By ALEX KLINE
“When we all come together, we could be as talented as anyone around,” said head coach Dave Boff. “It will be the ability of everyone to sacrifice their own personal goals in order to focus on those of the team if we want to win. If our team does that, we can be really good.”
After losing in the state semifinals to St. Peter’s Prep, as well as the county semifinals to St. Patrick, Boff’s squad was on the verge of being a special team. They won 18 of their last 20 games, and posted a 15-game winning streak at one point.
The Union County squad boasts a three-headed monster of newcomers Tyler Roberson, a top-30 junior in the country, and Hakim Saintil, a rising junior point guard, along with returning star Jameel Warney, who has signed with Stony Brook.
Roberson and Saintil, who both play for Sandy Pyonin’s storied New Jersey Roadrunners program, will make an immediate impact on the squad this season.
“Those two raise the level of intensity,” said Boff. “When you add two players of that caliber it forces everyone on that team to raise their level during workouts, and starting Monday, during practices. Guys are competing for starting positions. They have had a real good attitude and are working hard, while playing with passion.”
Early on, the key to success has been versatility, positioning, passion and confidence.
Saintil barely played last year while he was a sophomore. Now, as his coach points out, his confidence has risen.
“The thing that stands out for Hakim is his confidence,” Boff said. “He has been playing with a lot more confidence than he did last year. He plays as hard as one can play every possession and that is why college are beginning to go after him.”
With schools constantly checking in on Warney and Roberson, among others, Saintil has benefited. He maintains offers from Kansas State and SMU, along with a plethora of mid-major interest. Although most consider him to be a mid-major prospect, Kansas State’s Frank Martin decided to verbally offer the 2013 point guard a scholarship last week after seeing him workout multiple times in the fall. His well known teammate also has a scholarship from the Wildcats.
Roberson’s potential is through the roof and basketball personnel from around the country have taken notice. A 6-foot-7 combo forward who attended the LeBron James Skills Academy this July, Roberson holds offers from UConn, Louisville, Syracuse, Rutgers, Cincinnati, Kansas, Marquette, N.C. State and others.
“Tyler’s game is so multifaceted,” Boff said. “We will play him on the wing where he is comfortable. He can shoot it off the dribble and in 3-point range. At the same time,
Tyler can go in the post and defend there, too. He is a much better on-ball defender than I first thought he was.”
Roberson knows that the pressure is on him as one of the top juniors in New Jersey, along with Jaren Sina, Reggie Cameron, Mike Young, Davon Reed, Hallice Cooke and Josh Brown.
“My goals for this season are to continue to progress as a player and leader,” he said.
“As a team, we want to win a state and county championship.”
Some wonder whether the duo of Saintil and Roberson will continue to play together in college.
“Both Hakim and I have to choose which schools is best for us, ” Roberson said. “I would love to play with him in college because he is a great player and I have been playing with him since the sixth grade so we know each others games so well.”
Roberson added, “If it worked out, I would be excited.”
**UNLV may be the only mid-major school in the race for Shabazz Muhammad, a 2012 small forward from Bishop Gorman in Nevada, but the Rebels may have just set the bar high. A few days after Muhammad’s family spent Thanksgiving in Maui, where his father, Ron Holmes, was able to check out UCLA and Duke in action at the Maui Invitational, UNLV made a statement. The consensus top senior in the country was in attendance for the Rebels defeat of then-No. 1 North Carolina 90-80 in the LasVegas Invitational. With the win, Dave Rice’s squad moves to 7-0 and could jump into the top-25. Rice, who is in his first year with the Las Vegas school, is the brother of Grant Rice, Muhammad’s coach. While he will sign in the spring, it appears that Duke, Kentucky, UCLA and UNLV are in the best contention for the star forward.
**On Friday night, Pittsburgh witnessed the breakout of freshman Khem Birch, a McDonald’s All American and Jordan Brand Challenge alum. Birch, who had struggled early on this season, broke out for 15 points, 10 rebounds and 3 blocks en route to a Panther win over Penn at the Palestra. Three key Pittsburgh recruits were in attendance for the game. 2012 forward Amile Jefferson of Friends Central in Pennsylvania made the trip with his high school teammates, while 2013 Team Final teammates Rondae Jefferson of Chester (PA) and Davon Reed of Princeton Day (NJ) were in attendance, as well. Pittsburgh has offered both Jeffersons, and is looking at Reed, also. While both Jeffersons are nowhere close to making their college decisions, both seem to be very interested in Pitt, who is in need of a star forward after Jaylen Bond, who is now at Texas, decommitted from the program last spring.
**Speaking of Reed, the Princeton Day star also attended the Penn State-St. Joseph’s game on Saturday. Both schools have offered the talented combo guard, who will likely visit Xavier and VCU, among other schools, before making a college decision. Also in attendance for the game was Jared Nickens, a 2013 wing from St. Patrick (NJ), who attended the Iona home opener on Wednesday, as well as Jeremiah Worthem, a 2013 small forward from Math, Civics & Sciences (PA).
**On Saturday night, Seton Hall hosted a trio of talented in-state players. Former St. Patrick forward Austin Colbert, who is now a junior at Hotchkiss (CT), was in attendance for the game. Colbert visited earlier in the year, as well. Hallice Cooke, a 2013 shooting guard from St. Anthony, and Isaiah Briscoe, a 2015 point guard from St. Benedict’s, were also there. The Pirates have offered all three.
**While at a showcase in Kentucky, 2012 Findlay Prep (NV) forward Anthony Bennett not only put up a 16-point, 21 rebound game. After John Calipari watched the Top 10 unsigned forward from Canada in action on Friday, the Wildcats hosted Bennett for an unofficial visit on Saturday morning where he explored the campus for the first time. Kentucky has a history of success with Canadians on the West Coast as current freshman Kyle Wiltjer is from Canada and attended Jesuit in Oregon.
**A college decision will be made on Tuesday by Nate Britt, as first reported by Scout.com. The 2013 point guard from Gonzaga Prep in Washington, D.C. will announce between North Carolina, Georgetown, Virginia, Maryland, Villanova and Arizona at Purple Eagles Hoops Mania at 7pm. The Tar Heels appear to be the favorite.