“It’s not about this week,” Tolman High basketball coach Mike Kayata was saying on Monday. “It’s about having your team ready when the playoffs begin.”
Kayata was just voicing the sentiments of most area coaches who are priming their teams for the state open tournament that is scheduled to begin on Feb. 24. A field of 32 teams will begin play that night. Tolman High, just 6-7 in Division II right now, hasn’t even reached the eight-win qualifying standard yet.
“We’re working hard in practice,” Kayata said. “I think the players realize we can be a good team if we keep working hard, stay disciplined, and do the things we need to do.”
Tolman, which hosts winless Scituate (0-13) tonight and visits Ponaganset (1-12) on Friday, can extend its winning streak to four games in a row this week and reach the playoff qualifying standard with three games left on the regular season schedule.
The Tigers won both of their games last week, one without leading scorer Juan Velez and starting forward Seny Samb, who returned for a crucial victory over Cumberland on Friday night.
“Our ball movement was better against Cumberland,” Kayata said. “Our defense was better. There are still things we need to work on. We can only go six or seven players deep before the quality of our play goes down. We have to get better with our situational strategies. We’re working on changing things up on offense to keep our opponents off-balance.”
Velez is averaging 21 points per game. The junior guard can carry his teammates in spurts, when his shot is dropping, but Tolman needs to fuse all of its various pieces together to beat quality opponents like North Providence (11-2), who the Tigers host on Feb. 14, or crosstown rival Shea (10-3), which will entertain the Tigers three nights later.
The Tigers have become a better team since sophomore Napoleon Johnson became eligible three weeks ago and took over at point guard for Velez, allowing Tolman’s best offensive player to relinquish most of the ball-handling chores.
“Napoleon has helped us because he can drive and dish,” Kayata said. “He finds open guys, cutters off screens, and gets the ball to them at the right time. Napoleon is extremely fast and has a good handle. He is very good at finding (forward) Justin Zetina in the post and on the baseline. Justin has been playing with more confidence since Napoleon took over at point guard.”
Seny and Mamour Samb give Tolman two athletic forwards who can play aggressive defense and score the occasional basket. Co-captain Brandon Gagne and fellow senior Rodney Jean-Pierre complete the playing rotation.
The wild card for Tolman is 6-foot-6 junior center Jonathan Percy, a shot-blocker and looming defensive presence under the basket.
“Jonathan is coming around,” Kayata said of his first-year starter. “He has to realize he’s a defender first, a player who can get us rebounds and control the paint. Offensively, Jonathan has a good jump shot. He can score in certain situations, especially when he is moving towards the basket.”
While Tolman deals with Scituate, Shea High should have no problems tonight against Ponaganset. Cumberland (7-6) can punch its playoff ticket tonight with a win over Lincoln (3-10).
Central Falls (7-6) visits North Providence (11-2) tonight to round out local Division II action.
In a Division I crossover game involving two teams that will not make the playoffs, Woonsocket (1-10) travels to Cranston West (2-11). East Providence (4-8) needs to beat North Kingstown (11-2) to stay alive for the playoffs.
The final game of the night finds defending state champion St. Raphael Academy (11-2) hosting a dangerous Coventry (7-6) team. The Saints are coming off a 50-48 home-court loss to North Kingstown last Friday night. After starting out 10-0 in league play, SRA has lost to La Salle Academy (11-2) and North Kingstown, both home losses.
As Mike Kayata said at the beginning of this story, coaches are trying to prepare their teams for the playoffs. That would seem to apply to the Saints, too, who have shown some vulnerability over the past week. Coventry may have picked a bad time to play St. Raphael, which could be fired up this evening and eager to prove some doubting critics wrong.