Impressions from the Georgia Cup Finals

HoopSeen hosted its final installment of the Georgia Cup series this past weekend. As always, present and future standouts of the GHSA were on display. With summer team camps getting under way, players will begin to transition back into their respective school’s system of play but will be bringing with them an invaluable measure of experience from earlier in the offseason.

Two high school teams took to the Georgia Cup Finals as Riverwood (29-2) and Dacula (19-7) both began their 2016-17 journeys without some of their best players in school history. Riverwood, who set a school record in wins last year and made a trip to the Elite Eight, gave us a first look at life after Kohl Roberts (GCSU). Dacula flaunted its new-look lineup without Kevon Tucker (Wofford) and Derek St. Hilaire (Gordon State).

Riverwood went 2-2 this weekend while Dacula finished 5-0, rolling to the championship. The Raiders lost to Dacula 63-45 in the semifinals. Rising seniors Elijah Jenkins, Charnchai Chantha and Amir Smith played well in the backcourt, but they didn’t have enough fire power to contend with Dacula after jumping out to an early lead. Riverwood was among the state’s leaders in points allowed last season, relying on a stingy defense, but the Raiders’ bugaboo has always been can they score enough? When Jenkins and Chantha are hot from deep, they are a tough duo to stop, but if they aren’t hitting, Riverwood is susceptible to offensive lulls. Springy 6-foot-6 senior forward Josh Brown along with the play of rising juniors Christian Sutton, Lamin Williams and 6-foot-6 and still growing Nassir Mohammed will determine how well the Raiders cope with the loss of such an important senior class.

Dacula Falcons Taking Flight

Dacula escapes one of the toughest regions in the state and will be one of only two Gwinnett County schools (Lanier) in Region 8-AAAAAA, avoiding the state’s highest classification as well. With such a young group, growing pains could be an issue early on in the season, but the harmonious syncing of the backcourt could offset the loss of the school’s leading scorer (Kevon Tucker).

Sophomore Mekhail Bethea, junior Arusha Hunter and senior Justin Goodson create a backcourt that compliments each other well. Bethea earned more playing time as the season went on last year and will be inserted into a starting role from Game 1 his sophomore season. Bethea was masterful in Dacula’s 80-63 win over Active Elite for the 17U Georgia Cup Finals championship. He finished with 22 points, three assists and four steals. Bethea will need to get stronger, but he already has great composure with the ball in his hands and can create open shots for teammates when diving the lane.

Hunter poured in 19 points in the second half and netted a game-high 23. He was an X-Factor with his ability to knock down threes (3) and attack the boards (8). Hunter even added three assists from his small forward position.  Goodson didn’t get much burn as a junior, but the streaky three-point shooter looks poised for a breakout senior season along with senior Gary Bishop after a strong summer and a few transfers helping open the way. Goodson banged home four deep balls and scored 21 points in the championship.

Once again, the Falcons won’t have much elite size with their tallest player standing 6-foot-4 last season, but that player, Shayne Buckingham, returns for his junior season. Buckingham has seen varsity playing time since he was a freshman and is continuing to gain confidence in his game and become more and more of a consistent contributor. He scored 24 points in a win over Sports Academy South. If Buckingham can run the floor, rebound well and play with a high-motor, he can improve vastly on his 4.7 points and 4.6 rebounds per game.

Other Standouts

Lambert won’t have big men Connor Mannion (Navy) and Ross Morkem (North Georgia), but they should have more than enough to be a team that opponents don’t want to face. Andrew Melms will be running the show again at point guard and will enter the 2016-17 season as one of the state’s most underrated tenacious point guards. Musa Thompson enters his senior year as well. Thompson looked impressive with Melms in the Atlanta Warriors backcourt. Thompson has good length at 6-foot-4 and is a fluid athlete that can stretch defenses. Rising juniors Austin Deckard, Damon Stoudamire and Jordan McIlwain all provide depth along a talented backcourt.

