When the second of two Slam Dunk brackets tips on Friday, Stepinac will find itself at a clear size disadvantage against Mahopac, New Rochelle and St. Mary’s, all of which have guards the size of Stepinac’s biggest forwards. But what the Crusaders feature, en masse, are talented guards. They have crafted a style to highlight their strengths rather than try to mask any weaknesses. It has worked; they are 7-1 in one of the best Catholic high school leagues in the country.
Here’s a look at how and why it has worked:
When the summer and fall league games were behind them and Stepinac coach Tim Philp began to evaluate his roster, he saw a simple case of supply and demand. Sure, the team lacked size and depth at forward — a deficiency he planned to counter with talented guards.
A lot of them.
“That’s what we have,” Philp said. “Our average height is probably 6-foot or 5-11.”
So far, the diminutive Crusaders have proved guard play rules modern high school basketball. Their speed has spurred them to a 7-1 record heading into this week’s Slam Dunk Tournament, which begins Wednesday morning and features four days of boys and girls basketball at the Westchester County Center.
Stepinac tips its half of the boys’ draw at 5 p.m. Friday against Mahopac, a bigger, more rugged opponent that features senior Brendan Hynes, a swingman who stands as tall as any Crusader. Win or lose, Stepinac would then face either New Rochelle and its core of football state champions — led by 6-foot-3, 210-pound Joe Clarke — or St. Mary’s of Manhasset and its 6-foot-9 sophomore, Jessie Govan.
But a team that essentially trots out four guards at all times won’t cower at the sight of giants.
“We can be successful playing this way. Most people on our team come from AAU games where it’s always up-and-down,” junior Naim Thomas said. “We’re just used to the style of play and the fast tempo. I feel we actually have an advantage.”
The Crusaders attempt to gain that advantage by applying pressure — with the ball or without it. Knowing they’re not likely to do better than break even on the glass, Philp has instilled a need to force turnovers, preventing second chances by making sure there are fewer of the first.
“We’re just going to keep playing our game,” Philp said. “Teams might outrebound us, but if we can get more shots up and try and wear teams down, that’s what we have to do.”
Thomas’ return in last Friday night’s win at Iona Prep made that goal even more realistic.
The third-year player missed the first seven games with a stress fracture in his ankle. Without him, junior guards Walter King (pictured, left) and Boz Bernstein played big minutes in their debuts. Their efforts have been supported of late by sophomore Demarcus Miller, who averaged 20 points coming off the bench in his last three games.
Of course, Josh James (pictured, center) remains Stepinac’s steadiest hand. The Monmouth-bound senior has shifted from the point to more of a scorer’s role in his third season as a starter. Fellow returning senior James Decker — once primarily an outside shooter — has slid inside to support the team’s lone big man, Andrew Murray.
None of the seniors — or anyone else on the roster, for that matter — is listed as taller than 6-foot-3. So far, what at first glance would appear to be a detriment has become a clear strength.
“When we’re in transition, we’re pushing it and we’re running — it’s really hard to stop us,” James said. “We have a lot of speed. We run a lot in practice, so it pays off. When the fourth quarter comes, we still have to be a fast team, and we are.”