a dangerous team.
No. 4 Warde (12-8) vs. No. 5 Wilton (13-7), 5 p.m. Call this the look-in-the-mirror game. When on, these are the tournament’s two most entertaining teams because they like to push the ball up the court and play at a fast tempo. They want the game in the 60s and 70s, and when making 3-point shots they are capable of doing it. These were the two teams touted as preseason sleepers and have, save for some lapses, lived up to the billing. Giacomo Brancato has done it all for the Mustangs, and in a season when most teams seem to have one go-to player, he fills the role. Chris Smaldone is another dangerous perimeter player. This is a team made up mostly of juniors and sophomores who are maturing a little ahead of schedule.
With three losses in five games, the Warriors lost their comfort margin and seemed on a downward spiral of playing themselves out of a playoff spot. Wins over Westhill and Norwalk seem to have put the team back on track, helped by the return of Jack Williams to his early season form. Matt Kronenberg and Drew Connolly stepped up at midseason to give Wilton a dangerous three-guard attack. There is little in the way of an inside game, which means these Warriors are much like their predecessors: hit from the perimeter or go home. They play intelligently and are fundamentally sound, so if Wilton gets beat it won’t be because of mental errors.
No. 1 Danbury (18-2) vs. No. 8 Ludlowe (12-8), 7 p.m. When they are on, the Hatters are the best team in the league. Marcus Fox is a tough cover in the middle and rebounds better than most 6-3 players. Scott Nesbitt is a top swingman who is a threat in transition and has the ability to create his own looks. He hasn’t received much credit because Danbury was the preseason favorite but coach Casey Bock has done a good job with a team that has played with a target on its back. A most telling statistic: the Hatters are 5-1 in games decided by six or fewer points. They have been tested often. Point guard Tyren McCrea may be the key for Danbury. When he is on, so is the team.
The tournament is replete with top seeds getting knocked out in the first round, and the Hatters’ reward for their play is having to face the Falcons on their home court. Which is the real Ludlowe team? Many believe it has top-four-in-the-league personnel. This is a team that lost three of four games and almost failed to qualify, then bounced back to rout Stamford at home and win at McMahon to earn the final playoff spot. Which Ludlowe team will show up on Saturday? There are no stars on the roster, but Cole Prowitt-Smith, Thomas Duffy, Greg Lawrence and Mason Rush are all capable of putting up 12-15 points on any night. The good Falcons are perfectly positioned to add to the lore of No. 8 seeds. The bad Falcons could again suffer a 20-point loss to Danbury.
Danbury. Quite simply, the Hatters have the most talent and are the one team that has an answer for any of the other seven team’s strengths. They have the fewest flaws. They work hard. They may not be as dominant as past No. 1 seeds, but maybe that means they are also less likely to be looking ahead on Saturday.
Ridgefield. It is a puzzle: I think Danbury and Trumbull are the best teams but both are very beatable. Any of these eight teams can take down any other, despite skill gaps. Yet I find it hard to see one of the other six teams winning three straight games. Two, yes. So why Ridgefield? It matches up well against Trumbull, as was evident Monday. It plays good defense. It is too risky to go with Warde or Wilton since that is a pick-em first-round game. Ludlowe is tempting, but… And the Tigers are not on Danbury’s side of the draw.