Division split helps AAA with competitive balance 

In many respects, the 2013-14 season was a banner year for Academic Athletic Association boys’ basketball. League champ Lincoln rolled through an undefeated campaign in AAA play before shocking regional powerhouse De La Salle in the NorCal Division I playoffs. It was perhaps the biggest win by a city public school in a decade and provided legitimacy to a league that is too often overlooked or disregarded.

Yet last season also saw a widening gap between the AAA’s top teams and the fledgling schools that have joined the league in recent years, resulting in several lopsided scores during the regular season. As a result, league officials opted to split the AAA into two divisions — the Lang, comprised of the more established, traditional teams, and the Neff, which will be made up charter schools and institutions with smaller enrollments. The top six teams from the Lang Division regular season will advance to the San Francisco Section playoffs, along with the top two teams from the Neff Division. The AAA has split its basketball schools into divisions in the past, but this is the first time that competitiveness and fairness have played a role in the decision.

AAA Commissioner Don Collins said the league has adopted this practice in several other sports, including baseball and girls’ volleyball.

“This structure allows teams a chance to have a greater number of competitive matchups in league play, and a severe reduction of blowouts,” said Collins. “It also allows us to account for the addition of a number of new schools, some of which are very small.

Several coaches said this could be the most competitive season in recent memory for the AAA. Washington, which returns nine players from last season, and Mission, which has already upset one power from the West Catholic Athletic League, could be next AAA teams to follow Lincoln and play giant-killers this postseason.

A look at the AAA, in alphabetical order:

LANG DIVISION

Balboa: The Buccaneers, coming off a solid 19-win campaign last season, are likely to go as far as senior Sam Esser takes them. The 6-foot-1 wing player, coming off a strong junior season, is off to a blazing start this year, averaging 21.2 points and 5.5 rebounds a game. Balboa split a pair of nonconference league games — losing against Galileo, but defeating Leadership — while hosting its second annual Buccaneer Invitational this season.

Galileo: Scoring could be an issue this season for a young Lions team. Through the first 10 games of the season, Galileo has reached 60 points only once and was been held below 40 points three times. Galileo won just a single game last season — a 53-52 triumph over Mission — against opponents now playing in the Lang Division. Although Galileo always plays tough on its home court, the Lions face an uphill road in their quest for the school’s first city title since 2005.

Leadership: The Griffin, who completed their first season in the AAA last season, after previously playing in the Bay Counties League, suffered a tremendous blow when 6-9 junior center Sidy Sissoko was lost for the season with a torn ACL. Still, first-year coach Jermaine Thompson has three solid seniors in Paul Altamirano, Zyerre Washington and Devin Fore. The key to the team could be Thompson’s nephew K’lum Strickland, a dynamic freshman point guard who was held out of several games so he could concentrate on his academics. “Once he puts the student first in student-athlete, he’ll be back out there,” Thompson said. “But we think he has the potential to be a great player.”

Lincoln: The Mustangs’ dream season last year, which included that historic 54-47 upset of De La Salle at Kezar Pavilion, will be extremely difficult to repeat in 2014-15, following the departure of 10 seniors and coach Matt Jackson. New coach Curtis Chan welcomes back only one player who garnered significant playing time last season, 6-2 senior Tarrez Blaylock, and will start four others who received zero minutes at the varsity level last year. Still, Chan boasts a stable of players who stood out on last year’s frosh-soph team, and is particularly high on Joseph Grima, a 6-2 junior transfer from El Camino High School.

Lowell: Longtime Cardinals coach Robert Ray stepped down after last season, replaced by Carl Jacobs, who played under Ray years ago on the frosh-soph team at Lincoln. Jacobs, a highly respected basketball mind who had previous stops at Lincoln, the French American International and Berean Christian in the East Bay, will lean heavily on Soren Carpenter, a 6-1 senior guard who is getting recruited by plenty of Division III colleges. Jacobs said he doesn’t expect to vary too much from Ray’s coaching philosophy. “I told the players, ‘It’s the same car, going in the same direction, we’re just going to have a different driver.’”

