LAWRENCE, Mass. -– With many MIAA basketball teams across the state kicking off their schedules on Friday, this week is serving as a final tune-up for many of the top teams in our boys hoop poll. Tuesday afternoon at Central Catholic’s hallowed Memorial Gymnasium, the No. 3 Raiders played host to No. 17 Boston College High in a battle between two Division 1 contenders.
In four quarters of play, Central came away with a nice 71-57 victory, pulling away in the final period. A few thoughts from the day’s action:
Life without Nelson
So here’s the good news with Central’s two-time returning All-State guard, Tyler Nelson, who is recovering from a broken left wrist suffered in fall ball. The Fairfield signee had his cast removed yesterday, and while he didn’t dress for practice he was still able to take some jumpers during shootaround.
Now for the bad news. Best case scenario, Nelson is still two or three weeks away, barring another evaluation from doctors on Dec. 20. At worst, he would still be five or six weeks away from being ready.
"If everything looks good, he could be cleared to play then," Central head coach Rick Nault said. "If they’re still unsure, they think he needs more time, then it could be another two or three weeks on top of that."
In the meantime, the Raiders are learning to make do without Nelson’s exceptional long-range marksmanship. Junior Alex Santos has taken over point guard duties, a position he will likely hang onto even after Nelson’s inevitable return. A big strong lead guard with the ability to finish at the rim, he facilitated some good "inside-out" ball movement to create some open looks behind the arc.
"If he [Nelson] were to play point, I think it would wear him down," Nault said. "Teams are going to be keying on him so much. I’m sure at times late in the game, he’s going to want the ball in his hands and to be making decisions with it. But to start the season, having him come off the ball and having him come off screens and running some plays for him, I think is where we can best utilize him."
Both teams were running a more uptempo style, but BC High’s might be a more dramatic departure from last season, when the Eagles operated with a more conservative scheme with All-State shooting guard Jameilen Jones. With a lot of new blood in the flood, orchestrated by sophomore point guard Jack Loughnane, the Eagles run more, and are more free-flowing in the half-court.
Mobile big men such as 6-foot-6 senior Phil Leotsakos beat players off the dribble from the wing, and stepped out for three-pointers along the way as well. Players like him and Steve Young –- who sat out with injury today, but should be available soon -– are able to facilitate a fluid high-low approach, getting more players on the floor involved.
"Some of our kids have a pretty good basketball IQ, and I thought it would give them more freedom," BC High coach Bill Loughnane said. "We’ve been running the same thing for a number of years, and it’s been good to us, but our big men are very mobile and they can beat people off the dribble, so we want to give them a chance and put them in position to do good things."
Speaking about Leotsakos, he added, "That’s one of the things. Him and Steve Young, who didn’t play today, they’re really good off the dribble. They create mismatches when they have bigs on the outside. It’s our job to try to put them in a position to be successful."
Leo the Late Bloomer
Expanding further on Leotsakos, it was just one preseason scrimmage, but one has to consider the senior as a potential breakout candidate for the 2013-14 season.
One early sequence in the first quarter gave us a glimpse of how far he’s come. Posting up on defense, Leotsakos deflected then gathered a ball in the corner, then freed himself up in transition with a give-and-go pass up the sideline, and finished at the rim with a weight-shifting layup that ended up getting negated by an offensive foul. The next trip down, however, Leotsakos stepped out for a three-pointer behind the top of the key and sank it.
Later in the quarter, following an Eagles basket, Leotsakos pressed the inbounder and leaped up for an interception as the Central player tried to toss it over his head. Leotsakos then threw it to Jack Loughnane running down the lane, for an easy two points.
A year ago, Leotsakos struggled to make a dent in the Eagles’ rotation, in part due to injury. This year, he looks like a much different player, who will anchor the frontcourt in a "stretch four" type of role.
"I think he did his work in the offseason," said Bill Loughane. "He improved, he put his time in in all areas. Last year, unfortunately, he was hurt a lot for us, so he never really got in great shape that he’s in now. We’re expecting big things from him, and hopefully all that work he did pays off."
When we last saw 6-foot-5 senior forward Nick Cambio, he was sitting anxiously on the Central bench, sidelined with a hip injury shortly before the playoffs started, unable to help the Raiders as they clawed their way to the MIAA Division 1 Eastern Mass. Final at TD Garden.
Fully healthy once again on Tuesday afternoon, Cambio played noticeably more at the rim. One of the flashiest plays of the scrimmage was his one-hop, one-handed slam in the second quarter. In the fourth quarter, Cambio outjumped a defender to tip in his own offensive rebound, then several minutes made a twisting drive from 18 feet out on the baseline, switching to his left hand then back to his right for a finish at the rim and foul for a three-point play.
At first glance, Cambio’s most improved trait might be his vertical leap, aided in part by some CrossFit work he did in the offseason. Of course, some of that above-the-rim style of play is by necessity, too. Having graduated brute big men Doug Gemmell and Joel Berroa, the latter ESPN Boston’s 2013 Defensive Player of the Year, Cambio is expected to man the post alongside 6-foot-6 senior Aaron Hall.
"Last year with Joel Berroa and Dougie Gemmell, he was kind of our three, slash, four guy," Nault said of Cambio. "This year, he’s gotta be our 4-5 guy. Offensively, he’s going to be around the rim all the time. He finishes well, he’s strong, he’s athletic, he’s got good bounce off the floor, so he’s gotta be a guy that dominates that area for us."
Nault said he is also looking for more aggression out of Cambio.
"I think what I want to see more of him is to want to dominate," Nault said. "I think at times he’s so unselfish, and he really relies on his teammates to make plays. With Tyler out right now, he has to understand that he needs to be a key force for us offensively. Even when Tyler does come back, those two guys have got to lead the way. I think they open up so many things for us."