W2W4: Front Runners & Dark Horses Entering Postseason Play

As region tournament play in high school basketball nears, let’s take a look at some of the favorites and potential dark horses in each classification. It has been another exciting year of action packed basketball and I’ll do my best to shed some light on what has happened this season and what to look forward to as the nets get cut in March.

Class AAAAAA

Georgia’s largest classification has been home to one of the biggest slobber knocker regions in the state. Region 7 has had a must-see slate all season long. Collins Hill (17-6, 7-5) was sitting pretty a few weeks in after new head coach Ty Baumgardner successfully installed his system, but No. 4 Norcross (20-3, 11-1) has roared ahead of the pack and are riding an 11-game win streak. Ricky Madison and Rayshaun Hammonds lead one of the state’s tallest rosters. Duluth (17-6, 8-4) has played exceptionally well and may play the spoiler in the region tourney. In Region 6, Alpharetta (19-4, 16-0) and Lambert (18-5, 13-3) pose threats that could knock off nearly anybody. The Raiders rely on UNC-Wilmington-commit Devontae Cacok and Jaylon Gamble to battle inside while the Longhorns have a plethora of guards who can lead the team in scoring any given night. Wheeler (21-2 14-0), the No. 1 team in the state, resides in Region 5. Shembari Phillips (Tennessee) and No. 2 ranked Jaylen Brown believe the road to state runs through Holt Rd. No. 3 Pebblebrook (17-5, 11-0) is extremely dangerous and has played a monstrous national schedule. Last year’s state champs, No. 2 Tift County (22-1, 6-0) has flown under the radar in south Georgia and are prepared to defend its title.

            Class AAAAA

No. 1 Miller Grove (21-3, 13-0) is the odds on favorite to make it seven straight state titles. Alterique Gilbert is a true leader and a defensive stalwart. No. 2 McIntosh (23-0, 16-0) is the only undefeated left and relies on the versatile Jordan Lyons and Dishon Lowery to wipe out opponents. Head coach Markus Hood once again has No. 3 Allatoona (22-2, 17-0) clicking on all cylinders in Region 5 using a balanced scoring attack. A potential dark horse is Apalachee (17-6, 9-3). Junior guard Kamar Baldwin is a top player in the state averaging over 27 points and 10 rebounds a night. The Wildcats have already knocked off No. 4 Gainesville (20-2, 10-1) and Mississippi State-commit D’Marcus Simonds once this year.

Class AAAA

No. 1 Jonesboro (23-1, 14-0) is as tough as they come and are riding a 22-game winning streak. M.J. Walker is a five-star sophomore that ignites the Cardinals’ offense. No. 2 Johnson (22-0, 6-0) might be small in the frontcourt, but the scoring combo of Rod English (19.6) and Ty Cockfield (29.2) make them one of the most exciting teams to watch. Wins over Class A powers North Cobb Christian (15-8, 10-0), and No. 5 Whitefield Academy (16-8, 8-2) along with signature victories over No. 4 Gainesville, Apalachee, and Buford (13-11, 6-1) have the Knights believing a deep run in state is more probable than possible. No. 5 Carrollton (20-2, 8-0) behind big man Montae Glenn will likely pose issues throughout the tournament. One sleeper who may feel disrespected about not being ranked, is Heritage (21-3, 12-1). The Generals’ 21 wins is the most by a team to not be ranked.

Class AAA

Two schools figure to be a cut above the rest right now as No. 1 Laney (22-1, 10-0) and No. 2 Jenkins (20-3, 11-0) standout as powerhouses. After dropping its first game of the season to Class A’s No. 1 St. Francis (20-3, 10-0) 67-64, Laney has gone undefeated including an 11 point win over Jenkins. Defending champs No. 4 Morgan County (17-7, 11-0) and Tookie Brown have found their groove and look to make another deep run. The Saints of No. 3 Cedar Grove (16-3, 7-1) are dangerous with Jacara Cross leading the team in points and rebounds. Christopher Fredrick and Kenneth Lewis give Coach James Martin a reliable backcourt night in and night out. The Saints have already beaten Gainesville by 19 and fell to Miller Grove by just four.

