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If seeding and brackets are to be believed, the Cardinal Newman boys basketball team is an underdog.

The Cardinals, the No. 15 seed in the NorCal regionals, face the No. 3 seed Moreau Catholic Mariners tonight in Hayward, after dispatching No. 2 Whitney and No. 7 Serra in their two previous NorCal games.

But that No. 15 seed may be a bit of a misnomer and here’s why.

Just two weeks ago, Cardinal Newman was the No. 3 seed in the Division II North Coast Section tournament. Readers will remember that they were upset 60-54 in the quarterfinals by No. 6 Tamalpais. Tamalpais, by the way, went on to beat No. 7 Montgomery in the semis 57-48 before falling to No. 4 seed Moreau Catholic 77-71 in the championship game.

So just three weeks ago, the NCS seeding committee felt that between Moreau Catholic and Cardinal Newman, that the Cardinals were the stronger of the two squads.

What that means for tonight? Don’t let the No. 15 vs. No. 3 billing fool you.

“Is their collective whole better than our collective whole? I’m not willing to concede that before 32 minutes is over,” Cardinal Newman coach Tom Bonfigli said.

There are only two common opponents between the two teams. They had different results against Tam, but both teams beat Washington High of Fremont — Cardinal Newman beat the Huskies 69-56 in the first round of the North Coast Section tournament and Moreau Catholic beat them twice in league play, 72-41 on Jan. 13 and 93-54 on Feb. 7.

But Bonfigli is the first to say that Moreau Catholic has weapons. Extraordinary weapons.

Kyree Walker, the top-rated freshman in the country by many accounts, suits up for the Mariners.

Walker, whose exploits are easily enjoyed on YouTube, averages 21 points per game to go with his six rebounds, four assists and nearly two steals.

“The guy is legit,” Bonfigli said. “He’s an exceptional prospect.”

“He is 6-foot-6 and kind of a man-child. He can put it on the floor, he plays at the rim, he has all the tools,” Bonfigli said.

A bit worrisome perhaps for the Cardinals? Walker is not the Mariners’ most prolific scorer. That honor goes to senior Damari Milstead.

Milstead averages more than 25 points per game, along with a team-leading five assists and nearly three steals.

“He shoots the ball really well, he has good handles. He gets up and down the floor,” Bonfigli said. “They are really explosive. You can’t let them get in transition. If we let them run up and down the floor, we are in trouble.”

Explosive? Indeed. The Mariners have averaged 78 points per game this season en route to a 13-1 record to win the Mission Valley League and go 23-9 overall.

But the knock on the Mariners is that offensively, they are one dimensional. Or perhaps two dimensional. The tandem of Walker/Milstead accounts for nearly 60 percent of the Mariners’ offense and after that, the stat-stuffing falls off considerably. The next highest point man is senior Jullen Ison with six points, two rebounds, three assists and two steals per game.

“They are not real deep,” Bonfigli said. “That is something that is really in our favor.”

Another thing in the Cardinals’ favor? The fact that Mariners can put up points by the bucket load, but they don’t do a great job on the other end of the court. They gave up an average of nearly 63 points per game this season.

And Cardinal Newman has a disciplined offense that more than shares the load. In the Cardinals’ past four playoff games, seniors Cody Baker and Damian Wallace have led the way in points, just as they have much of the season. Baker had 21 and 26 against Tamalpais and Washington respectively to lead the Cardinals, and Wallace led the team with 15 versus Whitney and had a 29 point explosion against Serra.

“This team is not a one man show, it never has been,” Bonfigli said.

Senior Gavin Dove can put up points, as can senior Jalen Dural and sophomore Nathan Capurro.

The key for the Cardinals may be just keeping their wits about them and withstanding the Mariners’ athleticism, especially on their home floor.

Bonfigli said he’s watched game film from more than a handful of Moreau Catholic’s games this season and they are a running, gunning, alley-oop tossing, slam dunking bunch.

“I call them tricks,” Bonfigli said of the high-flying theatrics. “They are going to make the play and dunk. That’s two points and (we) are going to get the ball back. It’s two points. You can’t over-value a play like that in the course of the game.”

But Bonfigli is not dismissive of the Mariners’ talent.

“This is the most athletic team we have played all year,” he said. “They are section champs and they won their league. I respect the hell out of them. But we have run the gauntlet and we are still here.”

“We beat a great power team on their floor in Whitney. We turned around and went to Serra with a 7-footer and in a power league … and we handled them,” he said. “We are not here by accident.”

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes and SoundCloud “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”

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