Long Island Lutheran’s.VJ Edgecombe dunking the ball on a fast...

Long Island Lutheran’s.VJ Edgecombe dunking the ball on a fast break against Chaminade in the 3rd quarter at Long Island Lutheran High School Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

John Buck thinks this season’s Long Island Lutheran boys basketball team has a chance to be one of the program’s best ever, which speaks volumes.

Buck, in his 15th year as LuHi’s head coach, has led one of the most recognizable names in not only New York but American high school basketball, churning Division I talent on an annual basis. LuHi has 10 Division I prospects this season, Buck said, and will test itself among the nation’s best.

Just two years removed from playing as an independent, LuHi is a part of the new Nike EYBL Scholastic conference, a 14-team super league featuring some of the nation’s premier programs. The nine-time New York state champion perennially wants to be the best of the best, and the 2023-24 season serves as a golden opportunity to achieve that.

“I think we’re viewed at, in high regards, like some of those programs like Oak Hill [Virginia] and Montverde [Florida] and some of the elite programs nationally,” Buck said. “I think we’ve put ourselves kind of right there. Whereas two years ago, I think it was much more of like, people in Long Island and New York knew about LuHi, but maybe not so much beyond.”

So far, Buck’s sentiment rings true. The Crusaders entered the year with a target on their back, checking in at No. 1 in the MaxPreps Week 1 top 25 rankings and No. 6 in ESPN’s preseason top 25. That target proved to be warranted from LuHi’s first game, a 27-point neutral-site win over Oak Hill on Nov. 30.

LuHi’s end goal this season is to win the High School Boys Basketball Nationals, where the Crusaders saw their special 2022-23 season end in a two-point loss to AZ Compass in the quarterfinals. LuHi won 22 games in a row last season — including the New York State Federation Class AA title — and went 10-2 in the National Interscholastic Basketball Conference, which expanded this year to create the EYBL Scholastic league.

LuHi will not play for a state title this year, though. The New York State Federation of Secondary Schools Athletic Association canceled its annual Basketball Tournament of Champions, citing decreased interest and attendance among other reasons. Buck foresaw the decision but is thankful the Crusaders’ league affiliation gives them a prize to play for.

The Crusaders return six key contributors from last year’s 23-3 squad, headlined by 2023 Newsday Player of the Year VJ Edgecombe, the No. 5 player nationally in the class of 2024.

“We play with a chip on our shoulder every night,” Edgecombe said. “That’s the approach to games, especially for me. Losing in the quarterfinals last year in GEICO [Nationals], it was hard, to be honest … Coming into this year, I mean, we have a different approach.”

LuHi welcomes a few highly-touted newcomers, headlined by four-star prospect and junior guard Kiyan Anthony, the son of former Knicks great Carmelo Anthony. Guard Nigel James, a Huntington native, is new to LuHi via Cushing Academy (Massachusetts) but brings an important local flavor to the program.

“I love representing my hometown, Long Island,” James said. “A lot of people don’t know that I'm from here also, because a lot of people think I’m from Massachusetts because I went to school out there for three years. But I like to tell everybody I’m from Huntington, from Long Island and born and raised there.”

Junior Kayden Mingo and sophomore Dylan Mingo are also brothers from Farmingdale. People may overlook the hometown feel of the roster when it comes to a national powerhouse like LuHi, but it is something Buck takes pride in.

“These guys being from here, having pride to represent not just LuHi, but Long Island on a national stage is big,” Buck said. “It adds a dimension to some of the teams we play that don’t have that. A lot of these teams, no one is from around the area. But for us, we do have a little bit of that homegrown ethos and culture that I think gives us toughness and pride.”

While the Crusaders’ success starts with Edgecombe, the margin between Player Two and Player 10 in their rotation is razor thin. Buck has built his team so they can continuously have fresh legs while eating into the depth of their opponent.

“Depth is not a problem for us,” Edgecombe said. “We have all 10 guys that can go, that can play. Everyone knows what they [are] supposed to do on the court. Everyone can step up at any time … So you sub in one, you sub in a great player every time, literally.”

Talent can only get LuHi so far, especially in a conference where every team feels they are loaded. But the Crusaders believe they have the necessary intangibles to solidify a championship team.

“That’s like the biggest thing with us, is just our synergy,” James said. “Our LuHi culture has to be better than everybody. And we have to be synergized, be on the same page at all times and know that you got to pick up the next man.”

TEAM RANKINGS

OVERALL

1. Long Island Lutheran

2. Bay Shore

3. Brentwood

4. Chaminade

5. St. Anthony’s

6. St. John the Baptist

7. Port Washington

8. Floyd

9. Baldwin

10. Elmont

PUBLIC SCHOOLS

1. Bay Shore

2. Brentwood

3. Port Washington

4. Floyd

5. Baldwin

6. Elmont

7. Smithtown West

8. Southampton

9. Sewanhaka

10. Great Neck South

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