Trib HSSN 2023-24 WPIAL Class A boys basketball preseason breakdown

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Thursday, November 30, 2023 | 8:28 PM


The Saints came marching into last season with high hopes and ended the campaign with a golden sweep of WPIAL and PIAA championships.

However, the offseason saw plenty of changes for an Imani Christian team that started all underclassmen and looked like it would be a lock for several years of title runs.

That doesn’t mean that title days are in the rearview mirror as Imani Christian is still the team to beat in Class A.

Here is a rundown of players to watch, Top 5 teams and other notables in WPIAL Class A boys basketball this season.

Preseason Player of the Year

R.J. Sledge, Imani Christian

6-1, Jr., guard

11.0 ppg last season

Players to watch

Lorenzo Gardner, Monessen

6-3, Sr., forward, 21.8 ppg

Courtney Wallace, Neighborhood Academy

6-2, Jr., guard, 17.9 ppg

John Wilkins, Neighborhood Academy

6-1, Sr., guard, 18.5 ppg

Lane Allison, West Greene

6-0, Jr., guard, 21.9 ppg

Lucas Stanley, Union

6-0, Jr., guard, 10.0 ppg

Preseason Top 5

1. Imani Christian (23-6 last season)

The defending WPIAL and PIAA Class A champions may have had a crazy offseason (see more below), but they return a lot of talent from a team that last year only lost to three out-of-town powers, two 6A schools and the 4A district and state champs. Junior guards R.J. Sledge and Nate Brazil along with senior guard Avery Wesley all chipped in to help the Saints become the highest-scoring offense in the district at nearly 70 points per game.

2. Neighborhood Academy (20-6)

It was a beautiful day and season in the Neighborhood as the Bulldogs finished in second place in Section 3-A behind eventual champion Imani Christian, reaching the district quarterfinals and the state first round. Neighborhood Academy has everybody returning, including senior guard John Wilkins, who averaged over 18 points per game, and junior guard Courtney Wallace, who averaged over 17 points per game.

3. Union (25-4)

The Scotties were hit hard by graduation: All five starters in the WPIAL Class A title game were seniors. One tradition that will continue this winter for the blue and white is a Stanley playing for a Stanley. Even though older brothers Mark and Matthew are gone, junior Lucas Stanley is back playing for coach Mark Stanley. Lucas averaged 15 points per game in the district and state postseasons. Also returning is talented senior Braylon Thomas.

4. Monessen (21-4)

Following a loss in their 2022-2023 season opener, the Greyhounds ripped off 15 consecutive wins before falling to a Geibel team that Monessen finished tied with atop the Section 2-A standings. The Hounds ended their season with back-to-back losses to Carlynton in the quarterfinals and Aquinas Academy in the consolation round. Senior forward Lorenzo Gardner returns after averaging nearly 22 points per game last winter.

5. Carlynton (19-8)

The Cougars had an outstanding season if not for those pesky Scotties. Carlynton lost to Section 1 foe Union twice in the regular season, again in the WPIAL semifinals and for a fourth time in the PIAA quarterfinals. The Cougars were hit hard by graduation, but they have some experienced players ready to take on bigger roles including Devontae Dean, who led the team in rebounding last season, Ryan Lewis and Jaydin McKnight.

Notables

• It has been a chaotic offseason for defending champion Imani Christian. The Saints had two of their top players from a year ago leave the program. Considered one of the top juniors in the country, 6-11 center Alier Maluk transferred to Long Island Lutheran, a prep school in New York. He averaged 15.1 points and 8.7 rebounds a game for the Saints last year. Junior guard Dame Givner left Imani and enrolled at Putnam Science Academy in Connecticut. He averaged 15.8 points per game last season. Then it was announced that coach Omar Foster would not be returning after three years as coach of the Saints.

• Depite the losses mentioned above, Imani Christian is favored to repeat as district champions. If the Saints win it all again, they would be only the fourth WPIAL Class A team to repeat this century. Monessen did it in 2001 and 2002, Sewickley Academy won back-to-back in 2009 and 2010 and Bishop Canevin won gold in consecutive seasons in 2021 and 2022.

• Some of the other teams and players to watch in Class A include Aquinas Academy with senior Josh Schlemmer and junior Jacob Guillen, California with seniors Noah Neil and Jaquese Derns and junior Caden Monticelli, St. Joseph’s with senior Charlie Ross and Jefferson-Morgan with junior Houston Guseman.

• How do you fill the shoes of the WPIAL’s all-time leading scorer who last season averaged 43.7 points per game? That is the question George Yokitis and his staff are trying to answer for Aquinas Academy. The void will definitely be felt for the Crusaders as they adjust to life after Vinnie Cugini, who last season broke the 30-year record of Valley’s Tom Pipkens for most career points in WPIAL boys basketball history. The new record set by the 6-2 guard is 3,189 points. In 22 games last season, Cugini scored 953 points, nearly 300 points ahead of runner-up Makhai Valentine of Steel Valley. Cugini led the WPIAL in scoring in all four of his years at Aquinas Academy.

• There are 18 teams in Class A boys basketball and when it came to having a winning season, last year was a split decision. Nine teams — Union, Carlynton, Monessen, Geibel Catholic, Jefferson-Morgan, Imani Christian, Neighborhood Academy, Aquinas Academy and Summit Academy — all had overall winning records. The other nine schools finished under .500 overall.

Alignment

Section 1: Avella, Carlynton, Cornell, Rochester, Union, Western Beaver

Section 2: California, Geibel Catholic, Jefferson-Morgan, Mapletown, Monessen, West Greene

Section 3: Aquinas Academy, Hillel Academy, Imani Christian Academy, Neighborhood Academy, St. Joseph, Summit Academy

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