Boys Basketball

Second-Chance Points: Parity Replacing Quality As FCIAC Selling Point

Ridgefield’s James Rush (21) and Matt Eiben try to pull in a rebound Friday night against Fairfield Ludlowe. The Tigers have won two of the last three FCIAC championships. (Mark Conrad)

There is a shifting dynamic in FCIAC basketball that could be most pronounced by the end of the season. It is evidence of the shifting tides.

The overall talent level continues to sink a little bit more each year. It is discussed in private because no one wants to be disrespectful to the current group of players, but it is obvious to long-time observers.

Just five years ago Westhill’s Jeremiah Livingston was the conference Player of the Year. He averaged 30 points a game and today might be good daily for the 40 points he scored in the FCIAC championship game.

Ten years ago the All-FCIAC team included future Division I player Evan Kelley, who is in his first season as the girls coach at Norwalk, his alma mater.

This season there are some good players that are among the top 10, though to be honest few stand apart that much from the rest. Some schools have second and third scoring options close in ability to their go-to players.

There is a tradeoff. Right now which team would you make as the favorite? A number would select Trinity Catholic based on speculation more than what we have seen so far. Ridgefield and Trumbull no doubt would get votes. Perhaps Wilton.

Filling out bracketology is becoming much more difficult. I don’t have New Canaan in this week. I think the Rams will be one of the top eight teams but right now it is a victim of musical chairs. Their two league losses are by an average of 22 points, but they came from behind to beat Fairfield Warde.

Ridgefield’s James Rush passes off to a teammate Friday against Fairfield Ludlowe. (Mark Conrad)

Brien McMahon can ask ‘What about us?’ The Senators deserve watching but they need to pick up a few more quality wins. Stamford easily has top-eight talent but with a four-game losing streak has been the early disappointment. The Black Knights have won two in a row, including a 63-34 decision over New Canaan.

The other storyline is the moving of the balance of power to the suburbs. It is possible six or seven of the teams in the FCIAC Tournament will come from towns rather than cities.

Ridgefield has won two of the last three league titles. If you discount private schools Trinity and St. Joseph, you have to go all the way back to Trumbull in 1983 to find the last town champion.

Five suburban schools made it to the FCIAC playoffs last year, four the year before and five the year before that.

Tiebreakers were needed each of the last three years to determine seeding. There were three teams with 11-5 league marks two seasons ago and four in 2017.

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There may be fewer dominant players but there continues to be a slimmer difference between No. 1 and 8 seeds. And the suburban schools are taking over.

Remembering Sheila Beneski

No two people have been more passionate about state high school basketball than Frank and Sheila Beneski. Dubbed by many as the first couple of the sport, the Beneskis have spent their winters for the last quarter century traveling from Suffield to about 125 games a year.

The Beneskis arrive at gyms an hour before tipoff, occupying the front row, center court, facing the team benches. When the Beneskis are in the house it was affirmation you were indeed at the biggest game of the night.

Everyone close to the sport knows the Beneskis. Even referees go up to them before games and say hello by name. Coaches and writers had a resource for sizing up the best teams and getting accurate scouting reports. No two people are better equipped to vote in a state poll in any sport than the Beneskis, because they truly see everyone.

Sheila and Frank Beneski with former Trinity Catholic coach Mike Walsh at the FCIAC Tournament several years ago.

A more kindly couple you will never find.

That is why it felt like a punch in the gut when news spread that Sheila passed away Friday night. While some might have sidled up to Frank to talk the sport and Sheila was content to listen quietly, she knew the game inside and out as well.

This year’s state boys and girls basketball tournaments are dedicated to the Beneskis.

From Sheila’s obituary: Throughout their years as fans, Sheila became a known (and much anticipated) spectator at basketball games across the state. She was a friend and supporter of countless players, coaches, referees, administrators, and writers, not to mention a host of other fans. She often joked about what someone might write about her in an obituary while quietly amassing a legion of friends from a community which embraced her wholeheartedly. Her basketball family brought her many long and wonderful friendships for which her family is most grateful.

Sheila’s basketball family is grieving today. One front row center court seat should be left empty at all state basketball games this week (see the tweet above from Windsor High School). It will never be filled so gracefully again.

Bracketology

No. 1 Ridgefield (7-1, 5-0) vs. No. 8 St. Joseph (5-2, 4-1)
No. 2 Trumbull (6-2, 3-1) vs. No. 7 Trinity Catholic (4-5, 3-2)
No. 3 Staples (8-1, 4-1) vs. No. 6 Wilton (4-4, 3-1)
No. 4 Fairfield Warde (6-2, 3-1) vs. No. 5 Fairfield Ludlowe (7-2, 3-2)