As the 2003-2004 high school basketball season tips off this weekend, the Friars of St. Anthony once again appear to be one of the top teams in New Jersey. In fact, some national polls have the fabulous Friars among the best teams in the country. The Sporting News put the Friars as the No. 5 team in its preseason poll. But let’s not sell anything about the national ranking to the Friars’ legendary coach Bob Hurley.
“We’re paying no attention to it whatsoever,” said Hurley, who begins his 32nd season as the head coach of the Friars just four wins shy of 800 career victories. “We’ve had six or seven teams over the years that deserved the national ranking. I could never put this team in the same category.”
Hurley said that a lot of the Friars’ national reputation comes from winning the AND1 National Tournament over the summer in Philadelphia.
“But that was a little unrealistic, because we had to play six games in like two days,” Hurley said. “We had a small bunch of guys who were able to bounce back and play again the same day. It was more of an endurance thing. We wouldn’t be able to do that in a regular high school setting. We could become a very good team, but we’re not going to get taller. The lack of size we have will present a problem, especially with the schedule we play.”
Hurley is also concerned that the Friars don’t have a pure go-to scorer, the way Elijah Ingram was two years ago before heading off to St. John’s and the way Terrence Roberts was last season before going to Syracuse.
“That’s going to be a big issue all year,” Hurley said. “We don’t have a kid who is a go-to guy. We’re going to spread it around a little and hope that someone steps forward and becomes a leading scorer.”
Leading the returnees for the Friars is senior forward Marcus Williams. The 6-2 Williams has been extremely versatile throughout his three-year varsity career, but has still yet to reach his full potential.
“It’s gotten to the point where Marcus can’t be simply a role player anymore,” Hurley said of Williams, who averaged eight points per game last year. “He has good potential, but he has filled gaps as a utility-like player. He didn’t get a chance to step it up. But over the summer, he became more of a threat. He’s our best all-around player and a four-year varsity player. There’s no question that he has to be a double-figure scorer this year. No way do we win if he’s not in doubles.”
Another key performer for the Friars will be senior guard Otis Campbell, whose stock skyrocketed after earning the Most Valuable Player of the AND1 tourney over the summer. A year ago, no one knew who Campbell was. Now, some major college recruiters are looking at the sharpshooter as a big-time prospect.
“Otis helped himself over the summer, but he’s held himself back in the past,” Hurley said. “He’s learned a lot of life lessons and he seems ready to accept his role and pick us up.”
Junior shooting guard Sean McCurdy will also play a big role with the Friars. When he was healthy a year ago, McCurdy was a lights-out shooter with a sweet stroke from 3-point range. But McCurdy missed a good portion of the season with a host of injuries.
“He averaged double figures when he was healthy,” Hurley said. “The only problem was that he missed so much time. We need him to stay healthy.”
Senior forward Barney Anderson is also in the mix. The 6-5 Anderson will play a bigger role this season as an inside player for the Friars.
Junior point guard Derrick Mercer returns to run the show. The 5-7 Mercer came of age last year and emerged as a sparkplug.
“We don’t want Derrick to become a scorer, although he’s improved his shot,” Hurley said. “He’s still a developing player. People want to put him in the same class with (former St. Anthony great) Rashon Burno (who played college basketball at DePaul), but he actually shoots the ball better than Rashon. But he’s not as mature as a leader. He’s too quiet. He has to get on the court and lead us.”
The Friars have some good depth off the bench, led by senior guard Ahmad Mosby, who was the Friars’ leading scorer in the early part of last season, then saw his production fall off the table, then he left the team. Mosby has returned, but will come off the bench for now. Junior Shelton Gibbs, Jr., who saw his playing time increase at the end of last season, will also be part of the mix off the bench this season.
Ahmad Nivins, a 6-8 center and a transfer from Hudson County Prep, will become an important player when he becomes eligible after sitting out the mandatory 30-day transfer rule instituted by the NJSIAA.
The Friars’ depth was hurt when senior Lamont Alston, a 6-2 guard, decided not to play this season. Alston was being looked at as a mid-level college prospect, but now, that status remains in doubt.
The Friars open their season against the Peddie School next Saturday at Caldwell College. They will travel once again to the Torrey Pines Holiday Classic in San Diego, where they will play four games at a tournament they’ve won six times in the past. St. Anthony is the lone non-California team in the field.
From there, the Friars come home to face the Burlington Life Center on Jan. 2, then Christian Brothers Academy as part of the Scholarship Basketball Festival at St. Peter’s College Jan. 4.
Hurley likes the potential of the team, but he doesn’t want people to get carried away by labeling them with greatness.
“When you have a team this small, no one should be talking about national rankings,” Hurley said. “We have some good 3-point shooters and you can have some moments with a team like that, but if you rely on the 3-point shot, it will fail you. We have to make adjustments because we simply don’t have size.”
Added Hurley, “Our goal is to win the (NJSIAA) Parochial B state title and we can do that. That’s what we aim to do.”
If the Friars accomplish the goal of winning the state title, it would mean the 23rd state title for St. Anthony, which would put them one behind the national record of 24 state titles, held by Cheyenne (Wyoming). It’s always been a goal of Hurley to see St. Anthony atop that national record.
There’s a national mark that he cares about. The national rankings mean nothing. National records are something else. – Jim Hague