            Class AA

After rallying to beat No. 3 Holy Innocents’ (19-4, 9-3), No. 1 Pace Academy (21-2, 12-0) continues to look like the team to beat behind Wendell Carter Jr. and Elijah Holifield. Reggie Reid leads No. 7 Harlem (20-3, 9-2) and nearly averages a triple-double, as the Bulldogs will look to put Harlem, GA on the map.

            Class A

No. 2 Greenforest Christian (19-1, 10-0), No. 3 Athens Christian (22-0, 11-0), and No. 6 Treutlen (20-1, 12-0) might have the best chances of dethroning No. 1 St. Francis. No. 5 Whitefield Academy has been the only team to challenge St. Francis thus far this season with losses of eight points and five points.

Brian Gregory’s Hot Seat

52-62, that is Georgia Tech Head Coach Brian Gregory’s record in three plus seasons at the helm of the Jackets, and this year is looking like it may be his worst with the Jackets currently in the cellar at 0-7 in the ACC. It looks like it is time for another change at Tech. Before Gregory, Paul Hewitt amassed a 190-162 record through 11 seasons, unspectacular if you take away the 2003-04 run to the National Championship. In those 11 years, Hewitt managed six winning seasons. Hewitt’s tenure went south after too many up and down seasons. Three of his last four seasons ended up with the loss column fatter than the winning column.

Gregory was plucked from Dayton after a 172-94 record including multiple trips to the NCAA Tournament and a NIT Championship. The move from A-10 to the powerful ACC seemed like a no-brainer. A strong coach at an emerging school making the leap to the ACC with a strong southeastern recruiting region seemed like the perfect fit. Georgia Tech, who usually manages to hold its own in recruiting, was supposed to bring in enough talent to at least be competitive in the ACC, but instead that has not been the case.

Gregory has managed to ink four 4-star prospects, but many have not panned out. Robert Carter was a key cog inside a year ago averaging over 11 points and eight rebounds, but he has since transferred to Maryland. Guard Solomon Poole was kicked off the team last February and is now Florida Atlantic’s leading scorer. Freshman Tadric Jackson from Tifton is shooting 25 percent and is just 5-51 from beyond the arc. Tech’s lone highly-touted recruit that has actually panned out has been Marcus Georges-Hunt, who is now a junior and leads the Jackets in scoring.

The talent has been there as far as recruiting sites say. Virginia has had just two more 4-star players in the same time Gregory has been at Tech, and Tony Bennett has turned the Cavaliers into the best defensive team in the nation and one of only two schools left this season to be undefeated. Bennett’s Cavs held Georgia Tech to their lowest output in ACC history as they managed just 28 points last Thursday.

If Gregory can’t turn things around, Tech (9-10, 0-7) should be ready to go in another direction. The ACC has only gotten tougher with the additions of Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Notre Dame, and Louisville. The Jackets have not been able to keep up with the dearth of exceptional talent and coaching. The best record Coach Gregory has managed so far is 6-12 in back to back seasons. Six of their seven ACC losses this season have been by single digits, but moral victories won’t keep any coach around. Coach Hewitt, although not an offensive genius, always had teams that could score the ball and be primed to pull an upset. In his 11 seasons, the Yellow Jackets averaged 74.25 points a night. Under Gregory, that number has dropped to 63.67; the second lowest in the ACC. The Jackets struggle to share the ball and hit open shots—a recipe for disaster. They shoot a miserable 25 percent from deep which allows teams to sag off shooters and load the paint.

Gregory has seemingly tried to hang his hat on defense during his time at Georgia Tech which isn’t a bad idea, but when your team is that inept at scoring it doesn’t make much of a difference. Tech has managed to play games tight, but once the bullets start flying in the second half, they have no playmakers to get a shot off. It definitely has been a rough three plus years for Coach Gregory. He by no means has the most talented roster in the ACC, but there is enough talent to be in the hunt for at least a NIT bid.  If this season continues to sputter and Georgia Tech cannot gain any ground, Gregory’s seat should rightfully be on fire. If he is still with the program this offseason, it might be a good idea for him to meet with Paul Johnson and figure out how to turn things around and in the process, save his job.