BJ Millard, a recent Dunwoody graduate that averaged 16 points and 7.9 rebounds his senior season, played well for the Atlanta Warriors. The 6-foot-5 forward’s work at Dunwoody might have gone unnoticed by those outside of the region, but he is a good player that works hard in the paint.

Shamar Barrett put up big numbers his senior season at Grovetown (17.5 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 3.0 apg, 3.1 spg, 2.0 bpg) and is nearing a college decision. Barrett has been a stalwart for Sports Academy South, pitching in 26 points in a loss to Dacula this past weekend.

Keep an eye on Discovery High School. The second-year program returns an interesting cast of talent highlighted by guard DJ Young, 6-foot-5 forward Jaden Stanley and 6-foot-7 forward Kalu Ezikpe, who is only a rising junior. Travis McDaniel also joins the fold as an assistant after coaching at Lanier.

GHSA Basketball says Sayonara to Macon Centreplex

If you haven’t heard by now, the GHSA came to its senses and moved the state championships out of the black hole known as the Macon Centreplex. After calling for reformation from the disastrous weekend March 3-5, our collective prayers as fans, media, players and coaches were answered.

The University of Georgia’s Stegeman Coliseum and Georgia Tech’s McCamish Pavilion will split four days of action, providing more reasonable locations for the sport which has seen the vast majority of its championship matchups feature teams located in or near the Metro Atlanta area.

Of course with the move some areas will get the proverbial “short end of the stick”, especially South Georgia schools, most notably schools in the Savannah area that have enjoyed trips to the big game, along with Tift County, another South Georgia power that always finds itself in the mix.

Macon was the ideal location for the games, making the trip roughly two hours for both South Georgia and Metro teams, but the city failed to provide a playable facility. The extra hour-plus to either UGA or Georgia Tech might be a pain for schools down south, but at the end of the day it’s worth it, playing in a nice facility that can handle the event instead of playing in a dungeon.

Playing in Atlanta also provides the allure of playing in the state’s capital city which should help increase attendance. The Centreplex was half full for the state’s highest classification championship which featured Westlake and Pebblebrook, two teams loaded with Division-I talent. While the move up north strains fan bases such as Wilkinson County, it should also pay dividends to the majority of teams that make the championship that have fan bases within the area.

If there is one thing we can agree on, the GHSA finally got something right. They listened to unapproving fans, players and coaches; the exact people who give the GHSA a job. Without the student-athletes, there would be nothing for the GHSA to govern.

This long drawn nightmare has finally come to an end and basketball can begin its healing process and start being treated fairly in the state of Georgia.

Duo’s Loyalty Helps South Paulding Shatter Records

A school-record 25 wins. A 17-3 mark in Region 5-AAAAA. An Elite Eight appearance; the deepest run for any boys team in school history. This is the resume of the 2015-16 South Paulding Spartans led by Coach Gil Davis.

From humble beginnings back when the school opened in 2006, Davis has been there from the very start. Over the past four years since Davis has taken over as head coach the Spartans have taken off, compiling a record of 87-28.

Gil Davis
Gil Davis

Overseeing the program grow from a relative unknown into one of the brightest young programs in the state has been a gratifying experience for Coach Davis.

“It’s been crazy. It’s been a tough process but it’s been a lot of fun to see it come to where we’ve been the last four years,” explained Davis. “A lot of hard work, a lot of butt kickings early and just fighting through it. It’s just been a lot of fun these last four years.”

That hard work and those butt kickings endured as a young program have paid off.

“It’s really been awesome to be honest with you. We’ve been tabbed kind of as a football school from the beginning,” said Davis about the basketball program’s recent success in the playoffs.

“Here in Paulding County, basketball has never really been a big deal, so it’s been a really big deal to us to put this county on the map so to speak and put our school on the map as far as basketball is concerned.”

