What a bizarre season. I can’t think of any other way to describe what we have seen over the past six weeks.
The FCIAC has been sliced like a pie down the middle: nine playoff contenders that established themselves fairly early on, eight teams cast as spoilers.
This seems more like European soccer. Though we don’t have the usual 10-, 11- or 12-team race for the conference tournament, there are a number of compelling storylines with the schools that are hoping to get the chance to make it to the return of the Final Four to the Zeoli Fieldhouse.
Let’s break them all down.
Ridgefield. Wins over both Danbury and Trinity Catholic give the Tigers the best resume to date. They remain a half game behind both because of one fewer contest.
Don’t read too much into last week’s loss to Wilton. It was a rivalry game in arguably the toughest venue for a visiting team, and there was also the revenge factor after last year’s title game.
The Tigers have been bolstered by the continued development of James St. Pierre from a puzzle piece into a go-to scorer, which opens things up for Brenden McNamara. The return of Luke McGarrity provides greater depth and potentially another impact player.
Of all the contenders, Ridgefield is the least likely to beat itself.
Trinity Catholic. We will learn a lot tonight as the Crusaders host Danbury in what, from a pure basketball standpoint, might be the most interesting game of the regular season.
No player has come farther since the start of the season than point guard Stephon McGill, who now is a versatile scorer, playmaker and defender. In their current state, the Crusaders have three of the league’s 10-best players, as Dimitry Moise has also been much more consistent. Contavio Dutreil is the runner-up right now to Sean Conway for Player of the Year.
One big question is depth, which hasn’t been a detriment in the recent surge.
Danbury. The Hatters demonstrated their toughness by going on an 18-0 run late to turn what seemed like a certain loss into a memorable comeback win against Norwalk on Friday night. Their pressure could become an added element against opponents shy on ballhandlers.
Jordan Brown has stepped up as an explosive scorer, while Javon Hernandez is strong from the outside and was the frontman in the Norwalk rally. Denali Burton is one of my favorite players, he does more things that don’t show up in the box score than perhaps anyone in the league.
A big test at Trinity awaits tonight.
Fairfield Warde. Sean Conway is in the process of a truly remarkable year. No one can remember the last time an FCIAC player averaged 30 points in a season. Right now he is at 31.
Conway is more impressive because he is no Trae Young in terms of the number of shots taken. Conway is still the first option on offense, but he is comfortable drawing defenders and finding open teammates.
And it is the performance of those teammates that will likely dictate how far the Mustangs go. Matt Becker gets overshadowed but is a key cog. And the return of Malcolm Brune, once he gets in complete game shape, provides a nice inside presence.
Warde and Wilton share the same DNA; they both can be undone when not hitting outside shots. But in a year without a dominant team, having a dominant player like Conway carries more weight than usual.
Bridgeport Central. With one other school we will soon get to, the Hilltoppers are the team I would least want to face in the opening round if they end up in a 5-8 slot.
In the two games I saw them, losses at Ridgefield and Norwalk, the outcomes could have been different with just a little more consistency.
Central has several players who can be scoring leaders on given nights. Ra’Quan Riley, Zach William and DJ Fulton have filled that role most recently.
Last week’s win at Wilton was evidence that Central could add its name to the list of schools that have won titles from outside the top four spots. Turnovers need to be limited.
Norwalk. The Bears don’t do a lot to get you excited, but at the same time they don’t do anything to make you dismissive either.
Tyrique Langley is lingering in first team All-FCIAC territory. Joey Benincsaso is a dangerous outside shooter who needs to get more open looks.
Norwalk can bother opponents with pressure and also be bothered by it. Perhaps the biggest remaining game is Friday against Stamford, which could end up being a playoff tiebreaker.
Trumbull. No team’s supporters have criticized me more for showing a lack of respect. The Eagles almost look like a microcosm of the conference.
I would be very surprised if it happened, but is possible they could miss the playoffs by going 0-8 against tournament teams and 8-0 against everyone else.
That would mean Trumbull loses out, and I don’t see that. The plus: the Eagles have beaten up on the teams they should beat. Against playoff contenders, there is a 33-point loss to Ridgefield, last night’s defeat at Wilton and a 16-point win over Stamford that could prove vital in the scramble for spots.
The Eagles finish with five teams assured of or battling for tournament berths. Timmond Williams and Chris Brown are a good 1-2 combination. This is a young team still maturing.
When it is all said and done, what anyone thinks of the Eagles right now — and they remain a curiosity still here — doesn’t matter. With the remaining games, they control the ability to prove how good they are.
Stamford. The Black Knights keep plugging along, not drawing much attention to themselves while playing aggressively on the defensive end of the court.
The Black Knights have lost two of three, but they took Danbury to overtime on the road. That is hardly a bad loss.
Before that came five straight wins. Five of the remaining six games are against the top half of the league. It is quite possible the last playoff spot will be determined by which team has the better final three weeks: Stamford or Trumbull.
Wilton. If a sociology teacher wanted to pick a team for class study, here’s the one. The Warriors were confounding before last night’s win against Trumbull, yet the mystery deepens.
Without dispute: the Warriors have top-eight personnel, have underachieved at times and struggled on defense. They remain in search of an identity even at this late juncture.
Coach Joel Geriak shook up the starting lineup last night, using leading scorer Scott Cunningham and Kyle Maatallah off the bench and opening with what he thought was his best defensive team (minus Kyle Phillips, who had to sit out the game). There was also greater use of man-to-man defense.
The question is what happens next? Is last night the start of a new strategy for the rest of the season, or was Geriak sending a message to his team? If the former, how will that affect team chemistry going forward?
It is quite possible Geriak is going to wait and see how this plays out. It is hard to imagine the Warriors not making the playoffs, but they are taking away much of their comfort margin.
I still think this is a dangerous team that, if it can qualify and get past the first round, would play one and possibly two Final Four games at home.
With all the variables, no team is going to be more fascinating to follow. The Warriors are a 20-episode mystery, and no one knows yet whodunnit.
No. 1 Ridgefield (11-3, 9-1) vs. No. 8 Trumbull (10-2, 7-2).
No. 2 Danbury (13-1, 10-1) vs. No. 7 Norwalk (9-5, 7-3).
No. 3 Trinity Catholic (11-3, 10-1) vs. No. 6 Wilton (9-5, 7-4).
No. 4 Fairfield Warde (9-5, 8-2) vs. No. 5 Bridgeport Central (7-4, 7-3).