Longtime St. Anthony coach Bob Hurley won his 1,000th game earlier this season. (Associated Press)
St. Patrick and St. Anthony, ranked first and second in most national polls, still have to win several games in the New Jersey state tournament before the 'Brawl for it All' occurs.
In case you hadn't heard, two small Catholic high schools separated by 14 miles in North Jersey are hurtling toward a collision in the mythical basketball national championship game March 9 at Rutgers. The state's largest newspaper even reported that The Prudential Center, which houses the NBA's New Jersey Nets and the NHL's New Jersey Devils, is interested in hosting the game to accommodate more fans.
But there's just one problem.
St. Patrick and St. Anthony, ranked first and second in most national polls, still have to win several games in the New Jersey state tournament before the "Brawl for it All" occurs.
"Wait a second," said Gill St. Bernard's coach Mergin Sina, whose team is seeded No. 5 and could play St. Patrick in the North Non-Public B semifinals. "I know it's a long shot to beat one of those two teams ... But it's a little unfair.
"Everybody's hyping this up to a point where no one else has a shot. Then why are we playing the tournament?"
Realistically speaking, do any of the other 13 teams in the bracket have a chance at upsetting St. Patrick and St. Anthony? The schools are a combined 46-0, feature more than a dozen Division 1 recruits and showcase potential future NBA players in Kentucky-bound Michael Gilchrist of St. Pat's and uncommitted junior point guard Kyle Anderson of St. Anthony.
But don't tell that to Sina, whose team lost to St. Anthony, 62-50, in December at The Hoop Group Tip-Off at Seton Hall.
"I just think it takes a team that's going to be disciplined and battle-tested," said Sina, whose team is 23-2 and features the coach's son, Alabama-bound sophomore point guard Jaren Sina. "Look, I don't know if anybody has followed our season as much and knows what our boys have done this season. I mean, we've played a very strong schedule. And we've found ways to win and we never back down to anybody.
"It's going to have to be a situation where, obviously it's going to have to be the perfect storm. You're going have to get deep into the fourth quarter, try to keep it close. And then listen, when you get to the fourth quarter, anything goes."
Sina said the whole situation with everyone already talking about a St. Patrick-St. Anthony showdown was "unfair" and "dangerous" to those involved.
"What ends up happening, there's so much hype about this game that what if something happens?" Sina said. "What if there's this chance to beat one of them? Is everything going to fold? I mean, are people going to get pressured? I would never say refs, but you've got to remember, that's a lot of pressure to put on people when money's involved and all this hype is involved.
"It's a dangerous thing to do."
Another team involved is Hudson Catholic, which is led by second-year coach Nick Mariniello, who has won more than 200 career games in his career at Bloomfield Tech and Hudson Catholic.
Asked if he was insulted by all the St. Pat's-St. Anthony chatter, Mariniello said, "I'm not insulted, I'm motivated. I want to get to where they're at."
Hudson Catholic, which features talented sophomores Reggie Cameron and Kavon Stewart, is the No. 7 seed and would potentially face St. Anthony in the second round Friday.
"It's actually helping us a little bit," the 6-foot-7 Cameron said of all the St. Anthony-St. Pat's talk.
"Everyone's kind of counting us out so it's going to motivate us to play hard and try to go out there and win."
Added Mariniello: "We're 21-5 and I'm starting four sophomores and a junior. I think playing in these types of games prepares you to play at the highest level, and to play against the best programs in the state is a process."
Still, both Sina and Mariniello said as fans, they would like to see St. Pat's and St. Anthony face off, assuming their teams are out. The two programs have combined to win 15 New Jersey Tournament of Champions titles since the event was launched in 1989.
"Absolutely," Mariniello said. "I mean you want to see the best game possible with the best players possible. They have cumulatively the best players in the state. And you have a huge rivalry. You have a Hall of Fame coach [Bob Hurley] who's got over 1,000 wins against a guy [Kevin Boyle] who's one of the best coaches in the country, too."
Sina agreed, but with a caveat.
"You do have the top two most talented teams playing against each other," he said of a potential matchup. "They're 1-2 in the state, 1-2 in the country. Obviously, that will determine the national championship. Obviously, it will be a great game to watch.
"I just think that people put too much focus on that. It puts everybody else in a really bad situation."