Peach State Hoops Shines

Here in the south, it is understood and embedded in southerners that football is king. Small towns shutdown every Friday night to go support their local team and make going to games one of the must-do activities in the summer into fall seasons. Now that football season has since concluded basketball has taken the stage. The little brother to football in the aspects of coverage and pride at times, basketball does not take a back seat to football in talent level. Some of the best high school players in the nation call the peach state home, and they may be closer to your humble abode than you think.

It is time for Georgia high school basketball to get the coverage and respect it deserves, and here at Score Atlanta we are ready to amp up the coverage and let Georgians know that Tuesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays now belong to basketball. Did you know that Wheeler out of Marietta, Georgia is ranked nationally and has the number two ranked player in the entire nation? Jaylen Brown is a 6-foot-7 freak of nature that brings the house down at least once a night with SportsCenter Top Ten worthy dunks. He is still unsigned and has every top program in the nation banging down his door. Couple him with teammate Shembari Phillips who has already committed to Tennessee, and your ticket is already worth the price of admission.

Class AAAAAA has massive talent spread across the state. The No. 2 ranked Pebblebrook Falcons have ascended into being nationally recognized with the trio of Ty Hudson (Clemson), Derek Ogbeide (Georgia), and Jared Harper, who may be the best player on the team but is still deciding amongst colleges. How about a guy that gets it done in both the classroom and the court? Just this week, Milton power forward Chris Lewis verbally committed to Harvard.

Miller Grove, the reigning six-time state champs, is tearing things up once again at Class AAAAA. Alterique Gilbert, a crafty guard who is a floor general, flirts with a triple-double seemingly every night. Pair him with move-in Lamont West, Aidan Saunders, and Gamaun Boykin, and Miller Grove looks like the odds on favorite to make it seven straight titles. Gainesville, the third ranked team at 5A, has some top level talent of its own in D’Marcus Simonds. The 6-foot-4 shooting guard is only a junior, but has committed to play at Mississippi State. One team and player that has flown under the radar is Apalachee led by Kamar Baldwin. The six-foot junior does everything for the Wildcats. In one of the best guard matchups all season long, Baldwin squared off with 4A undefeated Johnson-Gainesville’s Ty Cockfield.  Johnson rallied for an 82-76 victory, but it was the play of the two guards that left everyone buzzing. Baldwin went for 46 points and 13 rebounds, while Cockfield scored 42 of his own. Both players are averaging over 26 points per game and are two of the most exciting guards in the state.

Down in Class AAA, diminutive dynamo Tookie Brown leads Morgan County. The Mississippi State-commit stole the show last season in the state championship when he scored 36 points and led the Bulldogs to a 69-45 title. In Class AA, No. 1 ranked Pace Academy is led by one of the highest touted big men prospects in the nation, sophomore Wendell Carter Jr. The 6-foot-10 tower averages a double-double on the season and has helped Pace go undefeated so far in region play. Greater Atlanta Christian is always loaded with talent, and Seminole County relies on Georgia-commit Jordan Harris to get the job done.

Though Class A is the state’s smallest classification, it definitely is not void of talent. No. 1 St. Francis boasts seniors Kaiser Gates (Xavier), Malik Beasley (FSU), and super junior, five-star Kobi Simmons.

The state of Georgia is more than just a one trick pony when it comes to sports. The football talent is great, but the action on the hardwood is nearly unparalleled. With schools now in the heart of their schedules, it is the perfect time to open up your Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday nights, to watch the stars of tomorrow play today.

