Ben Merritt woke up Sunday morning, devoured a quick breakfast and tried to avoid thinking about the numbing pressure.
Deep in his mind he knew the clock was ticking on his chance to earn a college basketball scholarship. But as soon as he walked into the Dunn Center at Elizabeth High School, he realized he had come to the right place for that last opportunity.
A wiry 6-6 forward from Kingsway High in Woolwich Township, Merritt scanned the gym at the EKB Roundball Showcase and saw courts teeming with college scouts. They wore bright-colored jackets, T-shirts and sweatsuits bearing their school logos, and jotted notes as they flipped through pamphlets describing each player in attendance.
After a pair of games, the sweat-coated Merritt was approached by coaches from three colleges. One by one, they made their pitches.
“I got a lot of looks here today,” said Merritt, a sleeper prospect who wasn’t even a starter this season at Kingsway. “It was thrilling. It was quite an experience. I’m not going to forget it — the thrill of a coach coming up to you, knowing that he wants you on his team, that your career will extend past high school.”
Today on National Signing Day for high school basketball players, blue-chippers will ink their names on letters-of-intent and pledge to play for the basketball blue bloods: Kentucky, North Carolina, Duke.
But thousands of others teenagers will also make life-impacting decisions to play for smaller schools at lower levels. And for dozens of players here in New Jersey, coaches say those opportunities wouldn’t be possible without the EKB Roundball Showcase, which is run by local talent evaluator Ed Butler and held every April in North Jersey.
“I don’t even know if anybody could tell you how many kids he’s helped,” said Jay Cyriac, an assistant coach from Seward County Community College in Liberal, Kan., who attends every year. “He’s helped so many kids it’s unbelievable.”
At the one-day showcase last Sunday, more than 180 of the best unsigned high school seniors from New Jersey and surrounding states packed the Dunn Center to display their skills for approximately 120 college coaches from across the country.
For a fee of about $75, each player is given a specific jersey number listed in the thick handout distributed to coaches — complete with a bio including everything from the player’s strengths on the court to his SAT scores.
The players are divided into 18 teams; each team plays three 30-minute games over the course of almost five hours. The games have referees and the score is kept. But it’s the little details — the way a player works on defense, finds the open man or explodes off the floor — that everyone is really watching.
A native of Orange, Butler has put on the showcase for the past 20 years, helping hundreds of New Jersey high school players find college destinations. He ensures the top available seniors are in the gym for the invitation-only event by meticulously scouting games and talking to coaches throughout the year.
Butler, who works as a service consultant for New York Life Insurance Co., also runs the EKB scouting service that publishes four times per year. More than 150 colleges from all levels subscribe to the service annually for a fee of a couple-hundred dollars, Butler said.
“We’ve had countless kids affected by going to this,” said St. Anthony High coach Bob Hurley, who has been bringing his underrecruited players to the showcase since 1997. “The kids always benefit from being there.”
Butler started scouting local high school players in the late 1970s shortly after graduating from St. John’s University, where he played junior varsity basketball. Initially, his interest stemmed from his love for the game and through trying to get the word out on underrecruited players he knew about.
One of the St. John’s assistant coaches — Carmine Calzonetti — noticed Butler had a skill for identifying talent and suggested he start a recruiting service, Butler said.
“My job is to take the best players who are still unsigned and help them get an opportunity to play next year,” Butler said. “Based on the past and the type of colleges we have in here, if a player has a good showing he can really boost his stock. I’ve seen kids leave here with four or five options.”
Through the 1990s, before the NCAA recruiting calendar changed, Division 1 coaches were permitted to attend showcases such as this at this time of year. Subsequent changes to recruiting rules over the past decade disallow that. But the showcase has continued to thrive because of the talent it pumps out to Division 2, Division 3, NAIA and junior colleges.
Top Division 2 programs can offer up to 10 full athletic scholarships, and Division 1 junior college programs — the best of the level — can also extend free rides.
“There are quite a few diamonds in the rough here,” said Shaw (N.C.) University assistant coach Rick Jackson, who discovered former University High guard Derrick Hunter at the showcase last year.
After Sunday, Jackson extended an offer to Rancocas Valley High forward Kenny Johnson; fellow Division 2 school Virginia State also offered Johnson based on his performance Sunday.
Countless success stories have emerged from Butler’s showcase.
Take last year: St. Anthony reserve Dytrel Bracey tore a knee ligament his junior season and played sparingly as a senior for the Friars. He had no scholarship offers entering the showcase but left with a deal from Western Oklahoma State Junior College.
This season, he finished second nationally in both assists (8.1 per game) and steals (4.4).
“After two years he’ll have his associate’s degree and he’ll then get recruited by some four-year schools,” Hurley said. “It’s the opportunity to get your education paid for.”