Pillars of a Program

Two rising seniors have led the way in South Paulding garnering statewide respect and attention. Kane Williams and Ja’Cori Wilson both hold Division-I offers. Williams is a playmaking 6-foot-3 guard that averaged 16 points, 9 rebounds, 6 assists and 3 steals per game as a junior, good enough to earn a Sandy’s Spiel All-State Class AAAAA Second Team selection. Wilson, a versatile 6-foot-7 forward, led the team in scoring with 17 points per game and 10 rebounds a night on his way to Honorable Mention honors.

Kane Williams
Kane Williams

The two building blocks of the program are still reaching their potential and their humility has prevented them from acknowledging just how much they have meant to South Paulding.

“I don’t even think they really realize how big it’s been,” said Davis. “It’s just another thing that’s put us on the map. County-wise, we’ve been on the map so to speak, but it puts us on the map as far as the state goes with all these things they are being a part of like HoopSeen and things like that; bringing a lot of attention to our school and making us more viewed as a basketball school and an up-and-coming program.”

Williams and Wilson’s play has gained the attention of college coaches. Williams holds offers from Middle Tennessee State, Alcorn State and Southern, while Wilson has scholarships from Alcorn State and Southern in hand.

JaCori Wilson
JaCori Wilson

“It’s been awesome to see these recruiters come out here. A lot of them get here and are like, ‘Coach, I didn’t even know this school was here’ and things like that. It’s just great that South Paulding is becoming a place that people can view in a positive light when it comes to basketball.”

Blood Is Thicker Than Water

The South Paulding basketball program has become a family, close knit with each player and coach looking out for one another. For every Kane Williams and Ja’Cori Wilson, there is an unsung hero like Anthony Brown inside gobbling up misses and setting the school-record for most rebounds in a career with 481. Brown has graduated but other key pieces return like D.J. Jackson, a gritty undersized guard, Jordan Burge, a 6-6 forward ready to make an impact in Brown’s absence, and others like Drew Shepherd and James Bryant.

A team that prays together, stays together
A team that prays together, stays together

What do these steady role players have in common with stars like Williams and Wilson?

An all for one and one for all mentality.

Williams and Wilson like so many other high school standouts with designs on playing D-I could have left their homegrown AAU team the Georgia Stunners. Instead, the two stalwarts anchor the team they have been a part of since the seventh grade and continue to build an unmatched chemistry with their year-round teammates.

Georgia Stunners
Georgia Stunners

“We’ve been together since seventh grade. Every year I’ve been like, if I left now, it’s like leaving a brother behind or leaving someone behind that I’ve been with for so long,” explained Williams about his loyalty to not only the Georgia Stunners program but the camaraderie built at South Paulding.

Wilson echoed his sentiments.

“It’s been like family. It’s been a great experience and you learn a lot, you do a lot, it’s just great.”

Reaping the Benefits

Going on over five years now playing together, both Williams and Wilson have seen their hard work and dedication to one another come to fruition with their individual and team success at South Paulding.

“It’s been very fun. It’s been an amazing experience to actually break the [school] record and all that stuff. Accomplishments that nobody at this school probably thought we could accomplish. It’s been a fun ride since freshman year all the way to now,” said Williams.

“It means a lot like what Kane said,” explained Wilson on the duo’s years together turning into shattering school records and leaving a lasting legacy. “We came from nothing and we’ve been striving to get to where we are. To see that we’ve accomplished something that not many people have done at this school, it’s been great.”

When asked about their goals for their final season in the burgundy and gold, the 2015-16 County Player of the Year, Williams, and the program’s single-season record holder for points in a season, Wilson, didn’t mention anything about individual goals, but team missions.

Kane Williams honored as County Player of the Year
Kane Williams honored as County Player of the Year

“Of course I want a state ring,” exclaimed Williams. “But short-term I just want a winning season; taking every game one game at a time.”

“Not losing inside the region. Claiming a region championship and getting W’s,” is Wilson’s objective.

As two of the program’s best players ever to step foot in South Paulding High School near their final season, both players have praised Coach Davis for his guidance along the way with Wilson stating, “He’s been a great mentor, a great coach, a great guy and being there for us.”

