One way to measure the scope of South Jersey Group 2 in boys' basketball is to imagine the trip from Middle Township to Lakewood, from mile marker 10 on the Garden State Parkway to mile marker 90.

"How are they in South 2?" Middle Township coach Tom Feraco wondered about the high-powered Piners.

Last season, Lakewood was the Central Jersey champion. In Group 3.

Now the same team - only a year older, a year stronger, a year better - has dropped down in sections and groups.

Another way to measure the power of South Jersey Group 2 is to realize that three teams that made sectional finals last season will be in the mix. That would be South Jersey champion Collingswood, South Jersey finalist Haddon Heights and Central Jersey finalist Willingboro, which had a 21-point lead on Shabazz in the sectional title game before falling in overtime.

"Once you win it, you don't want to give it back," Collingswood coach Joe McLoughlin said. "But when you look at this group on paper, you realize how tough that's going to be."

And still another way is to realize that perennial power Haddonfield will be back open for business. And that Medford Tech is the real deal. And that Cinnaminson and Lower Cape May - with three starters returning from last season's Group 3 semifinalist - will be right there, too.

"You're kidding me with this group," Feraco said.

Hey, every group looks tough from the inside. The same thing is being said about South Jersey 4 and Non-Public South A and all the rest.

That's understood. And there's no way to know, not in the middle of December, what those teams and those brackets will be like when the tournament begins on Feb. 28.

That said, it's tough to imagine a small-school public bracket as deep and dangerous as South Jersey Group 2.

Put it this way: Five or six of these teams, maybe more, could look eye-to-eye with South Jersey Group 3 favorite Kingsway.

Feraco said Lakewood is a cut above the competition. The Piners are led by 6-foot-6 senior forward Jarrod Davis and 6-5 senior forward Tony Walker, a pair of Division I-caliber athletes.

"They are so athletic," said Feraco, whose team scrimmaged Lakewood in early December.

Middle Township will be right there. The Panthers can win this group because they have seniors Marcus Harmon and Garrett Kerr, a talented transfer from Moorestown, plus a loaded sophomore class and a terrific coach in Feraco.

The key for Middle Township will be the health of senior Shia Henry. He was one of South Jersey's best sophomores in 2009. If he continues to improve from a devastating knee injury, the Panthers won't take a backseat to anybody, not even Lakewood.

But this is no two-team race. Haddonfield has a big-time scorer in Wyatt Polk, an experienced guard in Anthony Parenti, and will benefit from the return of senior twins Kevin Davis and Chris Davis.

Cinnaminson's Max DiLeo is one of South Jersey's best players. Collingswood, with senior forward B.J. Jones, isn't going anywhere. Haddon Heights has three starters, including high-scoring Mike Pitts, back from a 24-win team. Willingboro has two starters back from a 25-win team.

Medford Tech has five seniors with three years of varsity experience, including three double-figure scorers from last season's 17-win team. The Jaguars are led by quicksilver senior guard Devonte Carey.

It's a long season. A lot will happen between now and the cutoff, and between the cutoff and the start of the tournament, and between the start of the tournament and the sectional title game.

It makes an 80-mile trek up the Garden State Parkway seem like a Sunday drive. But it's going to a long, hard road for every team in South Jersey Group 2.

Contact staff writer Phil Anastasia at 856-779-3223