In an interview with East Brunswick's highly-successful coach Bo Henning on Friday afternoon, the first question I asked was 'Why has this team been so successful this season?'
His answer caught me off guard:
"The reason we're so successful right now is because Amir Bell and Rob Ukawuba decided not to listen their AAU friends and to these local non-public schools who planted the seed in their head to go and play for an All-Star Team somewhere,'' said
Henning, whose team is 14-0 and ranked No. 3 in The Star-Ledger Top 20 poll. "If we didn't have Amir and Rob, we would not be in the position we're in now.''
Henning felt a need to get this off his chest, noting that non-public schools were calling Bell while he was an eighth-grader, while Ukawuba was being pressured to go elsewhere just this past year by his AAU friends. Bell is a junior committed to Princeton, Ukawuba is a senior headed to NJIT.
"It's just not a level playing field,'' said Henning. "It starts with the AAU people feeding the kids all this information strictly for basketball advantage. It's all about playing for an All-Star team.''
The problem, according to Henning, is the athletic advantage issue.
A non-public school can entice a kid to attend their school through literature, phone calls, open houses, etc., as long the premise is academics. That is all legal.
"If someone calls a kid and says 'We think our school would be a good fit for you
because of our academic standards and the opportunities you would have for college. And by the way, our basketball team is pretty good too and you would be a welcome addition.' That is all legal. But if a school calls and says 'We want you to come here and play for our basketball team because you could make us great and we can get you a scholarship ...' You can't do that.
"But let's not be naive to what is really going on. It's been going on for years and it's getting worse. If non-public schools want to enhance enrollment through academics first and that's the best thing for a kid and his family, that's great. But if it's all for basketball, then it's wrong.
"I'm just greatful East Brunswick has a high academic standard and kids like Rob and Amir can get the best of both worlds.''
Henning added, "I think the Plainfield story the past two years was a great one because Jeff (Lubreski) was able to keep all the kids from Plainfield and was able to compete with the St. Anthony's.
"But I also think of North Brunswick. If all the kids in that town played at North Brunswick, they would be unstoppable.''
EB SHOCKS THE WORLD
On the opening night of the high school basketball season when nobody in the world ever expected East Brunswick to beat mighty St. Joseph of Metuchen in Metuchen, Henning knew something different.
"During the warm-ups, a friend of mine said to me while watching St. Joseph, 'How you would like to coach that all-star team?' I just winked at him and said 'I think we're gonna win.' ''
Sure enough, EB 58, St. Joseph 54.
"I thought we could win for a lot of reasons,'' said Henning. "We lost to them in two hard-fought games a year ago. I knew we had improved a whole lot since last year and I thought we closed the gap. And I thought it would take some time for the new kids
to mesh at St. Joseph's, while our chemistry was already there from the summer and fall.''
But one month later, in East Brunswick before a gym sold out for hours, it happened again: East Brunswick 52, St. Joseph's 45.
"Our first week was tough with St. Joe's and South Brunswick both away,'' said Henning. "But what that did was give us so much momentum and so much confidence, it carried over. I'm actually not shocked to be 14-0 because I thought we had a chance.
"With this team, I saw it in the offseason. We won the Linden League which had a lot of great teams and all I had to do come winter was not mess it up.''
14-0 MARK IN JEOPARDY?
East Brunswick's 14-0 mark could be in jeopardy because the team's next two games will be at the Hun School on Saturday and at national power St. Anthony of Jersey City, owner of a 79 game winning streak, on Tuesday. Hun, a school with post graduates is 12-4.
"One of our main goals this year is to get the top seed for the Central Jersey, Group 4 Tournament,'' said Henning. "There's a lot of power points involved playing those two games, so that's one of the reasons we scheduled them. Plus, it will just help us down the road.''
With the exception of a four-point win over St. Joe's and a seven-point
decision, East Brunswick hasn't had a game decided by few than 19 points.
East Brunswick is beating its opponents by a whopping 32 points per game, which includes victories over winning programs such as South Brunswick twice, Old Bridge, North Brunswick, Montgomery, Bridgewater and Roselle.
East Brunswick is a well-balanced club which can run or play half-court and a team which can shoot shoot the ball as evidenced by its 100 3-pointers. The Bears also play solid team defense, using their superior length to their advantage
Ukawuba , a 6-3 forward who possesses power going to and around the basket, is averaging 16.4 points and 7.2 boards per game. Junior guard Gary Baumer is averaging 12.0 points per game and he can fill up the basket in a hurry. The left-handed marksman has 44 3's.
Jake Krantz, a 6-5 senior averaging 8.3 points per game, is an athletic center who is not afraid to mix it up, while senior guard Dan Leung is an x-factor guard averaging 11.2 points per game and is always there for the key rebound, steal, assist or 3-pointer.
Bell, meanwhile, is the choreographer. The long, 6-4 point guard averages 7.5 points and 7.0 assists, but his value comes more in the form of leadership and natural court awareness which leads to great decision-making.
Carl Taylor, Pat McMullen, Ethan Folz, Alex Fitzfgerald and Alex Johnson have been contributors off the bench, while 6-2 senior center Adedamola Adedokun has been
coming on strong. His play in the second St. Joe's game was a key factor when Krantz had to sit with fouls.
"Another main reason for our success is chemistry,'' said Henning. "This team does everything together, they love being around each other in practice and they have so much fun playing together.''
In fact, the 59-year-old Henning is having as much fun as he's ever had in this his 25th season as the Bears' head man.
"Coaching my two sons, Jason and Bobby, for six years was a whole lot of fun, a great experience,'' said Henning, 377-233 at EB. "But coaching this group is right up there, I haven't laughed this much in years. I don't know how long I'll keep doing this, but we have a great group of kids with a lot of energy in the program who have probably added a few more years to the job.''
Any thoughts of St. Joe's-East Brunswick Round 3, which could very well take place in the GMCT final?
"None at all,'' said Henning. "I'm sure the kids talk about possibly playing St. Joe's again, but our goals are to get the No. 1 seed in the tournaments, then let it hang out.''