KINGSTON – Just what exactly can North Smithfield’s princes of the hardwood expect at URI’s Ryan Center on Friday?
Upon some discussion with two area Division I boys’ basketball head coaches whose teams squared off against Classical this winter, the general consensus is that if North Smithfield so much as sneezes the wrong way, T.J. Ciolfi’s crew could end up trapped in a spider web with little or no chance of escape.
The top-seeded Purple may as well be Rhode Island’s version of “40 Minutes of Hell” – a stop-dead-in-one’s-tracks slogan made popular by longtime Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson, where ball-hawking defense and fast-paced offense are the calling cards. With all due respect to the other semifinal matchup in Hope-North Kingstown, Classical is hands down the most dynamic and explosive team North Smithfield has or will potentially run up against during this open state championship.
Not too many high school teams around here can insert three proven scorers on the floor at the same time, but Classical can stake such a claim. In tri-captains Kealen Ives, Ismael Batista and Terrill Toe, head coach John Kavanagh doesn’t have to fret about point production. The Purple’s version of the Big Three is a scoring machine where all of them can pop for 20 or more points on a given night, a scary proposition that St. Raphael head coach Tom “Saar” Sorrentine and East Providence’s Alex Butler are all too familiar with.
Sorrentine could only watch on Jan. 9 as Ives, Batista and Terrill combined for 50 points in a 59-41 romp over SRA. It should be noted that the Saints played the Purple minus senior playmaker Charles Correa, who was still working his way back from a broken bone in his right hand.
Sorrentine was also reminded of Classical pinning a 69-61 defeat on St. Raphael in the 2012 state playoffs. Batista torched the twines for 26 points with Ives (20 points) and Terrill (10 points) proving tough covers as well.
“Any time a team has three guys who can score, you can pretty much win,” stated Sorrentine matter-of-factly. “They are tough to defend.”
East Providence faced Classical twice during the regular season. In the Jan. 29 meeting, Butler remembers the Purple pulling away late to secure a 55-43 triumph. The rematch on Feb. 13 featured Toe going on a scoring spree – 27 points on six 3-pointers – while Batista and Ives each added 18 points. The Townies couldn’t match fire with fire in a 72-55 loss.
“People talk about Classical in the half-court, but you can’t let them get in transition,” said Butler, the voice of experience clearly apparent in his tone. “If you allow those guys to get up and down the floor and run free, it’s going to be a long, long night.”
Ives leads Classical’s high-octane attack with a 22 points-per-game average with Toe (19.8) and Batista (18.5) not that far behind. Ives and Toe are the long-range marksmen with 135 treys between them while all three are fully capable of putting the ball on the floor and penetrating.
“Batista is tough on the baseline; he’s murder down there,” Sorrentine said. “They look to drive when they can. If not, they’ll shoot the three.
“They’re athletic kids and hard to corral.”
So much in fact that Sorrentine mentioned the Northmen can ill afford to lose sight of the Purple’s Big Three once the ball heads toward the rim. “Those guys do rebound. They’re hard to find when the shot goes up. They follow their shot.”
While Classical’s scoring averages fall off considerably after the primary options, it should be noted that big men Tom McKiernan and Oscar Morales serve a pretty important purpose.
“They set screens and then roll and they set another screen and roll again,” said Sorrentine. “If there’s a double, (a member of Classical’s prolific three-pronged unit) will give it up to them.”
Added Butler, “Don’t think for a second that (McKiernan and Morales) know that not a lot of people give them credit for the dirty work they do. Those kids do a nice job playing off the screen-and-role and will finish around the rim.”
Is there a way to knock Classical – a team that averaged exactly 70 ppg in the regular season and 62.6 in five playoff encounters – off its axis? One thing is certain – the matchup zone that is North Smithfield’s defensive bread and butter will be put to the test.
“You’ve got to blitz and make them work coming off those ball screens and force the ball out of their hands so that other guys become ball-handlers,” was the remedy Butler offered.
There have been 15 occasions this season where Classical has permitted 60 or fewer points. Such a lengthy list of stinginess suggests that the Purple’s reign extends to the other side of the floor, yet Sorrentine did detect a flaw that North Smithfield will undoubtedly do its best to exploit.
“They’ll probably play man-to-man; they’re quick and get right up on you,” said the veteran mentor, “but you can get some backdoor stuff.”
At this point, finding out about a chink in mighty Classical’s armor has to provide North Smithfield with the belief that despite being underdogs, the Northmen have more than a puncher’s chance against Goliath.