1. THERE IS NO CLEAR FAVORITE IN DIVISION 1 NORTH (OR IS THERE?). HOW DO YOU SEE IT PLAYING OUT?
Brendan Hall, ESPN Boston High Schools editor: The way Andover has been building steam the last several weeks, it almost feels like this could be the year coach Dave Fazio finally breaks through. Caffeinated junior guard Dave "The Mad Hatter" Giribaldi might be the most exciting player in this field to watch, as much for his ability as his unpredictability -- but that's what playoff basketball is all about, finding comfort within discomfort. If you're a fan of intense rivalries, you're pulling for an Andover-Central Catholic final.
They say anything goes in the third installment of a trilogy. The fourth? About as predictable as the weather.
Chris Bradley, ESPN Boston correspondent: Given how the last couple of weeks of the regular season played out, I think the favorites in Division 1 North are St. John's Prep and Andover. The Eagles knocked off Lynn English and Andover at the IAABO Board 130 Classic, while Andover has been playing great lately too -- blowing out Everett and defeating MVC rival Central Catholic on Wednesday. Central, Lynn English, and Everett have all shown potential to make a run, but there is no question that St. John's Prep and Andover will be riding the hot hand into the tournament.
Rob Sarmiento, Beantown Hoops: There is no clear favorite. I think all the teams could beat each other on a given night and depending on how the bracket shapes up will determine a lot. After it all said and done however, I like Andover and Central Catholic to meet in the sectional final with Central coming out on top in a close one. Both teams are battled tested, well coached, and have been through the grind that is the DI North sectional before.
2. WHAT IS NO. 1 SPRINGFIELD PUTNAM'S BIGGEST OBSTACLE IN RETURNING TO THE DCU CENTER?
Hall: Shooting ability was Putnam's flaw last season, and they went ahead and won the D1 state title anyways. That's still the case this year, but as I wrote earlier this year, I believe there's a difference between good shooting and timely shooting. Putnam firmly falls into the latter, demonstrated at several points this season by Ty Nichols. My other concern is how they react if forced into a half-court game. At some point or another these playoffs, somebody is going to solve their swarming full-court pressure. How they counterpunch will be the difference.
Bradley: I think St. Peter-Marian is the best team in Central Mass., but if St. John's (Shrewsbury) can find a way to take the title once again in Central Mass, Putnam could have their hands full in the state semifinal game. The Pioneers not only have the depth to keep up with Putnam's loaded lineup, but Bob Foley has shown to be a master at slowing down quick, athletic teams such as Putnam in years past.
Sarmiento: Overconfidence. They should roll through their sectional and are better than the DI Central teams, but if they don't come to play every night, I don't think it is out of the realm of possibility that they can lose. Central teams like St. John's and Wachusett won't be intimidated by them and if the ball is bouncing right they both could pull off the upset. However, if Putnam is focused, everyone else look out!
3. DIVISION 1 SOUTH IS LOADED WITH QUALITY SHOOTING TEAMS -- MANSFIELD, CATHOLIC MEMORIAL AND NEWTON NORTH AMONG THE MOST PROLIFIC. WHO'S GOT THE HOTTEST HAND?
Hall: Newton North's Tommy Mobley is the most talented individual shooter in this field, but you simply cannot duplicate what Catholic Memorial is doing right now. They lead the state in scoring average (85.5 points per game). Only three opponents to date -- No. 6 Newton North, No. 10 St. Peter-Marian, and No. 22 Franklin -- have managed to hold the Knights under 75 points, and two of those contests were CM victories anyways. Whereas others in this field have one superstar shooter (Newton North), or several quality marksmen (Mansfield), CM can legitimately go seven deep in this regard. Factor in their frenetic pace, and you have a pretty flammable recipe.
Bradley: There is no question that Catholic Memorial has the hottest hand in the D1 South tournament, if not the entire D1 tournament statewide. The Knights' stable of guards is a force to be reckoned with, boasting stars like Guilien Smith and Aamahne Santos, as well as promising young sophomores like Kellan Grady, Matt Hanna, and Brandon Twitty.
Sarmiento: Catholic Memorial. It is hard to be under the radar when they are ranked so highly by every media outlet in Massachusetts, but they just go about their business and continue to win (They haven't lost since December 28th). To go undefeated in the Catholic League is no joke and they have enough offensive weapons to combat one guy having a bad shooting night, unlike the other teams in the South sectional. The difference is their quickness and defense at the guard position. You can try to recreate it in practice, but you can't. It is going to take an unbelievable shooting night with fewer than 10 turnovers for a team to beat them.
4. WHICH LOW-SEED TEAM NOBODY'S TALKING ABOUT STANDS THE BEST CHANCE OF MAKING A RUN?
Hall: Ask anybody about Walpole, and they'll all tell you about what a tough out they are. The Rebels played one of the tougher schedules in the Bay State Conference, and it will show through in the playoffs. Ryan Fogarty, Adam Quinlan and Scott Arsenault serve a great nucleus, and if they make a deep run David St. Martin deserves some Coach of the Year consideration.
Bradley: When picking favorites in the Division 2 South tournament, most aren't going to look past Bishop Feehan, Whitman-Hanson, and Dorchester. However, look for Walpole, who is expected to be a double-digit seed in the D2 South tournament, to make a run to the Garden. The Rebels have some nice wins on their resume -- including Wellesley, Needham, and Brookline.