Eagles Flying Under The Radar

In college basketball, everybody knows the prestigious programs of Duke, North Carolina, Kansas, and Kentucky. In the past decade, Mid-Major programs have been all the rage stealing spotlights and headlines with their exceptional play. 2006 gave us George Mason, 2010 gave us Butler, 2011 Virginia Commonwealth, and most recently Wichita State last season. Nothing is better than a Cinderella story, a true David vs Goliath matchup. Last year, Georgia State narrowly missed making it to the big dance after they fell to Elfrid Payton’s Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns in the Sun Belt title game 82-81 in overtime after a 25 win season. This season Georgia State is humming along under the radar nationally, but is still a favorite to win the Sun Belt this year, but I’m here to talk about another Georgia school that might have something to say about that, the Georgia Southern Eagles.

A notorious powerhouse in football, the Eagles (10-3, 3-1) have quietly put together a very nice season and have designs on thwarting the Panthers’ dreams of making it to the big dance along with every other Sun Belt school. A true dark horse, the Eagles finished 15-19 a season ago and managed just a 6-10 record in the Southern Conference. So far, it seems like the switch from the SoCon to the Sun Belt has benefited the Eagles. Currently they are second in the conference, one game behind 4-0 UL-Lafayette.

All three of Georgia Southern’s losses this season have come by single digits. The Eagles opened their season in Champaign, Illinois against the Fighting Illini. Southern entered the half tied at 31, but eventually fell 80-71. Their other two losses came against UCF by two and to Texas-Arlington by 1; both road losses. Senior Jelani Hewitt makes things click for the Eagles on offense. The playmaking guard leads the team in points (20.2) and assists (3.8) and has been the leader in these two categories since last year as a junior when he averaged over 19 points and 3 assists per game.

A key addition to this year’s team has been former Greater Atlanta Christian state champion, Trent Wiedeman. Now a senior, Wiedeman was named to the SoCon All-Freshman Team and to the Mid-Major Freshman All-American team which was selected by CollegeInsider.com. Wiedeman found great success early on in his career under Head Coach Bobby Cremins, but found his playing time decrease under new coach Doug Wojcik after he could not get healthy after two ankle injuries.

The big man has been a major boon for the Eagles’ low post game as he is currently second in scoring with 13.6 points and leads the team in rebounding with 6.8 per game. Eric Ferguson, who led the team in scoring and rebounding as a sophomore and junior, is now back with the team after facing a suspension with off court issues stemming from drug charges. After missing the first six games of the season, the 6’8 forward has begun to round into shape and is averaging 8.6 points and 4.9 rebounds on 51 percent shooting.

Hewitt, Wiedeman, and Ferguson make up a formidable trio that should be able to give opposing Sun Belt foes issues with their ability to score inside and out. Georgia Southern’s main strength is its ability to control the glass. They rank 16th in the nation with 40.5 rebounds a game and lead the conference. Compare that with conference favorite Georgia State, who ranks 289th with just 32.1 rebounds per game, and the Eagles have the sizable advantage.  Where the Eagles might hurt down the stretch is their inability to block shots, where they average under two a game ranking 257th in the nation.

Though it is still early in conference play, anything can happen. Head Coach Mark Byington now in his second season at Southern, seemingly has the Eagles believing they can play with anyone. They have played a soft schedule with three non-division one schools, but the close loss to Illinois and wins against South Florida and Florida International have Byington and the Eagles hoping this season’s senior ladened team can open some eyes and make some noise in the Sun Belt.

Wake Up Atlanta: Time to Hop on the Hawks Bandwagon

Choo-Choo! All-aboard! This is the sound of the Atlanta Hawks bandwagon about to leave the station. If you haven’t jumped on already and bought into this year’s team, it definitely is time to. Atlanta’s “other” team has emerged as the must see ticket in town. Atlanta is in uncharted territory. The Hawks are 26-8 and off to their best start in franchise history since moving to Atlanta from St. Louis and are showing no signs of slowing down.

The stars are seemingly aligned for Atlanta this year. They are playing in the Eastern Conference, the Cavaliers have flopped, and the Hawks have managed to stay healthy. In Coach Mike Budenholzer’s first year at the helm last season, he took the plucky eighth-seeded Hawks without Al Horford and pushed the number one seed Indiana Pacers to the brink of elimination. Fast forward to this season and Bud has a healthy cast and a much improved bench. Horford may not be the 20 and 10 threat he was in years past, but he is settling in nicely as a third-option behind Paul Millsap and the steady Jeff Teague.

