Despite Plenty of Turnover, Trojans Looking to Win 1st GMCT Title Since ‘92
Sophomore Jaquan Harris, shown here following through on a jumper in warm-ups prior to the second half of St. Thomas Aquinas’ game against St. Peter’s Prep in the Celtics Fall League on October 27, 2019 in Elizabeth, is one of a number of new additions that have made the Trojans not only a strong contender in the GMC, but also a team to reckon with come state tourney time.
NORTH EDISON, NJ—It has been almost 30 years since St. Thomas Aquinas, formerly known as Bishop Ahr, won a Greater Middlesex Conference Tournament in Boys Basketball. It has nearly been a decade since the Trojans reached the GMCT Final Four.
And, although, there has been a lot of turnover at the parochial school in North Edison this off-season, it still looks to reach the summit of GMC boys basketball as well as Non-Public A South come February and March of 2020. With high caliber talent such as Quadry Adams (Wake Forest) and Derrick Grant (Southern New Hampshire) returning along with reserves such as Jalen Jones, Samar Abdullah, and Derrick Golden were still a solid favorite to win the GMC Blue.
However, when you add the likes of transfers such as Jaquan Harris from Patrick School, Kyree Henry from Woodbridge, Tristian Jeffries from Gill St. Bernards, Mehki Johnson from St. Benedict’s and Jonathan Wyatt from Central Jersey College Prep, the Trojans go from a big fish in a small pond, to a great white shark hunting for not only a Greater Middlesex Conference title, but also a sectional championship after not winning a state tourney game for 38 years.
Returning Starters Adams and Grant Provide Solid Foundation
Adams and Grant are two key pillars from last year’s squad. Adams, who was selected as 2019 GMC Hoops Junior of the Year, is entering his third year at Aquinas. A year ago, Adams averaged 15.3 points, 4.3 rebounds, 3.0 assists, and 2.3 steals per game, and will be looking to build on that campaign. He is a slasher, who loves to play in the open court, and attack the basket. Meanwhile, Grant, who transferred in from Piscataway prior to last season, is a human pogo stick with tremendous vertical leaping ability. Grant averaged a double-double of 10.7 points and 10.1 rebounds per game while also averaging 1.4 blocks and an assist per contest as well.
New Additions Bolster Trojans to GMC and State Elite
Harris, who has already received offers from D1 schools such as Rutgers and Auburn even though he is only a sophomore, came in from Patrick School during the summer, and played with Aquinas at the Hamilton Park Summer League in Jersey City, and the Celtics Fall League in Elizabeth as well as the Northeast Fall Invitational and the NJ Top 20 Pre-Season Invitational at Roselle Catholic in October and November. Every time out on the court he looked better than before.
Henry, the GMC Hoops Sophomore of the Year in 2019, and Harris will provide some much needed perimeter scoring to a squad that struggled from the outside at times during the season. Henry, the younger brother of Keshaun Henry (Wesley College), a four year starter in basketball and a standout football player as well at Woodbridge, had played varsity at Woodbridge each of his first two years, was a key contributor for the Barrons with an average of 17.2 ppg in 2018-19. He was also part of a trio of players that included Elijah Lane and Daniel Boateng, who had played together for the Fords Bearcats in Middle School.
Over the summer, Johnson arrived from St. Benedict’s, where he played as a freshman for former St. Joe’s and Ridge head coach, Mark Taylor a year ago. He is raw and has good strength. Seeing him at the Celtics Fall League a couple of times, Johnson looked like a football player in terms of his body. He had limited playing time in a loss to St. Peter’s Prep on October 27th. Another new addition is Jeffries, a prominent wing, who came in from Gill after playing in 8 games for the Knights late last season, and averaged 11.3 points, 4.9 rebounds, 2.0 assists, and 1.3 steals per game.
Jeffries, a 6’5” junior forward, has received several college offers from Bryant, Columbia, and Stony Brook, and also played in the 2019 Celtics Fall League All-Star Game along with Adams and Harris. Wyatt is the younger brother of former St. Joe’s football standout, Nate Wyatt (now at Temple), who played basketball as a freshman for the Falcons Green team, which defeated top seeded Edison at the buzzer in the 2016 Perth Amboy/GMC Freshmen Tourney Championship. The younger Wyatt played in 22 games for Central Jersey College Prep, and averaged 12.5 points per game. He helped defeat Wardlaw in the consolation game of the 2018 Hopatcong Holiday Tourney with 21 points.
