Five burning questions: An Open Division Preview
The Open Division playoffs are here. The top 8 Division 1 teams in San Diego are pitted against each other in what has a chance to be the most intriguing field we've seen in recent memory - or the most straightforward march to a title we've seen in recent history.
St. Augustine comes in as the prohibitive favorites, having not lost to a San Diego team since December 2021, when a COVID-19 stricken Saints team lost a stunner to Grossmont in The Holiday Classic.
They've beaten San Diego teams by an average of 19 points per game this year.
Who can stop them? Which San Ysidro team will appear in the playoffs? Will LCC's new "big" addition throw the Open Division into chaose?
These and other questions are answered in my Open Division primer.
1. Can anyone beat Saints?
The short answer is yes, but the long answer is much more nuanced.
The top-seeded Saints have played half of the Open Division field - they didn't play San Ysidro, Torrey Pines, Santa Fe Christian and their first-round opponents, Mater Dei Catholic.
They beat the other three: Carlsbad, La Costa Canyon and Montgomery by double digits.
The Mavericks hung around longer than both the Lancers and Aztecs, leading throughout the second quarter before the Saints took a four-point lead into the third quarter and eventually won by 16.
Beating Saints will require a team to withstand their patented third-quarter surge, as in each game this year they've been able to outscore their opponents by at least 10 points after the break. Lolo Rudolph is playing at a CIF Player of the Year-worthy level if he wasn't playing alongside the reigning player of the year who has a real chance to be the first repeat winner since TJ Leaf, Jurian Dixon.
Overcoming the third-quartere surge won't be easy for anyone in the field, as the Saints play at a pace that few can match, and, when engaged, are the best defensive team in the field.
Their first round opponent, Mater Dei Catholic, has one of the county's four Division 1 signees in 6-3 Kristian Gonzalez (headed to Sacramento State). They will need the supporting cast - including All Mesa League second teamer Josiah Jefferson, freshman sharpshooter Lincoln Grogan and role guys Sabastian Wiles and Dante King to play their very best to stay in the game.
As for the rest of the field, I think the winner of the 4-5 matchup poses the most serious threat to the Saints. We will get into those teams in depth next.
2. Will the real San Ysidro please stand up?
If "playing to the level of your competition" was a phrase in the dictionary, the Border Boyz would be the picture associated with it.
At their best, the Cougars were seconds away from defeating Nevada power Bishop Gorman and within five points of Florida power Columbus in nationally televised games, and handed Sherman Oaks Notre Dame - a Southern Section Open Division power - one of its 10 losses.
But in games against local competition, they've often looked disinterested and lackadaisical. Exhibit One: a 74-70 loss to El Camino in the third game of the season in a game they led by 18 points. Exhibit two: a 100-90 loss to second-ranked Carlsbad in which they allowed 2025 G Jake Hall to score 50 points. And Exhibit 3: two losses in the Mesa League they were the prohibitive favorites to win, finishing a game behind Montgomery.
But in their final game of the season, the Cougars played with a sense of urgency in a 65-62 win over Montgomery on senior night, especially on defense, prompting head coach Terry Tucker to proclaim on social media "Playoff Mode Activated."
If "playoff mode," San Ysidro is indeed activated, they have the physical talent to beat anyone - including Saints. No team in recent San Diego memory has two nationally ranked prospects in the lineup. But they have a very challenging first round matchup in La Costa Canyon (more about them next), and will have to play a near perfect game to get the home win. Why near perfect?
3. Is LCC's new addition the wild card?
Because this LCC team is essentially a new team. The Mavericks won four of their last five games after a Jan. 27 loss to El Camino, including a road win against Carlsbad and a 59-41 drubbing of rival Torrey Pines.
The lone loss during that stretch? A 70-62 loss to a Rancho Christian team that was one of the final squads left off the Southern Section Open Division slate.
What changed? The Mavericks added a 6-10+ center who had never played high school basketball, Wesley Smith.
Smith, who is signed to USC for volleyball, eschewed the call to play hoops for 3 1/2 years due to club and national volleyball team obligations. Signed and free of club obligations, Smith joined the program on the eve of the playoffs, and his addition changes everything.
Ask Torrey Pines, who saw Smith score 17 points in his fifth varsity game. Smith isn't a stiff, and while his basketball experience is that of a neophyte, he's rapidly gaining confidence.
His addition allows 6-5s Trevor Ladd and Christian Brown to play their natural positions and defensively adds a doorstop in the middle that allows the perimeter defenders to play much more aggressively.
