The highly respected and touted St. Anthony High School boys' basketball team begins its 2004-2005 season this weekend as the No. 1 team in the entire nation, according to several preseason prognosticating magazines and newspapers.
It should be an honor of distinction for the fabulous Friars, who consistently gain so much respect by the basketball brethren. And they've been so well respected in the past to be able to gain the nation's No. 1 ranking. After all, they finished last year undefeated (30-0), the third undefeated season in the school's storied history. It culminated with the school's 24th NJSIAA state championship and the ninth Tournament of Champions crown.
But this year, things are just a little different. Because when the national magazines like Street & Smith's and National Preps picked the Friars as the premier team in the country, it was under the premise that the team was healthy.
And as the season begins, they are not.
The team's top returning scorer, senior guard Sean McCurdy, suffered a broken foot a week ago that required surgery. McCurdy, already committed to the University of Arkansas, was told by doctors that he could miss the first six weeks of the season, but legendary head coach Bob Hurley believes that McCurdy's stint on the sidelines would be considerably longer.
"I'm guessing it will be more like 8 to 12 weeks, so we're talking about February," Hurley said of McCurdy's injury. "Hopefully, we're going to get into a position with a team that we'll play with for most of the season."
Hurley knows that he has to proceed with his team and make plans without having McCurdy, who was an All-State performer last year and averaged almost 12 points per game a year ago.
With that, he's going to count on two of his experienced seniors, 5-9 point guard Derrick Mercer and 6-5 forward Barney Anderson, to carry the load. Both Mercer and Anderson have been major parts of the Friars' successes in the past, including the NJSIAA Tournament of Champions title won by St. Anthony last year. In fact, Anderson was the Most Valuable Player of that tournament.
"When we had Sean, I thought we had a very dangerous offensive team," Hurley said. "With Sean out, it brings us back a little, and the margin for error is very small. Derrick Mercer and Barney Anderson have been consistently outstanding in the (preseason) scrimmages. With Derrick, we have to make him more conscious of scoring. We don't want him to change the way he's been playing the last two years, but we're trying to make him aware to look to score more.
Added Hurley, "Barney has been a warrior. He's moved away from the basket a little and he's handled it smoothly. He's driving well and making shots. I'm not worried about those two. We just don't need Barney to think he has to put the team on his shoulders."
Mercer (American University) and Anderson (Rider) have already made their college choices known, like McCurdy. So has the fourth senior, 6-8 center Ahmad Nivins, who will go to St. Joseph University in Philadelphia, where former Friar great Dwayne Lee is the starting point guard.
Nivins, who didn't become eligible to play for the Friars until January of 2004 after transferring from High Tech, is still working his way into a larger role with the Friars.
"He's slowly adjusting to having a bigger role," Hurley said.
With McCurdy on the sidelines, 5-11 junior Ralph Fernandez has seen his role increase significantly. Fernandez had a brilliant summer and should become a force, especially from the perimeter.
There are a handful of others who will get their fair share of playing time, like 5-11 junior David Bullock, who has incredible athletic ability, according to Hurley.
"He gets off the ground well," Hurley said of Bullock's 42-inch vertical leap.
Sophomore Myles Beatty, junior Sean Smith and junior Lionel Mercedes will also get into the Friars' rotation. Junior Giovanni Carenza, a 6-6 power forward and a transfer from Passaic Valley, is also looking to crack the lineup.
"They're all adjusting to playing with the older, experienced players," Hurley said. "They're all capable of doing some good things. There might be some teams that may hurt us until those kids become battle tested."
However, there is one predominant factor about the Friars - and that's their incredible level of defense. Mike Kinney of the Newark Star-Ledger once wrote that in New Jersey high school basketball, there are three varieties of defense: zone, man-to-man, and St. Anthony.
Well, that fact is even more noticeable this year. This is a swarming, menacing defensive team. You will see many teams fighting like crazy to reach 30, maybe 35 points against the Friars. They're that good defensively.
"I just think the intensity of the defense should be able to carry us," Hurley said. "In the preseason, we've been concentrating on just half court defense and not full court, because we don't want to burn Derrick Mercer out because we need him to score. We should be able to play multiple defenses with the depth of the team and we need to keep the three key seniors on the floor."
So the Friars may even employ a dirty word - zone. It's very rare that a Hurley-coached team uses the zone defense. But this year, it may happen.
The Friars begin the season Sunday (Dec. 19) against South Plainfield and they then face Create Charter School on Wednesday, Dec. 22, as part of the Dan Finn Memorial Basketball Festival at St. Peter's Prep, honoring the late Prep great athlete.
"We were happy to take that game and move it to Prep as part of the night," Hurley said. "I've been a good friend to the Finn family for many years. Dan was a camper of mine. If we can help even in a small way, then we're doing it. I know that our kids will go out and play extremely hard that night, because they know they're going there to honor a fiery guy. Everyone loved Danny."
So the Friars should be a power to be reckoned with again, even with McCurdy on the sidelines.
"We're always shooting for the state tournament, but without McCurdy, everything changes dramatically," Hurley said. "We're just going to have to do things a little differently. No one is going to replace what Sean gives us. He's a two-year starter and a coach on the floor. He's going to be missed. But hopefully, he'll be back for the state tournament."
And by that point, the fabulous Friars should be in full bloom, poised for another state title run.