By Mike Ready, Middletown Patch – Community Contributor
Brookdale Community College men’s basketball – the NJCAA DIII defending National Champions – are undefeated at 11-0, ranked No.1 in the country and making quick work of anyone in their path.
Every one of Brookdale’s 11 wins have come by double digits with a number of games over by halftime. They currently hold a 23.3-point differential in those 11 games and as crazy as it sounds, the games haven’t been as close as the score would indicate.
“This team’s pretty good,” said long-time Brookdale head coach Paul Cisek. “We got some real good players back, which is a key factor. And we filled it in with some freshman that are just starting to kind of figure it out and that’s been a big plus.
“Our starting five is pretty solid and the freshman are coming off the bench and they’re gradually starting to learn and understand what we’re trying to do.”
Cisek is just throwing up smoke screens and being guarded when he says his team is just “pretty good.” This team is really good, and it hasn’t come close to hitting its stride just yet 11 games into the season.
The players are still just getting acclimated to each other and learning the system and when they do, they’ll be even more formidable.
And beginning in January, if things go as planned, Brookdale will add even more talent to this already ultra talented group when they welcome back star sophomore forward Nick Williams, who sat out the fall semester.
If Williams gets green-lighted to return in January as expected, Brookdale then becomes the odds-on favorite to defend its NJCAA Region XIX title with a shot at being the first team in Brookdale men’s basketball history to repeat as national champions.
The Jersey Blues have won three NJCAA DIII National Championships in the past 10 years, 2013, 2018 and 2023.
Williams was a NJCAA All-Region XIX second team selection last season when he averaged 16.2 points, 7.3 rebounds and 1.6 assists per game while helping Brookdale win 30 games and a national championship.
“Nick can shoot it, he has a division one jump shot,” said Cisek. “He can get to the basket and he plays shut-down defense. When you talk about a vocal leader, he’s the guy. He’s right now the vocal leader in practice because he gets after people. He plays on the practice squad against the starting five and he beats them up.”
With any winning program you begin with talent, but team chemistry is essential for a program to reach its full potential. With only three players off last season’s team back this season, including just one starter, Cisek likes what he sees so far, as far team chemistry goes, on and off the court.
“What I’ve started to see is that they all like each other and that’s always a big deal,” said Cisek. “It takes a while for the freshmen to adapt and get involved with the returning sophomores and that has happened pretty quickly. There are a couple guys who are the jokers of the group and that kind of bonds everybody and the freshmen now have accepted it and understand who the alpha dogs are.”
Sophomore forward/center Darnell Askew, who averaged 14 points and nine rebounds last season and was the MVP of the NJCAA Region XIX championship game, is the lone returning starter from a year ago and he feels the team is beginning to jell on and off the court.
“It’s going good, we’re coming together as a team as the season goes on really strong,” said Askew. “We’re just trying to get better every day. We all hang out on and off the court, so the team chemistry is getting stronger and stronger. I don’t really talk much, but when it comes down to it and I have to put my voice into it I will. I try to lead everybody in the right direction so we can all come together as one.”
Askew, who Cisek refers to as his “silent leader,” is off to a torrid start this season after his freshman breakout campaign. The 6-foot-6 forward is averaging 16.8 points, 10.2 rebounds (4.2 offensive boards), 1.4 assists and 2.3 blocks per game and is a force at both ends of the floor.
“Yes, absolutely,” said Askew when asked he if feels this year’s team has what it takes to repeat as champions. “When Nick comes back that will help us tremendously. He’s another scorer and the real leader of the team and he’ll be a great add-on to the team. He knows from experience what it takes to get to that championship game. He gives it his all no matter what. By him coming to practice and being who he is he’s making all of us stronger and better each and every day.”
Askew scored 1,132 points in his career at Curtis High School in Staten Island, scoring 600 points his senior season, including a 50-point game. He spent a year at Adelphi University but was injured all season before transferring to Brookdale.
“Darnell is a prototypical rebounder that excels at the outlet pass,” said Cisek. “He runs the floor and has a very good sense at blocking shots. He likes to score in the paint (led DIII in field goal percentage last season) but is developing his mid-range shot and is considered a next level player.”
Askew was the GSAC DIII Player of the Week last week after scoring 58 points and grabbing 38 rebounds in two game, including a 29 point, 22 rebound (14 offensive rebounds) effort in the Blues win over Lehigh Carbon.
Starting small forward Manny Bell had a “cup of coffee” last season at Brookdale but is back full time and is off to a sizzling start. The 6-foot-5 Bell, out of American History High School in Newark, where he averaged 20.4 points, 14.2 rebounds and 3.0 assists his senior year, before spending a year at Frank Phillips College in Texas averaging 9.5 points per game, is scoring at a 19.7 points per game clip and is pulling down five boards per game and adding 1.9 assists per game.
“Manny knows the game and he’s scoring for us,” said Cisek. “He’s long and lean and has great defensive sense putting his hand of the ball all the time. He scores from outside and inside and is the focal point of our program right now and he’s a good student.”
