By Phil Anastasia
March Madness starts in February this season.
Here's a closer look at the boys' basketball tournaments, which begin Monday for Groups 4 and 2, Tuesday for Groups 1, 3 and A and Wednesday for Group B:
Defending champion, No. 1 seed and favorite: Atlantic City.
Darkhorse: No. 5 Eastern. If the trio of Devon Bell, Avery Walker and Matt Klinewski are all playing well at the same time, the Vikings can beat anybody in this field.
Best first-round game: No. 12 Cherokee at No. 5 Eastern. The young Chiefs have wins over Lenape and Paul VI in the last month and sophomore Paul Bellamy is emerging as top scorer. No. 11 Clearview at No. 6 CH East should be a good one, too. The Pioneers would love to score one for the Tri-County Royal against the Olympic American.
Player to watch: Lenape senior forward Tabu Gaither is an inside force who can step out and hit a three-pointer at a crucial time. Shawnee senior guard Josh Borrelli is a four-year player looking to capstone his career. He'll get his chance.
Sensational semifinal: No. 3 Shawnee at No. 2 Lenape would be a showdown of school-district rivals and rematch of a Feb. 12 game won 40-38 by the Indians. I like this winner to beat AC, even though the defending champions are 23-1 and have been nothing but impressive down the stretch. I see AC playing close games against Eastern in the semifinals (a game the visiting Vikings could steal) and against the Shawnee-Lenape winner in the finals. AC has been great in close elimination games for the last two seasons. No real good reason to pick against them. Just a hunch.
Finals prediction: Shawnee over Atlantic City. AC's gym is so large and standard that there really isn't a home-court advantage for the Vikings. Shawnee coach Joe Kessler's teams have played a lot of great games there in state semifinals in the past.
Defending champion: Camden.
No. 1 seed: Hammonton.
Darkhorse: No. 4 Timber Creek. With the return of 6-7 senior Dominique Reid, who missed most of the season with a knee injury, the Chargers have an inside presence to pair with lead guard George Sapp and all those wing players and make a serious run in a wide-open field.
Best first-round game: No. 13 Highland at No. 4 Timber Creek is a battle of school-district rivals. No. 12 Oakcrest at No. 5 Delsea is an interesting game, too. The Crusaders are a darkhorse contender just like Timber Creek, although much depends on whether senior forward Cedric Elleby makes it back from a fractured fibula.
Player to watch: Camden junior guard Tavaris Headen averaged 22.8 points in the last eight games. That was against top competition, too, as Camden beat CC, SAP and Eastern and lost to Willingboro, Paulsboro, PVI and Shawnee in that stretch.
Sensational semifinal: Timber Creek at Hammonton would be a familiar playoff clash to football fans. Hammonton might be the most underrated No. 1 seed in the whole state tournament. But the Blue Devils have a pretty clear road to the semifinals, and will be tough at home behind senior guard Christian Mortellite (21.4 points per game).
Finals prediction: Camden over Timber Creek. The Panthers were battled tested down the stretch and went eye-to-eye with several tough teams. The real key for Camden might be senior center Amir Maddred. When he's operating at a high level, this team is tough to beat. Especially in Clarence Turner gymnasium.
Defending champion: Willingboro.
No. 1 seed: Haddonfield.
Favorite: No. 2 Middle Township.
Darkhorse: No. 8 Willingboro. The Chimeras have been a different team since senior guard Shaun Russell (17.9 points per game) joined the team in mid-January. Willingboro at Haddonfield would a title-game-level quarterfinal on Wednesday night. But don't sleep on No. 9 Pemberton, which has been playing well over the second half of the season and could challenge Willingboro in first round.
Best first-round game: No. 11 Overbrook at No. 6 West Deptford. The Eagles swept the Rams in Colonial play by a combined total of seven points. WD junior guards Justin Hansen and Mike Gardner have been playing well. If nothing else, these guys are setting stage for a strong season in 2013-14 for the Eagles.
Player to watch: Haddonfield senior Chris Biddle has played the best basketball of his career over the last six weeks. He does a little bit of everything for the Haddons and his biggest contribution might be in terms of his leadership. Middle Township senior swingman Tom Feraco, son of the coach, is another player to watch. He's been playing at a high level over the last month and is part of a senior-heavy team that is driven to capture a championship. Sterling seniors Jerry Crismond and Marcus Taylor will be playing their final games together. They could get the No. 4 Silver Knights on a run.
Sensational semifinal: No. 3 Medford Tech at Middle Township would be a rematch of 2012 playoff game won by the Panthers on a last-second shot by Tom Catanoso. The Jaguars have a pair of 20-point scorers in junior Elijah Cain and sophomore Myles Powell. Middle Township has balance and lots of know-how.