Add into the fact that 6-4 senior guard Ty Hendler is playing at a high level, this is as complete of a five seed as we've seen in the Open Division.
San Ysidro will have its hands full to advance.
4. Who has the upper hand in the rematches?
As I've mentioned in several previous reports, three of the Open Division matchups are rematches. Carlsbad is 2-0 this season against Torrey Pines, San Ysidro beat LCC 81-79 during the Torrey Pines Tip-Off and sixth-seeded Santa Fe Christian toppled No. 3 Montgomery 70-69 on a dramatic buzzer beater at the Battle at the Bay two weeks ago.
We've talked at length about the 4-5 matchup, so we'll reserve the segment to talk about the 2-7 and 3-6 games.
Conventional wisdom would suggest that second-seeded Carlsbad will have the upper hand against the Falcons, as they've defeated them twice, but a look at both games suggests this will be a tight contest. The Falcons nearly topped the Lancers on the road in their second-to-last league game, which the Lancers won 69-65. If the Falcons John Olive can make some tweaks to the game plan - which he often does during the playoffs - the Falcons could spring the upset, but the safe bet is Carlsbad, which brings one of the highest-scoring offenses in the county, but in recent weeks have shown they have the defensive chops to win lower-scoring games. Jake Hall, who is burning up the CIF record books at a pace we haven't seen since Foothills Christian's Troy Leaf, leads the Lancers attack.
Santa Fe comes in with the knowledge they beat Montgomery in a neutral site game, but they will come into the 3-6 matchup as the underdogs. The first reason: The Aztecs seemed to solve the Eagles offense down the stretch, erasing a 15-point third-quarter deficit to take late leads in the showcase game. They threw a bigger defender - the ever-improving 6-4 sophomore Devin Hamilton - on Eagles star guard Brycen Mackenzie, and he offered a great deal of resistance. Plus, 6-5 sophomore JJ Sanchez dominated the game down the stretch, as SFC didn't have an answer for his low-post scoring and playmaking. Additionally, this game is being played at Montgomery, which will likely have a packed house at the Aztec Center on rims that are notoriously unfriendly to shooters.
5. Who are the players to watch?
No. 1 Saint Augustine
Jurian Dixon - The 6-5 guard, the top uncommitted basketball player in Southern California, is in line for his second straight CIF Player of the Year award headed into the postseason.
Jaden Matingou - the 6-3 Point Loma Nazarene bound combo guard is an elite defender and athlete
Lolo Rudolph - Cal-Hi Sports recently minted Rudolph, a 6-2 speedster at point guard, as the No. 5 junior prospect in California.
Ian De La Rosa - The 6-4 wing has been the quintessential glue guy for the Saints since he stepped on campus.
Derrius Carter-Hollinger - The 6-6 Arizona Christian forward is an elite interior defender who allows the Saints to compete against teams with dominant posts.
Vincent Ricchiuti - The 6-6 shooter hits timely baskets off the catch and one-dribble pullup for the Saints. Headed to Wake Forest as a preferred walk-on.
Jaden Bailes - The 6-1 freshman guard has been playing with increasing confidence during Western League play.
No. 2 Carlsbad
Jake Hall - The undisputed top sophomore in San Diego averaged 27 points per game in Year 2.
Tony Duckett, Jr. - The 6-2 combo guard ascended to All Palomar First Team status during his breakout year.
Cole Murray - Hampered by injuries in the early season, Murray is the heart and soul of this team on both ends.
Tristan Guzman - The 5-11 guard is known for his feisty defense and timely shooting.
Josh Shields - The 6-0 guard of the more underrated shooters in the senior class.
Jett Kenady - the 6-1 sophomore is an X-factor as a scorer and defender.
No. 3 Montgomery
JJ Sanchez - The 6-5 sophomore led the Aztecs in scoring, rebounds and assists en route to Mesa League Player of the Year honors.
Alek Sanchez - The 6-4 twin brother of JJ earned first-team all-league honors while being the conductor of the Aztecs high-IQ offense.
Devin Hamilton - The 6-4 slasher was the team's second leading scorer and an All League second-team selection in his sophomore campaign.
Xair Mendez - Played a lesser role than his freshman year, but the All-League second teamer gets buckets in flurries.
Nico Reyes - A cat-quick presence on both ends, Reyes became a double-digit scorer in his final season.
David Soto - The 6-2 junior transfer from Bonita Vista does a little bit of everything for the Aztecs: scores, rebounds, hits corner threes and plays with an edge.