Shore Conference product Savon Myers out of Manchester High School where he was a first team All-Shore selection his senior season after averaging 19.3 points, 14.2 rebounds and 3.0 assists per game and scoring 1,288 career points for the Hawks. He starts at the power forward position for Brookdale and according to Cisek is ultra talented and just starting to see that’s there’s more to his game.
The 6-foot-6 Myers is averaging 14.5 points, 10.9 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 1.5 blocks per game this season after spending a post-graduate year at Covenant College Prep.
“Savon is a four but can handle the ball and leads the team in assists and rebounds,” said Cisek. “He sees the floor well and just knows the game, especially on the offensive side, and on the defensive side he’s just starting to figure it out. He’s got a lot of talent, he’s physical and strong and doesn’t shy away from contact. Without him we have a problem, we need him inside.”
Starting point guard, Kareem Irby, averaged 3.7 points and 1.1 assists per game last season for Brookdale coming off the bench. He was a All-Union County selection his senior year at Hillside High School before taking a post-graduate year at Prestige Prep Academy.
He’s averaging 5.7 points this season along with an impressive 3.8 assists per game.
“Irby didn’t play point guard in High School so he’s still learning the process,” Cisek said. “He wants to learn, has the will to learn and he plays really hard. He’s in a tough spot, but he’s now that guy and he’s doing a really good job.”
Sophomore Adam Kukaj backs up Irby at the point and is usually the first guy coming off the bench. He’s had some big games this season and is averaging 8.3 points, 2.9 rebounds and 2.9 assists. He was a 1000-point scorer at Tottenville High School and averaged 30-plus points a game his senior season and is another player who originally spent some time at Brookdale.
At the shooting guard spot, freshman Regan Burke has started all 11 games while averaging 6.6 points, 1.5 assists and 3.7 rebounds. He spent a year as a post-graduate player at Trinity Pawling Prep School after graduating from Holy Cross High School in Flushing Queens playing in the extremely competitive CHSAA Brooklyn-Queens league in New York.
“Regan is 6-foot-4 and solid as a rock,” said Cisek. “He’s another guy trying to learn the system. He can get to the basket and shoot and score. He can guard, he’s probably our best defender. He’s coming on fast and doing a really good job for us.”
Freshman forward Phillip Byrd is usually the next player off the bench following Kukaj. He’s out of East Tech High School in Cleveland, Ohio where he was an All-Northeast Lakes selection his senior year. He’s a kid that’s overcome a lot of adversity in his life before landing in New Jersey and Cisek raves about him as a person and a player.
For the season he’s averaging 5.5 points, 4.0 rebounds and 1.4 assists and just keeps improving his game.
“Phillip can play the four and guard the three or even the two,” said Cisek of the 6-foot-4 Byrd’s athleticism. “He’s a plus defender, he’s physical, he’s strong and he’s just starting to learn the game. He’s getting better and better, and he wants to learn every single day. He’s just a solid guy.”
Freshman guard Jack Zink is another young player that Cisek says is starting to figure it out. He’s averaging 6.1 points, and 2.3 assists per game this season. He was an All-GMC Gold Division selection last season as a senior at Calvary Christian High School, Old Bridge where he scored 1,442 career points, including 519 points his senior season.
“Zink’s starting to figure it out,” said Cisek. “Calvary Christians schedule was a little weak so now he’s playing against guys that are quicker, bigger and stronger. But he’s physically solid and holding his own. He’s got a real nice release on his jump shot and he’s getting better and better every day. He’s going to be really good.”
Another Shore product out of Long Branch High School, freshman guard Bruce Gooding, is starting to make waves for Brookdale once he settled down and began to figure out the system.
“We just kind of fit him in and all of a sudden he’s playing well,” said Cisek of his 6-foot-2 guard who’s averaging 2.7 points per game and 1.6 rebounds. “He does the little things right. We show him in practice what we want, and he goes out and does the job.”
Gooding was a Shore Conference first team All-Division selection as a senior averaging 16.2 points and 3.0 assists per game.
Freshman guard Latrell Thompson led his high school, New Dorp, Staten Island, to the PSAL Class A finals his senior year scoring 16 points which was close to his season average of 18 points per game.
Thompson came off the bench to score 12 points shooting 6-for-7 from the floor in Brookdale’s 82-43 rout of Delaware County Tuesday night. He’s another young player finding his legs under Cisek’s tutelage with a ton of potential.
“Latrell’s been out of the game for a while and all of a sudden he’s in an organized system, but he’s starting to get it,” Cisek said of his 6-foot-2 guard. “He needed to throw away his old game and start a new one and he’s worked really hard at doing that. He can score, he rebounds well for his size and he’s learning to pass the way we want it.”
Brookdale has one game remaining on the schedule before winter break, Saturday at home versus Salem, and doesn’t return to the court until January 9 at Montgomery County (10-0) to begin their quest for back-to-back championships.
“Play defense, we got to have defense,” said Askew when asked what this team needs to do to make another championship run. “Once we get Nick back I feel like everything is going to be complete and then we just got to add defense and we’re going to be back-to-back champions.”