Finals prediction: Middle Township over Haddonfield. The Bulldogs could win this game. They have an edge at home, and they usually shoot well in their own unique gym. Won't be enough seats in the old place for this game.
Defending champion, No. 1 seed and favorite: Paulsboro.
Darkhorse: No. 8 Woodbury. The Thundering Herd are coming off a huge, 52-51 victory over Camden Catholic on Saturday night. That's a big boost heading into the tournament.
Best first-round-game: No. 9 Wildwood at Woodbury could be a 160-point game. Wildwood has a top scorer in senior Francis Christian (20.2 points per game).
Player to watch: Gloucester's Stefano Okoro, South Jersey's leading scorer with a 27.9 average, will be playing the final games of an illustrious career. Penns Grove senior Ge'Shawn Davis (18.8 average) is another player to watch. He might finish in transition as well as any player in SJ.
Sensational semifinal: No. 3 Penns Grove at No. 2 Pitman would be rubber match as Tri-County rivals split in regular season. PG won the first, Pitman the second. The Panthers have a strong trio in sophomore center Tim Delaney (20.8) as well as junior guards Eric Stafford and Darnell Foreman.
Finals prediction: Paulsboro over Pitman. The Red Raiders will miss sophomore forward Saleem Little, who likely is out for the season with a stress fracture in his foot. But senior forward Xavier Lundy (18.8) is a man on a mission. Big edge for Paulsboro playing at home. Definitely not enough seats in that little tan-tiled gym for all the folks who would want to see this game.
Defending champion and favorite: St. Joseph of Metuchen.
No. 1 seed: Notre Dame.
Darkhorse: No. 4 Paul VI. The Eagles have won nine in a row (beating BE, Middle, Camden and Lenape) since that sluggish performance in a Feb. 2 loss to CC. Junior swingman Jay Howard and junior guard Ivan Robinson have led the way.
Best first-round game: No. 10 Holy Cross at No. 7 Bishop Eustace. The Lancers were 8-3 down the stretch. The Crusaders are battled tested by a demanding schedule.
Player to watch: No. 5 Camden Catholic senior Kyle Green averaged 23.2 points in the last five games. CC at PVI on Thursday night would be another classic in one of the best rivalries around. The teams split in the regular season.
Sensational semifinal: Paul VI is more than capable of winning at Notre Dame (If No. 8 Holy Spirit doesn't do it first). The Eagles have to slug their way through gritty Gloucester Catholic in the first round and find a way to beat CC in the quarters. But if they make it to the semifinals, they will be riding a serious high.
Finals prediction: St. Joseph over Paul VI. SJ has 7-0 Karl Towns Jr., who has committed to Kentucky. That would be a difficult matchup for a PVI team that has good overall height, but not a single player that stands 6-5.
Defending champion: Gill St. Bernard's.
No. 1 seed and favorite: Patrick School.
Darkhorse: No. 3 Wildwood Catholic.
Best first-round game: No. 11 Timothy Christian at No. 6 Doane Academy. Led by senior guard Davis Graham, Doane can win first NJSIAA playoff game in program history.
Player to watch: Wildwood Catholic junior forward Eddie McWade is a clever lefty who averages 18.4 points. Sacred Heart has a top sophomore in Mike Holloway. The Lions visit TCA in the first round.
Sensational semifinal: A trip to No. 2 Roselle Catholic, the No. 7 team in the Newark Star Ledger state rankings, could be a great experience for the young Wildwood Catholic team that will make some noise next season.
Finals prediction: Patrick School over Roselle Catholic.
Defending champion: Middletown North.
No. 1 seed and favorite: East Brunswick.
Darkhorse: No. 3 Rancocas Valley. The Red Devils have won 19 in a row. They haven't lost in 2013.
Player to watch: Rancocas Valley sophomore guard Ned Ogoemesim gets to the rim and averages 15.2 points.
Sensational semifinal: Rancocas Valley over No. 2 Hillsborough would be the Red Devils' 22d victory in a row.
Finals prediction: East Brunswick over Rancocas Valley. The Red Devils would have a shot. They are playing great basketball and have been tested by a tough schedule. But EB is a senior-heavy team that has a pair of wins over St. Joe Metuchen. And the game would be at EB.
Defending champion: Asbury Park.
No. 1 seed and favorite: Point Pleasant Beach.
Darkhorse: No. 3 Bound Brook.
Player to watch: No. 2 Burlington City senior guard Josh Young averages 15.3 points.
Sensational semifinal: No. 3 Bound Brook at Burlington City would be as clash of fast- paced, high-scoring teams. BC has a pair of talented juniors in Jelani Glaze and Derrick Wright. This game could be 87-85.
Finals prediction: Burlington City over Point Pleasant Beach. Veteran coach Paul Collins has guided this team to one of its best seasons.
Contact staff writer Phil Anastasia at firstname.lastname@example.org or @PhilAnastasia on Twitter