MIDDLETOWN — Enough with the practice sessions. Even a road game — against the No. 2-ranked team in the GameTimeCT preseason poll, no less — brings some relief for the Middletown boys basketball team.
The Blue Dragons will have gone 12 days between games by the time they meet East Catholic in a CCC interdivision matchup Saturday (6:45 p.m. tip) in Manchester.
The Blue Dragons, who were 11-9 last season, have split their first two games, losing at home to E.O. Smith and winning at Bristol Central. Coach Rick Privott has a young rotation lacking in experience and size, but there is no shortage of guards on the roster, and the coach vowed they are more than willing to rebound, defend and dictate the pace of games.
“As a team, we have to do all the little things well,” said Privott, in his fifth year as Middletown’s coach. “We have to make up for our lack of size with hustle. We are guard-loaded again and that is where a ton of hustle has to come in.
“It might be a good thing that we’ve been practicing a lot.”
East Catholic has won its first three by large margins, and with its size, speed and offensive firepower, the Eagles are a daunting challenge for Middletown.
The Eagles are led by three of the state’s top players: guard Joe Reilly, who averaged 21 points during last year’s 25-1 season; 6-foot-5 wing Matt Knowling (“he is a beast,” Privott said); and guard Jaylin Hunter, a defensive specialist and transfer from Creighton Prep in Nebraska.
Meanwhile, Middletown is just finding its legs. The Blue Dragons had a largely unproven roster at the beginning of last season and ended up finishing 11-9. This season, it looks as if Privott has a similarly to-be-determined squad.
On the offensive end, points will come from a variety of players, including senior forward Tejan Lanser and 6-foot junior guard Jonathan Nkonoki, who had a team-high 18 points in the team’s 58-43 win over Bristol Central.
“We are relying on him to do some scoring,” Privott said.
On the defensive end, a team that does not have a conventional big man will have to find ways to make up for it.
“Defense is going to be a big thing for us, our ability to box out,” Privott said. “We are fortunate to have guards who are willing to rebound, who get in there and bang.
“We are going to have to limit teams to one shot and force the opponents’ bigs to run. The advantage of being small is the bigs have to chase you around the court.”
Middletown’s rotation also includes senior forward Stephen Hill Jr. and juniors Kenny Fountain and Tyron Scharborough at guard. Hill, Lanser and Fountain were regulars in last year’s rotation.
Mekhi Toler, a freshman, has been a “pleasant surprise” for this team, scoring in double digits in both games.
“Toler is all about hustle,” Privott said.
Next month, the Blue Dragons should get a boost from 6-2 junior Donte Pope, a transfer from University High School in Hartford. Pope, who Privott said could play all five positions, will not be eligible to play until the team’s Jan. 22 game against Simsbury.
By that time, Middletown will be knee-deep into one of the state’s most demanding schedules, partly because of past success. The Blue Dragons have won the CCC South regularly, and they regained elite status at the state level in Class L, reaching the quarterfinals in 2015, the final in 2016 (a loss to East Catholic) and the semifinals in 2017.
By winning division titles, Middletown’s crossover opponents in the conference are other division champions: East Catholic, No. 3-ranked Windsor, a perennial power and a Division I semifinalist last season; and Simsbury (18-2, No. 1 seed in the 2018 Division II tournament).
Other CCC opponents outside the South include East Hartford (16-4 a year ago), Newington (off to a 4-0 start), Bloomfield and Northwest Catholic.
“Like I told the kids, you have earned the right to play these schools. This is not my doing. You have won the schedule you play by winning,” Privott said.
Against the seven most-accomplished teams on last year’s schedule, Middletown lost to all of them by hefty margins. But it went 11-2 against the rest and made the state tournament.
“The takeaway was we beat teams we were supposed to beat,” Privott said.
Outside of the CCC this winter, Middletown will play two games in Bridgeport in seven days’ time — No. 6 Bassick on Jan. 2 and Central on Jan. 9. Bridgeport Central was a last-minute fill to replace Hillhouse, and E.O. Smith replaced Hamden. Weaver also is on the schedule come late January.
“With E.O. Smith and Bassick, I wanted good matchups,” Privott said. “Weaver is a good matchup for us, too. If you go into the (state) tournament with a weak schedule, chances are you are not going to be there long. I truly want my players to see the pace of tournament-caliber teams.
“Now, all we have to do is get there. It’s going to be tough because we’re so young.”