Returning Reserves Jones, Abdullah, and Golden Look to Improve
Jalen Jones and Samar Abdullah return for Aquinas and are looking to make bigger contributions this season. Abdullah played with the Trojans at Hamilton Park Summer League and the Celtics Fall League. Only a sophomore, Abdullah is coming off a freshman campaign where he played in 21 games, and scored 64 points on 14 threes, 14 made free throws, and four field goals for an average of just over 3 points per game. Jones, who played in all 28 games for the Trojans a year ago, scored 189 points on 52 field goals, 12 threes, and 48 foul shots, has come back this year even in better shape.
Jones, who can also provide some perimeter scoring punch, lost 30 pounds over the summer while playing with Team Rio under Mike Rice. He has also generated some college interest as well. Derrick Golden was a standout on a St. Thomas Aquinas JV team that earned the top seed in the 2019 East Brunswick/GMC JV Tourney a year ago, but lost to Colonia in the semifinals, has a lot of promise with a good deal of athletic ability and some scoring touch around the basket. The Trojans also have another transfer from North Plainfield, named Jared Gardner.
Gardner, now a junior, showed some promise a sophomore for the Canucks, which struggled a year ago. In eight games where stats were provided to NJ.com, Gardner scored 70 points on 23 field goals, 4 threes, and 12 made free throws for an average of 8.8 points per game. He played particularly well early on in a 55-40 loss to Hackettstown at the Coaches vs. Cancer Shootout held at Montgomery High School on January 12th. Unfortunately, Gardner will not be able to play since he had season ending knee surgery according to MyCentralJersey.com. The Trojans are trying to make history after going through several seasons of improvement under three different coaches.
Chemistry and Adaptability Will Be Key
Last year was the first time, St. Thomas Aquinas (21-7) won 20 or more games since the historic 1991-92 team led by the likes of Anthony Rosa, Greg Fowler, Darren Nicholas, and Gerard Wilson. The Trojans also won a state tourney game for the first time since 1981 when it defeated Donovan Catholic of Toms River in the opening round of the NJSIAA Non-Public A South State Tournament. However, despite being ranked No. 1 in Middlesex County by NJ.com in February last season, the 4th seeded Trojans ended up falling in the quarterfinals for the second year in a row with a 62-55 loss to 5th seeded and eventual finalist, Piscataway (62-55).
This year’s team roster is much different than a year ago. The 2018-19 Trojans also had plenty of turnover going into the season a year ago including the addition of talented forward Zayon Marsh from Roselle Catholic at mid-season. After playing with Aquinas during the summer at Hamilton Park, Marsh transferred to Immaculate Conception in Montclair while others like Omari Fleming (North Brunswick), Hassan Jackson (Marist of Bayonne), Ernest Carter (Rahway), Saivon Pressley (Wardlaw-Hartridge), Danny Golaszewski (Sayreville), Terrell Henderson (Union Catholic), Ethan Simmon (St. Joe’s), and Austin Squeri (Union Catholic) have all moved on to other schools this past off-season. These departures were in addition to the graduations of Marquise Billingsley (Middlesex County College), Ryan Pittari, and Kobe Walker.
With all of these additions and subtractions, the key will be how long it will take for the team to gel into the strong favorite it is projected to be. Recently, NJ Hoops came out with its pre-season rankings, and placed St. Thomas Aquinas, 9th in its Top 50, which is the highest ranking ever for the Trojans. There is plenty of talent and potential, but getting all of it to come together and live up to all of the hype and expectation will be the challenge. The Trojans will also need to adapt to playing the half court style that many of the GMC teams will likely try to deploy in order to slow them down.
Winning the GMC Blue won’t be a problem for these Trojans, and continuing to build on last year’s opening round state tournament win is very possible, but anything less than a birth in the GMCT Championship for the first time in 27 years will be a surprise in the least.