Time for a little tough-love reality: FCIAC boys basketball has never been more offensively challenged than this winter. Scoring has become a lost art. Coaches who are opposed to playing box-and-ones get a break this season.
It is not just in the FCIAC. It is statewide. It has affected the college game.
What has compounded the problem is this year many teams aren’t even trying to score. I was at Fairfield Warde for two games last week. In the first, New Canaan twice held the ball for over 50 seconds. In the second, Danbury used 1:01 on the opening possession of the game and 59 seconds on the final one of the first quarter.
Before killing Danny Melzer and Casey Bock, the respective coaches, they are in favor of a shot clock. But they are also going to play within the rules to try and win games, and sometimes that means trying to shorten them.
And other schools are also being overly deliberate.
Memo: WE NEED A SHOT CLOCK. Everyone knows it, which means we are five years away from any action.
“I don’t know if it just not as many players as in the past but it is kind of grind it out,” Bock said. “One thing you can rely on night in and night out is defense, and there are good coaches in the league who are going to scheme.”
The defensive play is one of the positive takeaways as we are a little past midseason. Teams play it, both hard, well and for 32 minutes. But when you play good defense and have players that struggle to score, boy, as Bock said, it is a grind to watch.
The other positive: as predicted there is little separating teams this season. Trumbull and Danbury were the two favorites and remain in that position. The Eagles’ up-tempo play has been a boon. I think we are going to see seven teams fighting for the final two league playoff spots. Last year at this time seven teams were pretty much eliminated from the race.
The best story by far comes out of New Canaan. The Rams this year are filling a role most often played recently by Wilton: the feel-good story that attracts the non-partisan fan.
How can you not like New Canaan? It has qualified for the state playoffs for the first time in a decade and barring a major collapse will be in the FCIAC Tournament as well. The Rams even enjoyed a weekend in the national limelight, courtesy of Ryan McAleer’s game-winning halfcourt shot (and Aaron Fishman’s three free throws) in the final nine-tenths of a second against Stamford.
The Rams are doing this without any stars. I have just one player right now in my top 15, with a couple in the next five. This is what a real team looks like. They also have some serious mojo going.
Here is a look at what we have seen, liked and predict for the next month.
Most Outstanding Player
Timmond Williams, Trumbull
Timmond or Denali? Denali or Timmond? Mr. St. Pierre? There are only three candidates at this point and that won’t change down the stretch. Right now, Williams gets the nod over Burton. The Eagles are unbeaten in league play. They are the only team right now you can count on to keep the scoreboard operator busy; a smart move by Buddy Bray to go up-tempo when you have the most talent and decent depth.
Chris Brown is the not-really-unsung glue for the Eagles, but Williams is the player who can carry them if needed, though the call has not really come often yet. Williams has improved his outside shot and knows how to get to the basket. He makes everyone around him better. And he can rebound from a subpar performance to hit a game-winning shot, like he did against Ridgefield.
Burton is just as versatile and an outstanding defender in the paint. The Hatters are reliant on him, just as Ridgefield is on St. Pierre. The Tigers’ guard will be the key to how high in the middle of the standings they finish.
At the little-past-midway point, Williams is the most outstanding player.
Most Improved Player
Andrew Smith, Wilton
When looking at what was left in the cupboard for the Warriors after all their graduation losses, Smith wasn’t high on the list of valuables only because he didn’t really have a resume and few outside of Wilton had heard of him. This is still a team that thrives because of collaboration, but Smith has been one of the Warriors’ most consistent players. Teams are learning not to leave him alone on the perimeter.
Coach Of The Year
Danny Melzer, New Canaan
This is the easiest, lock-it-in, there-can-be-no-question pick this season. The Rams qualifying for the state tournament for the first time in a decade is no surprise. And barring a really unexpected collapse, a league playoff spot would also not be stunning.
What is most impressive? Who is the Rams’ star? Their best player? Who do you focus on for that final possession when you need a stop (OK, Ryan McAleer if they are on defense and it is a long inbounds play).
This isn’t a knock, but rather a testament to what has made the Rams’ successful.
Seven different players have led the team in scoring so far and six or seven players usually have somewhere between six to 12 points. This is a veteran group that plays good defense, doesn’t make mistakes and shows poise in the fourth quarter of close games.
In a year where there has been so little buzz, the Rams have been the one really fun story and Melzer as architect has done a masterful job.
Denali Burton, Danbury
Stephen Paolini, St. Joseph
James St. Pierre, Ridgefield
Saikwon Williams, McMahon
Timmond Williams, Trumbull
Jaden Bell, Stamford
Chris Brown, Trumbull
Zaire Sellers, Norwalk
Andrew Smith, Wilton
Jake Thaw, Staples
Matt Brand, New Canaan
Paul Fabbri, St. Joseph
Javon Hernandez, Danbury
Kyle Hyzy, Wilton
Oliver Milledge, Greenwich
Predicted Order Of Finish
4. St. Joseph
6. New Canaan
8. Brien McMahon
Right now the league can be broken into four groups. Danbury and Trumbull share their own plane, the two favorites. Last year the Eagles needed a late surge to qualify for the playoffs, with a win over the Hatters on the final night of the regular season. This year that closer might be for the No. 1 seed in the league tournament.
There is a second pack of four teams that are jockeying for position and I feel will end up occupying the second through sixth seeds. On a neutral court they could hold a round robin and all end up .500. There are still many head to head meetings. Though all four teams have warts, I like Wilton most of all. But they also still have consecutive road games at Danbury and Trumbull.
There are four teams that you can write off, which leaves a pack of seven with legitimate chances at the bottom two spots. Stamford has the most talent, has been heartbroken by losing twice on shots at the buzzer but has also underachieved. I am betting on the Black Knights finding their traction down the stretch. They would be a dangerous lower seed.
McMahon is a difficult team to figure out, but I am going to give it the slightest of edges to sneak into the final spot. If you want a sleeper here, a team that no one had near the playoffs a month ago, keep an eye on Staples.