We know what to expect when it comes down to the top of the Southern Connecticut Conference: Hillhouse and Fairfield Prep duking it out for the league title.
Either the Academics or the Jesuits have won the SCC tournament crown four of the last six seasons. Also add in Career, which won the SCC title in both 2012 and 2015 and reached the state finals three times over a four-year span, winning Class L in 2012.
Either Hillhouse or Prep has represented the SCC in the Class LL state championship game each of the last seven years, winning three state titles.
Expect both Hillhouse and Fairfield Prep to be in contention again. The teams are ranked first and sixth, respectively in the preseason Register/GameTimeCT Top 10 poll.
But there exists a real possibility that some other teams may challenge the stranglehold the two titans have on the SCC.
“The SCC is arguably the best it has ever been,” Fairfield Prep coach Leo Redgate said. “I wouldn’t be surprised to see a team finishes fifth in the SCC fight for state championship at the end of the year.”
Said Hillhouse coach Renard Sutton: “Any night, if someone gets caught relaxing they could get beat. You need to come out every night and be prepared to compete, execute and just play hard basketball.”
Notre Dame-West Haven, Hamden and Wilbur Cross are all expected to be dangerous this season as well. Can they rise to the top and contend for titles?
Notre Dame-West Haven
Jason Shea was a player and an assistant coach for Notre Dame in the SCC. So he has been around the league long enough to know how good the players are and quality the depth could be at the top.
“I think it’s the deepest at the top that I can ever remember,” Shea said. “The top teams on a given night could beat a lot of teams in the state. I think we have as much talent as anybody in the league.”
Four starters return for the Green Knights, center Jalanni White, swingman Connor Raines and guard Tim Dawson and forward Michael Brooks. With that kind of experience, Notre Dame was a top-10 preseason consideration.
Then, in mid-August, a fifth starter dropped in the Green Knights’ lap when guard Tremont Waters transferred in from South Kent. A New Haven resident, Waters, a senior, signed a National Letter of Intent in October to play at Georgetown.
“Tremont played at a high level at prep school as well as AAU basketball. He will be prepared,” Sutton said.
The Green Knights will find out right away what they are made of. The play Newington in the CPTV Classic at Maloney on Tuesday and Fairfield Prep, its former SCC Quinnipiac Division rival at home on Dec. 23. Both teams were state semifinalists last season.
“We will focus on executing, playing hard and doing what we need to do on a game-to-game basis and not think in those grand thoughts,” Shea said. “The CCC is very strong. Weaver is great, East Catholic is loaded and Middletown, Windsor are both strong. We’re a very strong league, too. I think we have to be right there.”
The Green Dragons return four starters, led by C.J. Seaforth, who has committed to play at Iona next season. He is joined by guards senior co-captain Andrew Kirschenbaum and sophomores Aidan Carpenter and Jalen Ricks.
“I think Hamden is underrated. C.J. has improved greatly and they had a great JV team last year,” Redgate said.
Hamden hung with Prep, the reigning SCC champion, twice last season, losing on a buzzer beater at home in overtime and blowing a double-digit lead in the second half of the SCC tournament quarterfinals. Can the team figure out how to close games out?
“I believe we have a little more savvy and hopefully we understand what we need to do to win in the last two minutes of a game. That comes with maturity,” Hamden coach Jarrad Beck said.
Hamden also has another week of practice before opening up Thursday against Career, a team looking to rebound from a disappointing 2015-16 campaign. Hamden will definitely be battle-tested by the end of January: eight of its first nine games are on the road, the one home game being against Notre Dame.
Among the road games are East Catholic (Dec. 27), Fairfield Prep (Dec. 30) and Bassick (Jan. 16 at Webster Bank Arena in Bridgeport).
“It was hard to go out and find home games, but some if it was by design,” Beck said. “One or more of the top five (in the SCC) will have to be on the road (in the state tournament). We wanted the experience of playing good teams on the road. … We will definitely need great leadership at the end of the year. The area is fortunate to have a number of very good players.”
The Governors have another full week of practice before they open their season Dec. 23 against West Haven.
Cross lost forward Robert Durant, but returns guards Kwane Taylor, Malik Alson and Will Antrum and forwards Jayden Valderamma and Jaykeen Foreman.
“It will be about closing out games when you are playing with the lead,” Cross coach Kevin Walton said. “We have a lot of confidence in these kids. They are smart basketball players like each other. It’s a matter of putting it all together.”
During the Christmas break, the Governors play three times, against DeWitt (N.Y.) in the Saulsbury Invitational Dec. 27, then back-to-back road matinee games against FCIAC teams Danbury (Dec. 29) and Stamford (Dec. 30) on the road. Cross lost at Danbury in last year’s LL quarterfinals.
“We needed a 20th game and they needed the game. That (last year) was in the back of my mind,” Walton said. “It’s good to play on the road, but you get punished for having a challenging schedule. Anything past three losses and you will be on the road for the quarterfinals.”
The following week, Hillhouse awaits on Jan. 5. Cross also plays Notre Dame and Prep twice.
“For us to get to the level of Prep and Hillhouse you have to know your roles and have the willingness to put everything aside and say, ‘This is the ultimate goal and do everything you can to achieve that goal,” Walton said.
Prep returns Robert Harding and John Kelly, but lacks the great guard play it has had in the past. Still, the Jesuits are battle-tested from years of playing big games.
“One hundred percent of our success has been the boys buying into an unselfish brand of basketball pass first, not ‘I get my points first,’” Redgate said. “And you must get defensive stops.”
As for Hillhouse, the top three players, Joey Kasperzyk, Byron Breland and Christian Adams, all return to a deep, talented, top-ranked team.
“The biggest part is the mental toughness of kids being prepared and to finish plays at the basket,” Sutton said. “Me personally, I’m a defensive guy. That’s a major asset to what we do. You’ve got to make free throws, be ready to play every night, because someone is coming in trying to beat you.”
With Career, Guilford and Cheshire among others expected to be improved, the SCC can be much deeper than the top five.
But in order to be recognized as the best, it’s building toward March, then playing well in the postseason. With most of those teams in the LL division, it could mean head-to-head matchups — much like Prep and Hillhouse have done several times in recent years.
The question is how many of the SCC teams will be left standing in the final week of the season.