Before this year, Horford was relied upon to be “the man” for the offense and was expected to shoulder much of the load. This season, Coach Budenholzer has the Hawks clicking offensively while sharing the ball. Atlanta is currently ranked third in the NBA with 25.3 assists per game led by Teague’s 7.1. The offense has run smoothly and has managed to keep the turnovers down, with the Hawks boasting the fourth best assist-to-turnover ratio in the league. Kyle Korver is off to the league’s best shooting season in history and is attempting to become the first player ever to record a 50/50/90 shooting line; that is 50 percent from the field, 50 percent from the three-point line, and 90 percent from the foul line.

As great and unselfish as the Hawks have been offensively, Coach Budenholzer will be the first to tell you that it is Atlanta’s defense that has taken the next step into becoming elite. They currently rank fifth in the NBA allowing just 97.6 points per game. During their current stretch of winning 19 out of 21 games, they have allowed over 100 points just eight times. It has been a group effort with four players averaging over a steal a game led by Paul Millsap’s 1.88, which by far is the most by any power forward in the league and is tied for sixth in the NBA.

The main reason for Atlanta’s success is that its players are getting it done on both sides of the court; they are not one dimensional. Millsap is not only leading the team in steals, but he also is second in scoring with 17.2 per game, and averages a team high 8.1 rebounds to go along with 3.1 assists. Teague, who leads the Hawks with 17.4 points per game, also is a thief on defense picking up 1.77 steals per game. This trend continues down the roster. Al Horford is blocking nearly a shot and a half a game and DeMarre Carroll has blossomed into one of the NBA’s premier “3 & D” guys.

A rock solid starting five with players that get it done on both ends of the court is great, but the lack of a bench is something that often separates the pretenders from the contenders. A lot of Atlanta’s success has to be credited to the bench and the added pieces. Mike Scott emerged as one of the East’s best knock-down shooters off the bench last year. He exploded in the Indiana series and has continued his evolution from a post player into a dynamic 3-4 man shooting 38.5 percent from downtown. Scott along with stretch big man Pero Antic, cause matchup issues all over the floor for opponents’ big men who are not accustomed to guarding on the perimeter must step out to contest their three pointers. The newly added Thabo Sefolosha struggled early on to find his shot but has slowly begun to creep out of his slump. Thabo has added a toughness on the wing and an ability to guard other teams’ best scorers when needed. His playoff experience with the Thunder is also invaluable for the Hawks’ bench unit.

The biggest improvement Atlanta has seen has been from second year guard Dennis Schroder. The 17th overall pick in the 2013 draft got limited burn a year ago, but the heralded Rajon Rondo clone has begun to tear things up on the second unit. His scoring is up to 8.2 points per game after just 3.7 last season and has shot well from the floor at a 44.8 percent clip. Though he still plays under 18 minutes per game, the German-born Schroder is second on the team in assists with 3.2 a night. He has come up big late in games including this Monday when he scored all seven of his points in the fourth quarter in a 107-98 win over the Clippers.

Coach Bud has established a winning mindset and a culture change after a rocky offseason with the front office issues. The team has bought into playing with intensity on both ends and Hawks fans have reaped the benefits seeing their team hold first place in the Eastern Conference. It took fans and pundits a while to believe however. Atlanta opened up with a soft schedule and many questioned the merits of its victories. They soon crushed all doubt with their nine game win streak and current 19 of 21 stretch. They have gone 9-2 against Western Conference teams, which is the measuring stick for all Eastern teams.

The Highlight Factory has been a nightmare for opposing teams, as Atlanta has gone 14-3 at Philips Arena. The franchise is continuously trying to sell out games and get fans to appreciate the best team in the East. The Pac is back and it is finally time for Atlantans to embrace the team’s success and ride this train all the way into the postseason and possibly to their first division title since 1993-94.

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