Sarmiento: Brookline. They have had a disappointing year with so many expectations for this squad, but they still have Elijah Rogers and have a little momentum after defeating Newton North the other night. They project to be a double digit seed in the D1 South, but I guarantee you it is a team that nobody wants in the first or second round.
5. DIVISION 1 CENTRAL COULD BE ONE OF THE MOST UNPREDICTABLE BRACKETS. GIVE ME YOUR FINAL FOUR FOR WPI'S HARRINGTON AUDITORIUM.
Hall: Memo to the rest of Central Mass. -- don't let newcomer Franklin get to The Harrington. By Massachusetts standards, it's the closest thing we have to Hinkle Fieldhouse, and Franklin's revered "Rattle City" is the closest thing we have to the Cameron Crazies. That's a lethal cocktail. There's a reason the Panthers have won 78 percent of their home games over the last 14 years, as correspondent Ryan Lanigan pointed out last week. Their fans can legitimately take points off the boards. Anyways, on their own merit Franklin is good enough to reach the semifinals, where they would face a Fitchburg team that earned the No. 1 overall seed with its blistering run-and-gun pace. On the other side of the bracket, St. Peter-Marian and St. John's are prohibitive favorites, and it almost seems serendipitous we'll get a rubber match in this timeless rivalry.
Bradley: St. Peter-Marian and St. John's are the sureshot favorites in Division 1 Central, but look for Fitchburg and Franklin to make a run to WPI. The Red Raiders recently beat St. John's on their home floor just a few days ago, while Franklin picked up the championship at the Comcast Tournament. Names to keep an eye on in D1 Central are Makai Ashton-Langford from St. Peter-Marian, Alex Fisher from St. John's, Tyler Dion from Wachusett, Mick Snowden from Fitchburg, and Chris Rodgers from Franklin.
Sarmiento: St. John's, Wachusett, Franklin, and Westford. Westford is my dark horse here with big man Eric McCord being the difference maker. I like Wachusett to win it, however. They just know how to win, and head coach Tom Gibbons is one of the best in the state.
6. DOES NEW MISSION DESERVE TO BE THE FAVORITE IN DIVISION 2?
Hall: Absolutely. It was a weak Boston City League this year, but making a flawless run through the gauntlet unscathed with an average margin of victory of 22.4 points is might impressive no matter what year it is. Their only losses of the season are to the No. 1 team in Massachusetts, Springfield Putnam, and a St. Joe's (N.J.) team with the No. 1 center in the country (Karl Towns). There are only two true bigs, yet Asante Sandiford and Bam Rivers have given them a presence down low they have seemingly been looking for ever since their state title run of 2010-11. Their guards attack angles like piranhas. They get timely shooting. These guys are the total package.
Bradley: After a regular season where the only MIAA team to challenge New Mission was Division 1 favorite Putnam, it's hard to not consider the Titans' the favorite in Division 2. Cory McCarthy has a deep lineup of guards surrounding Franklin Pierce-bound forward Asante Sandiford and do-it-all center Bam Rivers. Keep a close eye on Danvers, Salem, or Lynn Classical to build some momentum and potentially make a deep tournament run.
Sarmiento: Yes. They play a tough non-league schedule every year and Asanti Sandiford is a match-up nightmare for most teams in this sectional. Injuries have changed this sectional a lot with Danvers and Melrose both losing key guys for the season, but if there is a team that could make a run at Mission it would be Lynn Classical who has been smoking hot of late.
7. ON THE GIRLS SIDE, WHICH TEAMS STAND THE BEST CHANCE OF KNOCKING OFF FAVORITES BRAINTREE (DIV. 1) AND MEDFIELD (DIV. 2)?
Hall: Starting with Braintree, I have two words: Lynn English. Two more: Newton North. Heck, two more for good measure: Holy Name. And while we're at it, if Springfield Central gets to the DCU floor they can do damage as well. Each of those teams have a true scholarship talent that can cause fits on the defensive end (North's Infiniti Thomas-Waheed, Holy Name's Brianna Frias, Central's Janae Bunn, any combination of English guards), and have proven track records.
In Division 2, Medfield's best competition might come from within its own district. Look for Nashoba, coached by the effervescent Beth McNamara, to throw some haymakers when the two inevitably square off in D2 Central -- oddly enough, a rematch of last year's D2 state final.
Bradley: While I hold the opinion that it's highly unlikely that anybody in Braintree or Medfield's district tournament will be able to beat them, I would give Newton North a shot against Braintree just because of the amount of experience they have in their lineup as well as the fact that they faced off with Braintree earlier in the year.
Sarmiento: Newton North with star guard Infiniti Thomas-Waheed has the best chance of taking out Braintree in the sectionals, but it still won't be enough. Lynn English is the team that can do it however. Catherine Stinson has been great all year and Coach Fred Hogan has done his best coaching job leading the Lady Bulldogs to a 20-0 record.
Medfield is the clear favorite in D2, but I like an underrated Watertown team in the D2 North to challenge them. Watertown has experience, solid point guard play with Gabby Coppola, and enough depth to stay with Medfield. If these two meet expect an all out war.