Also last season, former Shabazz High forward Daveon Boardingham signed on with Seward County Community College after he failed to qualify academically for a Division 1 scholarship.
“He was found here last year,” Cyriac said. “He’s thriving with us.”
Boardingham averaged 10.8 points and 6.8 rebounds per game this season and will likely be a preseason junior college All-American next season, Cyriac said.
“In the pursuit of getting your education and playing college basketball,” Hurley said, “sometimes the route you take is very different.”
As morning turned into afternoon Sunday, the sneaker squeaks and shouts from the courts intensified. Coaches feverishly trekked from one floor to the next, staring hard at the action and scouring for hidden gems before the final whistle.
Some schools, such as Division 2 Felician College in Lodi, had as many as three coaches in the gym. With any luck, they could plug the six holes in their roster left by graduating seniors.
“Recruiting is an evolving, never-ending process,” Felician head coach Dave DeFerrari said. “You’re always seeing new people or seeing somebody that you didn’t know of, or hearing about somebody that you weren’t aware of. You come to an event like this and sometimes your strategy changes.”
Many players at the showcase came with the understanding the day would bring one of their final chances at a college scholarship. Some left without being approached by any coaches, but have the peace of mind that they had given it their all.
Merritt, though, finished his final game and walked off the court with a smile. He came to the event not knowing what to expect and left with a few colleges interested in bringing him on board.
On Monday, coaches from Lake Land (Ill.) Junior College who saw him at the showcase visited Merritt at school and offered him a scholarship. He said he will likely accept it following a visit to the college this weekend.
“I came in with the mind-set that I’m just going to go play ball and let the chips fall where they may,” Merritt said yesterday. “Lord willing, it worked out for me.”
PRINCETON — Orange High proved to be the best third-seeded boys' basketball team in the six-year history of the Tournament of Champions.
The Tornadoes became the first team not seeded first or second to win the Tournament of Champions boys' title, defeating top-seeded Paterson Catholic, 64-55, yesterday at Princeton Univesity.
Orange finished 25-3, losing all three games to Clifford Scott, a team the Tornadoes also beat once this season. Paterson Catholic, which hadn't lost to a New Jersey team all season, finished 26-3.
In the previous five Tournament of Champions title games, the top seed won four times and a second seed won once. Early in yesterday's game, that streak looked as if it would stay intact. Paterson Catholic, the Parochial B state champion, took a 13-2 lead before Orange regrouped.
"We had to regain our composure in the beginning," Orange coach Al Thompson said. "We had to settle down. Being in the championship for the first time, we were a little anxious."
Paterson Catholic coach James Salmon Jr. could be open to second-guessing for his strategy concerning his standout sophomore, Timmy Thomas. The 6-foot-9 center was called for his second foul with 3 minutes, 9 seconds left in the first quarter and Paterson Catholic leading, 14-8.
Thomas, who scored 15 points and had 10 rebounds, didn't play the rest of the first half and sat out 12 of the 32 minutes. He finished with three personal fouls.
"I thought about bringing him in late in the half, but the score was tied (at 21)," Salmon said. "We thought we could get away with it."
With Thomas out, Orange, with 6-6 Robert Skipper and 6-8 Duval Simmonds, took control inside. The Tornadoes, who beat Camden for the state Group 3 title, outscored Paterson Catholic, 18-4, in the second quarter to take a 29-23 halftime lead.
Simmonds, a St. Joe's recruit, earned MVP honors for scoring 21 points to go along with 16 rebounds and four blocks.
Skipper, who was the MVP in Orange's 65-63 over Camden, led all scorers with 23 points and had 15 rebounds against Paterson Catholic.
"I had been reading so much about Thomas, about how he is an all-American, and I took it as a personal challenge," Simmonds said. "He was tough, but nobody seemed to be giving our guys credit. We earned it today."
Orange entered the final period leading, 46-41, but Paterson Catholic scored six straight points to regain the lead, 47-46. Thomas keyed the run with four points. First, hee scored on a jumper off the dribble. Then Thomas, who's righthanded, hit a scoop shot with his left hand.
With the score tied at 51, Thomas was fouled hard on a pump fake with 3:52 left in the game. He remained on the floor a few moments before going to the bench.
After Montrice White hit two free throws, Thomas went back to the scorer's table, but couldn't re-enter the game for more than two minutes because play did not stop.
After Skipper tapped his own miss to give Orange a 57-55 lead with 1:36 remaining, Paterson Catholic finally called a timeout so Thomas could re-enter the game.
Orange controlled the game from that point, hitting 7 of 8 free throws down the stretch as Paterson Catholic went cold from the field.