It’s that time of year again. The the Boston City League’s elite are gearing up to battle for bragging rights. This year’s semifinalists are all Top 20 teams: No. 5 East Boston , No. 6 Madison Park, No. 10 New Mission, and No. 15 Brighton. Brighton and Madison Park are set to tip off the tournament Thursday at 4 p.m. at Madison Park High School in Roxbury.
The Bengals (16-3) won the South Division and led the City League in scoring at 70.9 points per game, but recently lost leading scorer Nick Anderson (academics) and will play with a less-than-100-percent Malik Jones (sprained ankle) at point guard.
Brighton, which when healthy is arguably the best team in the league, is on its first two-game losing streak of the season, with losses to No. 4 Acton-Boxboro and West Roxbury. A lot will be riding on the health of Jones, who coach Huge Coleman says is at about 80 percent.
“We haven’t had Malik practice on [the ankle] at all yet,“ said Coleman. “But he’s been icing it every night. The plan is to try him out in practice on Tuesday and see where he’s at.’’
Jones, a sophomore, has averaged 13 points and nine assists a game.
On the receiving end of many of the point guard’s passes has been Daivon Edwards. The junior has been Brighton’s greatest threat from behind the arc, and if he gets hot the Cardinals could have their hands full.
Coleman’s chief concern is neutralizing Madison Park’s presence down low.
“The key for us is going to be our ability to take away their inside presence,“ he said. “We already play a zone, so we’ll just try to make a conscious effort to really pack it in and battle for those boards.“
Both Jerard Mayes (10 rebounds per game) and 6-foot-5-inch, 250-pound reserve center Tre Dowman (seven rpg) will have to come up big on the boards.
The Bengals dispatched of the New Mission twice this season after losing their previous five matchups with the Titans. The wins were eye-opening to Coleman, who said the team has readjusted its goals to include a long run in the state tournament.
“This year when we won at New Mission we were like, ‘Wow we’re finally at the peak of the mountain,’ ’’ said Coleman. “But now that we are up there and can see, what we’ve found out is that the mountain is a lot taller than we thought.“
Madison Park (15-2) finished second in the North and led the division in scoring, averaging 68.9 points per game. The Cardinals have the added advantage of playing on their home court, where they’ve gone 7-1.
Madison Park is entering the tournament on a three-game winning streak, including a win against Charlestown last Tuesday that propelled the Cardinals into the City League tournament and featured a 32-point, 15 rebound outburst by David Stewart.
The second semifinal tips off at 5:30 and features last year’s runner up, East Boston, and reigning back-to-back state champion (Division 4 and Division 2) New Mission.
The Jets (14-4) won the North and boast the league’s best defense, holding opponents to 52.6 points per game and 36-percent shooting from the field. East Boston is riding a five-game winning streak and hungry for redemption after falling, 63-56, to the Townies in last season’s City championship.
6-5 senior forward Quandell Bush has found his offense as of late, and is coming off a 17-point, nine-assist game against Weymouth.
“[Bush is] too unselfish,“ said East Boston coach Malcolm Smith. “When he wants to be he’s a pure Division 1 talent, he’s a five-tool player and can really do it all.
“I had to sit him down earlier this season until he agreed to be more selfish. I’ve told him that I don’t even care if he has to force them, but I want him taking 11 to 13 shots a game. The more selfish [Bush] is, the better we do as a team.”
The Jets, who last won the City title in 2008, will be without forward Ian Jones (ankle). Jones had been averaging 15 points over the past five games.
6-4 power forward Will March has led the Jets with 15 points per game, while forward Kenny Ramos has averaged 12.
Since being inserted into the starting lineup eight games ago, Elgino Jean has excelled at the point guard, averaging seven assists a game.
“Jean has been running the point really well,“ said Smith. “He’s just really strong and physical. He’s a true pass-first point guard and we’ve taken off since putting him in the starting lineup.’’
Even with all his talent, Smith isn’t too focused on the City title, preferring to keep his team’s mind on performing well in the state tourney.
“We look at this as a fun tournament and a kind of celebration for all our hard work,“ he said. “Our sights are set a bit higher than the City title.
“A lot of these kids put a lot of emphasis on the City and forget about the larger picture,“ continued Smith. “I think our loss in last year’s city finals to Charlestown really hurt our momentum entering the tournament.“
Smith wasn’t thrilled to catch New Mission in the first game of the playoffs.
“They could be the worst possible matchup for us,“ he said. “New Mission has incredible size and length and that tends to give us a lot of problems. [New Mission coach] Cory [McCarthy] is a great X’s and O’s guy and you know he’ll be able to make some in-game adjustments and keep this game close.“
New Mission (12-4) finished second in the South, with its only two league losses coming to Brighton.
The Titans also enter on a three-game win streak, but it is unclear if freshman point guard Greg Bridges will play, as he is yet to fulfill an academic requirement.
“I’d put the chances he plays around 50-50,” McCarthy. “I can tell you this - if he does play, he’ll be a game changer.”
McCarthy said he’s very familiar with East Boston and talks with Smith several times a day.
“I just know you have to take it to the Jets early,” said McCarthy. “If you don’t and show any kind of weakness, they’ll run all over you.”
New Mission has had no trouble scoring this season, with five players averaging in double digits including LeRoy Hamilton (16), Shaquan Murray (12), and Isshiah Coleman (12) .
Coleman, who stands 6-4 and has a 38-inch vertical, has been the heart of the Titan defense this season, averaging eight blocks and 16 rebounds a game.
“It’s funny,” McCarthy joked, “I think we are where [Eastie would] like to be on offense, but [Eastie] where we’d like to be on defense.
“I can’t see this being anything but a close game,” said McCarthy. “Coach Smith and I know each other too well and we each want it badly.”
The two winning teams will battle it out for the City title Friday at 6:30 at Madison Park.
Games to Watch
Besides the City League Tournament, here are two other games to keep an eye on:
IAABO Board 130 Classic Championship at Central Catholic, Sunday, 7:15 – The game will feature the winners of Sunday’s matchups between No. 18 Westford Academy vs. St. John’s Prep and Lynn English vs. No. 3 Central Catholic. If you haven’t seen English’s star forward Keandre Stanton play yet, he alone might be worth the trip to Lawrence.
No. 6 Catholic Memorial at No. 12 Franklin, Thursday, 6:30 – This game pits the Catholic Conference champs (Catholic Memorial) against the Hockomock League champs (Franklin). After opening the season 0-3, the Panthers have gone 14-1 to close out.