Phil Anastasia: Eastern races past Camden
Led by Devon Bell's 27 points, the Vikings took a 23-point halftime lead and coasted home against the host Panthers.
Of all the numbers in basketball, the smallest might be the most important.
"One ball," Eastern coach Joe Murphy said of his briefest and best message to his talented team.
Start with that premise. One ball.
By its nature, the sport promotes team play. And the best teams usually are the ones that share the best.
Eastern began a season of great expectations on Friday with an imposing, 68-40 victory over visiting Camden in an Olympic Conference interdivision clash.
Junior swingman Devon Bell scored 27, and senior guard Mike Wilson added 16. Eastern played sturdy defense; controlled the backboards; and made five three-pointers, all in the first three quarters.
But what was most notable was the Vikings' depth, balance, and unselfish play - right from Jordan Ifill's pass that led to Wilson's layup on the game's first possession.
"We're really focused on everybody playing their role," said Wilson, who scored the Vikings' first six points. "We know we have a talented team, but we know we need to play as a team."
Eastern has eight top players, all veterans of last season's 17-8 team. That sounds like a blessing.
It also could be a curse - if one or two aren't happy with playing time, or offensive opportunities, or headlines, or whatever.
"That's my job," Murphy said of the delicate task of divvying up minutes and making sure every player understands and embraces his role.
After one game, Murphy said: "So far, so good."
Actually, the Vikings are a veteran team that has played far more than one game. Wilson figures this group played 35 games in the offseason, with a spring league at Rancocas Valley and a fall league at Paul VI as well as a team camp at Rider.
"We all know our roles," Wilson said.
Friday, Wilson and Bell took most of the shots and scored most of the points. That won't always be the case, as 6-foot-6 sophomore Matt Klinewski showed his potential with 10 rebounds and 10 points, and 6-foot-5 senior Melvin Ford bounced off the bench to generate nine points.
Ford's steal and slam gave the Vikings a 27-8 lead midway through the second quarter.
"We all love to play together," said Bell, a 6-3 junior who controlled the game with smooth drives to the basket, putbacks, and a trio of three-point jumpers. "Every night, it could be somebody else. If somebody is going good, we're going to let him keep playing. And if somebody is having a bad night, we're going to pick him up."
It's a long season, and what matters most is how the Vikings are playing in March. But this team looks capable of contending both in the Olympic American and in South Jersey Group 4.
And South Jersey Group 4 champions have a knack for winning the state Group 4 title.
"These guys have very high expectations for themselves," Murphy said.
This team has good size across the lineup. Bell is a tough man-to-man matchup, and Wilson is a zone-buster. Klinewski, Ford, and 6-5 junior Avery Walker look as if they can hold their own inside against most opponents, and Ifill and reserves Brett Knoblauch and Steve Schneider look like clever, committed role players.
"These are all great kids," Murphy said. "These are good character kids, and that means a lot in a situation like this. If you don't have good character kids, it's hard to share the basketball.
"But these guys have been fabulous with that. They understand."
These guys will score a lot of points, grab a lot of rebounds, and win a lot of games.
But if they fully embrace their coach's main message, they might be using their index fingers to signal the most special number of all at the end of the season.
Camden 8 7 10 15 – 40
Eastern 13 25 15 15 – 68
C: Tavaris Headen 13, Ajwan Leaming 8, Thomas Harper 6, Josh Devine 5, Kirk Johnson 2, William McCants 6.
E: Devon Bell 27, Mike Wilson 16, Matt Klinewski 10, Melvin Ford 9, Brett Knoblauch 2, Steve Schneider 2, Sam Johnson 2.