The stereotypical image of great high school basketball is either the dusty plains or the big, gritty inner city. Thanks to Hoosiers and Hoop Dreams, it's tough to fault this misconception. In reality, the best basketball in the country is being played in New Jersey. Many coaches and followers of the sport would argue this has been true for the past ten years. Still, the recent dominance of Garden State ballers in the college ranks emphasizes this point dramatically.
The current USA today top 25 ranking has four New Jersey teams in it, three in the top 10. This would be impressive for California or Texas but for a state one-fourth the size of those two, it's ridiculous. All four ranked squads are from small parochial schools within 15 miles of each other. Three of them, Paterson Catholic (#6), St. Patricks (#8) and St. Anthony's (#19) are in dire shape financially and in danger of closing every year. Still, they along with St. Benedicts (#5) are annually one of the best teams in the country. The depth of basketball talent in Jersey was never more evident than this past Saturday. One of the states middle of the pack teams, St. Peters Prep, took down Oak Hill Academy, a Virginia prep school widely regarded as the best basketball school in the country.
If you've watched college basketball, this year you've likely seen a product of the ultra-competitive state. Likely All-Americans Desean Butler (West Virginia) and Ashton Gibbs (Pittsburgh) hail from the Garden state. Tyshawn Taylor (Kansas), Corey Fisher and Corey Stokes (Villanova) Lance Thomas (Duke), Mike Rosario (Rutgers) and Dexter Strickland (UNC) are some of the other marquee Jersey players at the collegiate level. If you created a tournament where players suited up for their home state, there wouldn't be a team in the country who could match up with this talent and depth.
The reasoning behind this dominance is simple: talent and supreme toughness. Bob Hurley the famed coach of St. Anthony's agrees with this sentiment. " These are hard-nosed kids. When they match up with all these similar teams in the area, it makes them that much better. " Hurley, who coaches in rough and tumble Jersey City, at a school with less then 200 students and no money to speak of, is not one to make excuses. " This is such a dense population and the coaching is so good, that everyone is in the same position as us." Oak Hill coach Steve Smith likes playing in New Jersey for this very reason. " These players and teams are tough. We come to play here because we always know we're going to get a good fight."
Even with all the great players coming from New Jersey, the two major state schools, Rutgers and Seton Hall continue to struggle. If they could just keep most of the top players in state, they would be significantly improved.
The best high school basketball spot in the country changes frequently. At one point it was Chicago, and New York and Indiana have both held the title. That New Jersey, a state known best for its diners and a fictitious mobster, now holds the crown is almost inconceivable.
Follow Thomas Alter on Twitter: www.twitter.com/MrTalter