PAWTUCKET ‚ÄĒ If you‚Äôve attended either a Tolman or Shea game this winter, chances are you‚Äôve noticed a young man sitting on the bench of each team dressed in street clothes. Starting this week, the wondering will cease and answers pertaining to whom these hoopsters-in-question are will be revealed.
Given the circumstances, it seems appropriate to say that the anticipated addition of Napoleon Johnson to the Tiger lineup and Michael Neal likewise to the Raiders dovetails quite nicely with the particulars surrounding a waiver wire/trade deadline pickup. At the high school level, the opportunity to add quality during the heat of the season doesn‚Äôt come around too often. With Johnson and Neal, we‚Äôre referring to two players ready to jump into the flow now that their penance of sitting out has just about been carried out.
Neal‚Äôs debut takes place Tuesday night when 7-2 Shea visits league unbeaten West Warwick. The two met Dec. 29 with the Raiders recording a 68-65 win in the finals of the West Warwick Holiday Tournament. In the case of Johnson, Tolman head coach Mike Kayata plans to save him until Friday night at home against West Warwick. Tuesday night sees Tolman traveling to Chariho.
Johnson and Neal might be joined at the hip in the sense that both are bound by similar hour-of-reckoning timetables, but that‚Äôs where the similarities end. Each player is defined by particular strengths that figures to augment the already-assembled nucleus in place.
The fact that Neal measures 6-foot-6 screams mismatch, which is probably the first thought that crept into the mind of Shea head coach Matt Pita‚Äôs mind the first time he laid eyes on him. Upon closer inspection, Neal is a more accomplished and skilled big man than his height suggests. Not only does this transfer from Connecticut‚Äôs Marianapolis Prep possess the ability to dominate down low, but he‚Äôs athletic and crafty enough to step away from the low blocks and beat his man off the dribble and/or shoot over him.
Above all else, Pita is looking forward to see what kind of impact Neal, a senior, can register defensively. ‚ÄúHis best asset will be his rebounding and defensive presence. He‚Äôs going to change the game,‚ÄĚ the coach stated.
With the 5-7 Johnson the Tigers finally have their sought-after point guard. The onetime understudy to St. Raphael‚Äôs Charles Correa at Jenks Middle School, Johnson‚Äôs best attribute is his speed, something Kayata can‚Äôt wait to unleash.
‚ÄúHe‚Äôs got a really quick burst, an unbelievable first step,‚ÄĚ Kayata pointed out. ‚ÄúHe has a lot of ability to do things that are natural that you can‚Äôt teach. He will help us.‚ÄĚ
The presence of Johnson, a sophomore, figures to shift Juan Velez to his more natural two-guard position, which Kayata notes should have a trickle-down effect on the rest of the guard/small forward rotation. From a defensive standpoint, Johnson‚Äôs quick-as-lightning tendencies will come in handy when Tolman unleashes a full-court press or three-quarter court trap.
‚ÄúVelez has brought the ball up and he‚Äôs been our best ball handler and shooter. We haven‚Äôt been able to run Velez off screens because we have no one to pass him the ball,‚ÄĚ Kayata said. ‚ÄúNapoleon knows how to run the plays and he can see the floor. He knows how to swing the ball and can find guys coming off screens because he knows that the ball is supposed to be coming to the guy coming off the screen. He knows when to attack and when to dribble drive and dish; he can read the defense.‚ÄĚ
Both players have been practicing yet not to the point where Kayata could let Johnson run with the first team. Even while the games have gone on, Pita has noticed Neal serving as an invaluable asset rather than plopped down on the bench all glum while in his mind crossing off another contest that brings him closer to becoming eligible.
‚ÄúHe‚Äôs a mature player and is almost like an additional coach for us on the bench,‚ÄĚ the second-year Shea coach said. ‚ÄúHe knows the X‚Äôs and O‚Äôs and has been a positive influence for the rest of the guys.‚ÄĚ
The Raiders have more than managed to survive without Neal, meaning he‚Äôs not stepping into a situation where the fate of the season rests in his hands. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs going to be interesting but it‚Äôs going to take him some time to fit in,‚ÄĚ was the caution flag Pita threw up. ‚ÄúHe‚Äôs ready to get out there.‚ÄĚ
Kayata views Johnson as the missing link, someone who could go a long way in bringing an end to the Tigers‚Äô erratic on-court ways. Tolman has dropped three of four since beginning the 2012 portion of the schedule on a three-game winning streak.
‚ÄúWe‚Äôre looking at this as a whole new season for us,‚ÄĚ Kayata said. ‚ÄúThis is how we‚Äôre approaching it.‚ÄĚ
The main criteria for the season-ending open state tournament reads that teams must win at least 40 percent of its league games. At the season‚Äôs midway point, a quick glance of the newfangled Power Point Standings reveals that not all of the intended 32 slots would be accounted for if the playoffs were to start this week.
Mike Lunney, assistant director of the Interscholastic League, was asked how the brackets would shake out if the same pattern holds true upon the conclusion of the regular season.
‚ÄúIf 32 teams make it, they‚Äôll be 16 first-round games. If 31 teams qualify, they‚Äôll be 15 games with one team getting a bye and so on depending on how it goes,‚ÄĚ Lunney explained. ‚ÄúIf more than 32 teams qualify, we‚Äôre certainly not going to shut them out, but if we end up with fewer teams, then you adjust the seedings accordingly.‚ÄĚ
Four teams have already reached the eight-win plateau that automatically triggers inclusion in Rhode Island‚Äôs version of March Madness, the fortunate being St. Raphael (9-0), Central (8-1), West Warwick (9-0) and The Prout School (9-0). All teams in all divisions are adhering to the same 18-game schedule in order to somewhat level the playing field despite there being a difference between how the points are distributed.
In Division I, a win is worth one full point with a Division II team receiving 0.8 and a Division III team awarded 0.6. Lunney pointed out that the regular season champ in Division II and III will receive a bonus of one additional point that could come in handy when jostling for seeding.
In the event of a tie involving teams from different divisions, Lunney says, ‚ÄúIf one of them was a Division I team, they would get the nod for the higher seed because they‚Äôve technically played a tougher schedule.‚ÄĚ