Bishop Eustace starts the season in the No. 1 spot, just ahead of Olympic National and South A rival Paul VI.
These two are likely to battle for the top spot all season long. Are the Crusaders better than the Eagles? I'm not sure, but I have to give a nod to one of them and I gave the Crusaders a slight edge -- based mostly on how well I think they can function at both ends at full strength (unlike last season when Dexter Harris was hurt for a long stretch).
Paul VI is very good. Great senior backcourt, a legit center and sophomore forwards Matt Risse and Jay Howard might have this team in the top spot before long.
It all will play out in the end. I'm always amazed at the end of the season, in every sport, at how different the final Top 10 looks from the preseason Top 10.
But here goes, anyway:
PRESEASON TOP 10
1. Bishop Eustace (21-7 last season): The Crusaders return four starters, led by All-South Jersey point guard Carson Puriefoy, who averaged 21.5 points. Senior swingmen Sho DaSilva and Dexter Harris are versatile players and senior Trevor Norton is a three-point threat. St. Augustine transfer Ry’n Bland, a 6-6 junior, adds bulk inside. Tough challenge from Pennsauken on opening night on Friday. The Indians stunned the Crusaders on opening night last season.
2. Paul VI (24-3): The Eagles will battle arch-rival Bishop Eustace for the Olympic National and South A title. Senior point guard Ron Curry leads the way for a team that also features senior guard Kris O’Connor, a defensive dynamo, and senior center Roosevelt Cubbage, an inside force. Sophomores Matt Risse and Jay Howard look ready to make a big impact. This team has a chip on its shoulder after losing in first round of tournament last season.
3. Eastern (17-10): The Vikings return their top eight players. Senior Mike Wilson averaged 12 points and hit 64 three-pointers. Junior Devin Bell is a slasher who averaged 12.5 points. Senior Jared Ford averaged 11 points and eight rebounds while junior Avery Walker led the team in blocks. Emerging 6-6 sophomore Matt Klinewski could make a major impact. This is an interesting team. We'll get an early glimpse Friday when they face an improved Camden team in the opener.
4. Willingboro (16-8): Like the top two teams, the Chimeras return a veteran point guard in Tyrell Maloney, who averaged 18.1 points. This team will get a huge lift from Trenton Catholic transfer Ronny Paden, a 6-4 swingman who has signed with St. Peter’s. Burly senior Mike Owens is a top rebounder. I think this team will be a lot better in February than in December.
5. St. Augustine Prep (28-3): The defending Non-Public state champions and last year’s No. 1 team return senior forwards Austin Johnson, a Penn State football recruit, and Brent Slotoroff. Guards Mike Greeman and Dom Palmieri played important minutes last March. Watch out for 6-10 senior center James Baumgardner, who has good hands for a big man. He's out for a few games but could be a major factor from mid-January on.
6. Atlantic City (14-12): Vikings are poised for a big bounce-back from a rare mediocre season. Senior forward Keyshawn Reynolds and senior point guard Martel Johnson are three-year starters. Senior Kashaun Dunston is a top outside shooter. This team should get a big boost in January, as 6-7 junior Jaleem Montague returns from a knee injury and Atlantic Christian transfer Gabriel Chandler becomes eligible. I'm not sure the Vikings won't be the team to beat in SJ 4 in March, although Eastern, Shawnee and Lenape will be in the mix.
7. Shawnee (19-11): The defending South Jersey Group 4 champions have top ball-handlers and shooters in juniors Ryan Bodnar and Josh Borrelli as well senior Donny DiVirgilio. Juniors Frank Destito and Jake Dean are gritty inside players. One big key is the eligibility status of senior point guard Dan Mumford, a talented transfer from Florida. This ranking might be a little high for a young team, especially if Mumford doesn't play or doesn't make an impact. But this is a tip of the hat to last season, when this team won the SJ 4 title in surprise fashion. This program knows how to win close, big games.
8. Rancocas Valley (19-12): The Red Devils have a top point guard in Tariq Jett, who averaged 13.2 points and raised his game in March to lead the team to the Central Jersey Group 4 title and the Group 4 state title game. Burly forward Dom Twitty, a Minnesota football recruit, is another four-year player. I see this as another team that will be better in February than in December, just like last season.
9. Camden Catholic (20-8): The Irish have one of the state’s top juniors in Kyle Green, a 6-4 swingman who averaged 20.4 points. Senior Matt McElhatton is a veteran point guard, and the Irish will get a lift from athletes from the school’s 10-1 football team. The Irish have a knack for winning close games. They might play a lot of them this season.
10. Paulsboro (19-9): Junior forward Xavier Lundy, a veratile player who averaged 21.4 points, is a Division I prospect. The Red Raiders also return 6-8 junior Julian Davenport as well as experienced guards Calvin Johnson and Juwan Alford. This looks like the best team in SJ 1. The Red Raiders have a loaded freshmen class, too.
Under consideration (listed alphabetically):
Holy Spirit (20-9): A top junior guard in Paul Moore plus one of SJ's top sophomores in Junior Saintel.
Lenape (23-6): Kyle Robostello and Evan Ward lead a team that will play defense, defense and more defense. The Indians don't mind winning by 40-36.
Medford Tech (23-6); Five starters graduated but the Jaguars have reloaded with some serious talent.
Middle Township (27-3): A strong junior class is ready to step up from the J.V. level. This program is perenniel.
Wildwood Catholic (15-12): Senior juard T-John Casiello leads a gritty squad that gave St. Augustine all it could handle in a scrimmage.
-- Phil Anastasia