Jared Cook Classic field announced

Yesterday afternoon the 2016-17 Jared Cook Tip-Off Classic tournament announced its dates and field.

The 19-team field includes Class A-Private state champion Greenforest along with final rankings Top 10 finishers: No. 5 Shiloh, No. 3 Cedar Shoals, No. 8 Gainesville and No. 5 Sandy Creek in their respective classifications.

The games will be held on Nov. 19, 21 & 22 at North Gwinnett High School. There will be plenty of talent for those looking for some good GHSA action early in the season.

Cedar Shoals returns shooting guard Phlan Fleming while Heritage-Conyers brings back a slew of athletic guards paced by high-flier Isaiah Banks and shooter Jordan Thomas. Greenforest boasts the biggest frontline in maybe the entire country. Gainesville begins life without D’Marcus Simonds (GSU) but enters an era led by KJ Buffen, Bailey Minor and Xavier Bledson.

Over at Mountain View, a talented young group is ready to compete for a playoff spot in Class AAAAAAA. Sandy Creek has D-I talent in Evan Jester and Elias Harden and hopes rising sophomore TJ Bickerstaff can mold into a combination of the two by the time he graduates. Shiloh always has talent and is set to handover the reigns to transfer Brian Coffey Jr., a North Florida-commit.

Duluth and Dacula turn to young talent that is now experienced to ease the loss of key seniors. Andrew Melms and Austin Deckard will turn Lambert from a post-oriented team into a guard-led program. Brookwood tries to capitalize on a 17-win season and keep the program moving in the right direction with Bubba Parham and Trae Higginbotham set to return with Amari Kelly manning the interior.

Central Gwinnett made a surprise appearance into the postseason at 13-14 a year ago. The Black Knights will try to build on their success with Jalen Hillary and prove that it was no fluke while Tucker looks to find their identity in a completely new region with unfamiliar faces. Peachtree Ridge is on the hunt for a new go-to guy on offense after the graduation of a strong backcourt.

Etowah has new head coach Allen Whitehart in place. He will try to attract talent to Towne Lake and change the culture of Etowah hoops while shifting the balance of power to Cherokee County. Langston Hughes is ready for a postseason run with Khalil Cuffee, Derrick Cook and new arrival Landers Nolley II. Host North Gwinnett enters Year 2 under young head coach Matt Garner. The Bulldogs took their lumps at 6-20, but were a young team that will continue to grow with their head coach in the upcoming seasons.

Lee (AL) finished 26-7 while Hunstville (AL) sputtered at 5-24.

Sleeper Teams in 2016-17

Lakeside-Evans (11-13)

Deon Berrien might be sleeping, but you shouldn't on Lakeside
Deon Berrien might be sleeping, but you shouldn’t on Lakeside

Why: Lakeside finds itself in a favorable region compared to last year’s. Region 3-AAAAAA has six total teams and out of them, Heritage-Conyers and Lakeside are the early favorites to win it. The Panthers avoid Richmond Academy, Warner Robins, Jones County and Northside-Warner Robins, strong programs that came out of the B-side of Region 2-AAAAA the past two seasons. If they can clinch a playoff berth, it will be their first since 2013-14.

Players to Watch: New head coach Jeff Williams inherits a talented roster that has played together over the summer with the 16U Georgia Bulls. While Ryan Jolly (Augusta Prep) and Mike Dukes (Westminster) are key players on the travel team, Kalen Williams, Deon Berrien and Brad Hilley (father Jody stepped down as head coach) have all pulled their weight. Williams, a freshman, averaged 13.7 points per game as the team’s point guard. He does a good job of not only getting into the lane, but knocking down the three-ball. Brad Hilley averaged 2.7 points as a sophomore and is ready to take the next leap into earning more playing time. Over the summer Hilley has developed into a steady three-point marksman and hasn’t shied away from taking big shots. He does a good job of knowing where to shift, especially into the corners, to make for an easy natural pitch when Williams or another guard slices into the lane leading to an open three. Berrien was ineligible to begin last season but came on like gangbusters, averaging a team-leading 14.8 points and 13 rebounds per game. The 6-6 junior runs the floor well and finishes when he attacks the hoop. The double-double machine will benefit from playing with his two guards all summer. If you add in Kre’Sean Hall, a rising senior that averaged 11.1 points and 6.9 rebounds, the Panthers have a solid core that should make a run at the postseason in 2016-17.