No. 4 San Ysidro
Mikey Williams - The 6-3 Memphis signee has morphed into one of the nation's better scorer/playmaking threats - leading San Diego in assists his senior year after leading the region in scoring as a freshman in 2019.
JJ Taylor - The 6-7+ Donda Academy guard is a pure matchup nightmare for teams with is ability to play on the perimeter.
Ty Ingram - Earning All-League honors in his freshman year, Ingram played his best basketball down the stretch for the Cougars.
Gerrardo Guerrero - The 6-3 senior is one of the best spot-up shooters in San Diego.
Andrei Tovar- Tovar's return from a facial injury gives the Cougars back its toughest interior presence at 6-7 220.
Steven Glynn - The 6-4 Leuzinger sophomore transfer didn't have the expected impact for the Border Boyz, but is playing well down the stretch.
Princetin Metu - The 6-4 senior is in the lineup for defense, rebounding and pure grit
No. 5 La Costa Canyon
Christian Brown - The two-time All Palomar League first teamer is an automatic shooter and a rugged rebounder. Along with Dixon, the best unsigned prospect in San Diego.
Ty Hendler - The 6-4 Colorado College commit is a proven three-level scorer and improved playmaker.
Wesley Smith - The 6-10 USC volleyball commit is improving with each game.
Parker Jelsing- The confident 6-0 senior guard takes - and makes - big shots.
Trevor Ladd - A two-sport stud, the 6-5 junior is racking up offers as a tight end, while rebounding and bringing an elite motor to the hoops team.
Ben Hoier - One of the more underrated senior glue guys in San Diego, Hoier is a capable defender and shooter.
Jasper Buck - The 6-1 sophomore provides the Mavericks with an elite floor spacer.
No. 6 Santa Fe Christian
Brycen Mackenzie - The 6-1 junior morphed into the Coastal League player of the year and an unquestioned star, earning his first D1 offer to Idaho State.
Drew Bickley - One of San Diego's top shooters, Bickley averaged 16 points per game his senior season.
Jeremy Love - An All Coastal League second-team selection, Love's versatility on defense at 6-0 is key for the Eagles.
Greyson Mundis - The grizzled 5-11 guard hit the biggest shot of the Eagles season in the win over Montgomery to propel them into the Open Division field.
Daniel Greathouse - At 6-4+, Greathouse is a matchup problem for centers with his crafty scoring and knockdown shooting.
Dax Hall - The 5-9 freshman has carved out a role as the team's primary ball handler off the bench.
Jayden Luckett - The 6-7 junior Victory Christian transfer is a massive post presence off the bench.
Drew Konsmo - The 6-4 sophomore's role diminished down the stretch, but he provides energy and rebounding for the Eagles.
No. 7 Torrey Pines
JJ Bartelloni - The All Palomar first-team selection is the latest in a long line of Falcons to break out during their final year, averaging 19 points per game.
Zach Jackson - The 6-5 junior was a crafty post presence en route to All-League second team honors.
Matin Madadkar - Filling in capably for the injured Alex Cabulio, Madadkar was an X-factor down the stretch for the Falcons.
Cody Shen - The 6-2 sophomore started to come into his own during league season for the Falcons.
Karel Novy - Called up to fill the hole left in the lineup created by Cabulio's injury, Novy provides physicality and interior scoring.
Max Zylicz - The 6-3 polish transfer is arguably the best shooter you've probably not heard of in San Diego.
Dylan Kail - The 6-3 junior combo guard returned from a lingering knee injury over the summer to be a steadying force on the perimeter.
Zander Ovies - Has shown flashes of being the point guard of the future for the Falcons, but was sidelined by injury down the stretch
No. 8 Mater Dei Catholic
Kristian Gonzalez - Headed to Sacramento State, the 6-3 guard is among the state's top two-way guards and leads the Crusaders in scoring at 20 points per game.
Josiah Jefferson - An ever-improving inside-out force for the Crusaders earned All League second-team honors.
Maseyo Elliott - The 6-3+ combo guard excelled on the defensive end for the Crusaders while becoming an improving scorer.
Lincoln Grogan - Elite is the best way to describe the 6-4 freshman guard's shooting prowess - He shot nearly 50-40-90 in his first year from the field, three and free throw line, respectively.
Sabastian Wiles - A criminally underrated shooter, the 6-1 junior has been solid for two years on the Varsity level.
Dante King - A 6-3+ wing, King is a jack-of-all-trades whose best basketball is ahead of him.
Michael Roddy - The 6-3 senior wing is a slasher who plays hard.
Rollin George III - A star on the football field, the 6-1 senior is strong enough to play both on the perimeter and in the paint.