NORWALK — There seems to be a different rhythm with the Norwalk High School boys basketball team this winter, or at least there was one Tuesday night, as the Bears hosted defending league and state champion Bridgeport Central.
The past two seasons it seemed like outsiders were waiting for Norwalk, which struggled with ballhandling and team chemistry, to disprove itself.
Now, in a year where all of the best teams have a flaw or two, the pundits appear to be watching for the Bears to step up and prove they are capable of winning their first FCIAC title since 1998, the end of an era when they were a perennial contender.
So far, so good. Tuesday’s 66-48 win over Central kept the Bears perfect at 8-0. Like the rest of the pack, they are imperfect. But they are less imperfect than most, and their biggest problem against the Hilltoppers, questionable shot selection on occasions, is easily correctable.
This year’s model plays a much more team-oriented game than recent editions and has the athleticism to apply a punishing trap.
“Our team starts with defense,” Norwalk coach Tom Keyes said. “It’s what we preach every day. When you have a group of kids excited about defense, it makes it easier to beat tough teams like Bridgeport Central.
Then there’s the triple punch of Roy Kane, Zaire Wilson and Jeremy Linton, who finished, respectively, with 20, 14 and 10 points.
“We have eight seniors on the team,” Keyes said. “They treat each other like family and they are stepping up right now.”
Tuesday’s game was a cat-and-mouse affair for three quarters, as the Bears took leads and then lapsed as Central (5-2) crept back. A 12-0 run in the first quarter provided a 20-11 advantage they would never relinquish, though the Hilltoppers rallied to get within four points at halftime and again at the start of the final period to make the score 44-38 before Norwalk pulled away.
If the playoffs started tomorrow, the Hilltoppers are probably not ready to win three games in five days. Most of a team that enthralled Connecticut with the memorable second-half comeback against Fairfield Prep has moved on.
Marcus Blackwell is one of the state’s elite players — perhaps a little too deferential on offense right now given the composition of the team — but there is some raw talent and, in Barry McLeod, one of the best coaches on the sideline to nurture it, so Central very well could be better positioned for another run in six weeks.
Wilson right now looks like one of the league’s most improved players. And Kane, who as a senior has shed the Jr., has stepped up both as a player and a leader. Interestingly, when asked how this team was different from a year ago, Kane said, “Enoch. A lot of people looked to him. We just looked to Steven too much. We sat around and waited on him. Once he left a lot of people stepped up.”
Steven Enoch is the 6-9, UConn-bound center who headed a list of eight players that transferred out of the league. But most forget the Enoch that Norwalk lost was only a third team All-FCIAC player a year ago before blossoming during the AAU season.
Kane’s reference to Enoch was unprompted. When his words were brought up to Keyes, the coach turned agitated.
“I’m not going to answer questions on Steve,” Keyes said.
But there may be some truth to what Kane said. The contributions were varied, and perhaps because of the nature of playing a trapping defense, there was a greater sense of urgency than in the past.
Norwalk is by no means the replacement for last year’s Central team, but it doesn’t have to be. It just has to be the best team this year, a title that is well within its grasp.
Asked what it will take to win a championship, Kane smiled and said, “More games like this. Hard work. We’re going to hit a slump somewhere and we just have to fight through it.”