Alexander (13-12)

Damion Howell is a load inside | Photo by Derrick Mahone
Damion Howell is a load inside | Photo by Derrick Mahone

Why: Every key piece from last year’s team returns including freshman Cam Armstrong who has had a big season for 15U Team Forrest. If Armstrong continues to develop, Alexander has a chance to be a tough out.

Players to Watch: Alexander gets no favors moving into Region 5-AAAAAA where they will see familiar faces South Paulding and New Manchester along with the always athletic and talented Douglas County, Mays and Langston Hughes. As tough as their region looks initially on paper, there is hope that the Cougars can claw their way back into the postseason. Coach Jason Slate’s top four leading scorers return with Rodrick Rapley (13.3 ppg) and Grant Howard (11.9 ppg) leading the way. Rapley, a junior, has good size at 6-3 along with Arealious (Zeek) Copeland, another junior. The two play together with the Elite Playmakers on the AAU circuit. Copeland averaged 7.3 points last year but looks like he could see a major increase his senior season with the way he has played this summer. Rising senior Damion Howell is a workhorse inside with his big 6-7 frame. The center is a throwback post player that gets his work done on the interior averaging 10.6 points, 5.7 rebounds and 1.2 blocks. The wildcard for the Cougars might be Cam Armstrong, a slim guard that has some giddy-up when attacking the hole. He’s put together a nice summer and is looking more and more confident.

Mountain View (13-13)

Jalen Hayes has had a nice summer campaign
Jalen Hayes has had a nice summer campaign

Why: An extremely young team competed well in the tough Region 7-AAAAAA last year. Five sophomores and two freshman saw meaningful minutes. Five players have played together this summer with the Heat Check. This past weekend at Georgia Cup IV, Heat Check played up a grade in the 17U division and won the title, knocking off some very good competition along the way.

Players to Watch: Mountain View has the second-smallest projected student enrollment in the new Class AAAAAAA with 2,098 kids, just six more than Westlake’s 2,092 in Region 2. Mountain View will be placed in Region 6 along with Collins Hill, Duluth, Discovery, North Gwinnett, Mill Creek and Peachtree Ridge. It’s always stiff competition in Gwinnett, but Mountain View has as good a shot as anybody to earn a postseason berth and in the process clinch their first ever playoff appearance. Youth will be served as Coach BJ Roy’s patience is on the brink of paying off. Last year 6-3 sophomore Spencer Rodgers led the team in scoring at 15.4 per game. Rodgers and diminutive 5-7 freshman point guard Donell Nixon II make up the Mountain View Splash Brothers. Rodgers hit 79-of-183 (43%) while Nixon II drilled 69-of-154 (45%) from beyond the arc. Sophomores Miles Long (8.5 ppg), Kevin Kayongo (5.5 ppg, 4.7 rpg) and Jalen Hayes (3.5 ppg) make up a talented backcourt. Kayongo at 6-4 is a very versatile player that can handle the ball in transition from his small forward position and also help out on the boards and defend well. Hayes’ twin brother Nick is graduating, making room for the younger Hayes to make an impact. Sophomore Alex Wesig and junior Uchenna Nwagbara are two well-built forwards that need to continue to hit the glass hard to make up for the Bears’ lack of major size. Brandon Green was a much ballyhooed freshman last year that saw playing time in spurts. At 6-4, Green may be in line for a major increase in minutes and a chance for a breakout sophomore season.

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