Marshall: The Phoenix, who advanced to the San Francisco Section final last season before falling to Lincoln, bring back perhaps the biggest frontcourt in the AAA, led by 6-6 junior center Ishaaq Muhammed. Marshall, which boasts five other players over 6-foot tall, has historically been plagued by eligibility and scheduling issues, but if the Phoenix can find some consistency they could duplicate last year’s postseason run.

Mission: The Bears have played in six of the past eight city section championships, but last year they were spectators for the title game. “That left a bitter taste in our mouth, for sure,” Mission coach Arnold Zelaya said. “We have expectations to be in that game every year.” Mission has the league’s top backcourt in juniors Frank Hall and Anthony Porter, who will be complemented by lengthy frontcourt players Alphonzo Asberry, Rasool Sohan and Jeff Branner. They’ve already proved their might by handling Riordan 74-60 in the WCAL school’s home tournament this season. “I’ve been looking forward to this group of players for a long time,” Zelaya said. “They all have tremendous basketball IQs.”

Washington: The Eagles, with a roster packed full of experienced upperclassmen, enter AAA play as the clear league favorite. Seniors Darren Ho and Armani Hall return after earning first- and second-team All-AAA honors last season, respectively. Coach Jolinko Lassiter has a deep, balanced roster with three players averaging double digits in scoring this season. Lassiter has challenged the Eagles with a daunting nonconference schedule, and the Eagles have responded so far. “Our returnees understand how to play at the varsity level and what it takes to be successful night in and night out,” Lassiter said.

NEFF DIVISION

Academy of Arts and Sciences: This will mark just the second season of basketball at the Academy. The Wolves picked up the first (and only) win last season on Jan. 17 with a win over O’Connell. Coach Lamar Williams’ team will look to improve upon that total with several winnable games against Neff Division opponents this year.

Burton: “I can guarantee you that Burton will lead the AAA in scoring,” Lowell coach Carl Jacobs said. “These guys are going to light it up.” So far Jacobs’ predictions has been spot-on, as the Pumas have been fully embracing new coach Clint Ladine’s offense, inspired by the Loyola Marymount teams of the early 1990s. Burton has already topped 75 points several times, led by the coach’s son, junior guard Clayton Ladine, averaging an eye-popping 36 points a game. But it’s more than a one-man show at Burton, with junior forward Dharen Paulino proving that in his 35-point outburst against Leadership on Dec. 20.

International Studies Academy: While ISA went winless in its nonconference slate, the fact that the school scheduled aggressively before league play is a positive development. Coach Keith Norman’s Cobras lost several close games early in the season, and will rely on captains Noah Consul, a junior, and Da’Vion Enis, a senior, to lead the team.

Jordan: The Jaguars will be led by the inside-outside duo of forward Guillermo Rodriguez and slashing guard Johnny Capels. Jordan matches up well with its fellow opponents in the Neff Division, as evidenced by convincing wins last season against Wallenberg, O’Connell and Burton, among others. Jordan coach Dorian Glover played at Wallenberg for coach Patrick Mulligan, who is now in his 24th season at that school. “What coach Mulligan has built at Wallenberg — that kind of consistent program — I’m trying to do here,” Glover said.

O’Connell: The Boilermakers have struggled through two straight winless seasons in AAA play, but stand to benefit from the new setup in the AAA. Instead of playing traditional powers like Washington, Lincoln and Mission, the Boilermakers will get two cracks a year at some of the charter schools in the Neff Division, with the aim of breaking their team’s recent slide.

San Francisco International: SFI, which opened in 2009, is one of the smallest schools in the league and has been playing organized basketball for only four seasons. As expected of any startup institution, the Huskies have suffered through their growing pains, but last year saw signs of improvements, with SFI winning three games, all against fellow opponents in the Neff Division.

Wallenberg: The Bulldogs return one of the AAA’s top point guards in DeNiel Butler, a shifty playmaker who was honorable mention all-league last season as a junior. Coach Mulligan also brings back two hardworking, albeit undersized big men, in senior forwards Ryoma Ono and Daniel Ogbonna. “The last few years have been a struggle for us,” Mulligan said. “But we have the pieces here to put together a strong season. I’d like to think we can compete for those top two spots in the Neff Division this year.”

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Will Reisman

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