By Tim Morris The Journal NJ

Although still a work in progress, the Brookdale Community College men’s basketball team is off to a promising start.

“We’re playing pretty good. We’re playing hard,” said Head Coach Paul Cisek. “I’m happy where we’re at. This team has the potential to be pretty good.”

Brookdale won the 2022-23 National Junior College Athletic Association’s Division III national championship last year (the program’s third overall) and is off to a quick 8-0 start in 2023-24. But that is where any resemblance of last winter’s champions ends.

“We lost at lot from last year,” Cisek noted. “We brought in some freshmen who are pretty good.”

Darnell Askew (Curtis High School/Brooklyn) and Manny Bell (Newark/American History) are the returning starters from the 2023 national champions. Kareem Irby (Hillside) and Jayden Cabrera (Mater Dei Prep) saw limited action. Regan Burke (Holy Cross/Manhattan) did not play last season but did practice with the team all year. Together, their experience is providing leadership for the talented incoming freshmen who are so important to this winter’s team.

Along with forwards Aksew and Bell, point guard Irby and guard Burke, forward Savon Myers (Manchester) – one of the talented incoming freshman class members – completes BCC’s starting five.

The Blues have a deep roster, and Cisek has not hesitated to use everyone. Sophomore Adam Kukaj (Tottenville/Staten Island) has been the Blues’ best three-point shooter and plays behind Askew at point guard. Freshman Jack Zink (Middletown/Calvary Christian) is another guard with three-point range off the bench. Phillip Byrd (East Tech/Cleveland, Ohio) adds depth to the front line; the freshman can play both center and forward. Cabrera is another solid forward.

Completing the Blues roster are freshmen guards Bruce Gooding (Long Branch), Nicholas Memoli-Sonera (Brooklyn/Believe Prep) and Latrell Thompson (New Drop/State Island).

The Blues have been hitting on all cylinders, averaging 90 points a game. They have three players scoring in double figures led by Bell (19.6) and Askew (16.9). Myers is averaging 15.1 points per game, and Kukaj is at 9.6 ppg.

The starters have gotten plenty of support from the bench and the team’s overall unselfish play.

“This team passes well,” Cisek noted. “We’re getting out on the break. We’re a very good running team. [The three-point shot] is a concern for us. We don’t’ shoot it as well as last year.”

The Blues have made up for that in an area where they are better than last year, Cisek remarked: rebounding. They are out-rebounding teams by an averaged of 12 a game. This effort is led by Myers (11.6) and Askew (8.4).

“We’re hitting the glass,” said Cisek, adding that the Blues are also a bigger team than ’23 with Askew and Myers both 6-foot-6, and Bell and Byrd 6-foot-5. Brookdale’s prowess on the glass has had a big impact on the offensive end. “We’re getting high percentage put-backs and fastbreak layups.”

Brookdale’s defense has been equally efficient. Teams are scoring just 69 points a game and shooting under 40 percent from the field.

A man-to-man disciple, Cisek has been employing more zone this year. That’s because the Blues used a 2/3 effectively in the national championship title game, a 90-82 win over Sandhills Community College. Brookdale switches from 2/3 to 3/2 zone defenses, mixed with man-to-man. The bad new for opponents going forward, Cisek expects the defense to get even better when the freshmen become more comfortable with all the switching.

The Blues are getting every team’s best shot as a defending national champion and have answered the call by playing hard every night. That will help this team learn what its ceiling is.

Photos by Tom Smith, Brookdale Athletics – Brookdale Community College’s Manny Bell (#13) is leading the undefeated Blues in scoring this season.