#MarchToMacon: Previewing 7A state tournament
Welcome to the March to Macon. The state playoffs are here and tip off. The state’s biggest classification is ready to go as 32 teams fight it out for the coveted Class AAAAAAA state championship. We dive into the bracket and preview the teams and look closely at the first round of action.
The state’s biggest classification - AAAAAAA - is only two years old and in two years of competing, the eventual winner wasn’t the team anyone outside of the winning locker room thought would win it all. Tift County and Meadowcreek are the only two programs in the Peach State with AAAAAAA state championship banners hanging in their rafters. Will we see another wild run through the bracket this season? Or...
Can anyone beat McEachern? Anyone? The Indians have toed the line in every battle they’ve been presented with all season long and they’ve been victorious. You can’t argue with results and the road to get to this point of the year, no one is more prepared for the state tournament run quite like McEachern. The Indians have won 25 games in a row, the longest streak in the state.
There seems to be a feeling that anyone outside of McEachern could make it to the championship game. There are so many contenders in the brackets this year and the pathway to Macon has so many potential scenarios. Who will it be? This could be a state tournament that we will be talking about for quite some time.
East Coweta has been the biggest and best trending team in the state. The Indians are is enjoying the best season in school history in large part to continuity and terrific guard and wing play. Senior Mandez Jones and juniors Brandon Stroud and Chris Youngblood are a terrific trio. The Indians boast the highest scoring offense in AAAAAAA.
DEEP DIVE INTO THE NO. 1 SEEDS
Tift County (18-8) | Tifton, GA
Notable wins: Lowndes, Camden County, Laney, Lincoln (FL)
Notable players: SR Marquavius Johnson, SR Tyree Marshall, SOPH Jatarion Warren
Notes: The Blue Devils are the top team in the AAAAAAA state tournament not from metro Atlanta. The South Georgia powerhouse has a roster full of athletic guards who would love to bust up a bracket and over-achieve this month. Coach Chris Wade said this team has improved more over the course of the season than any team he’s ever coached.
Westlake (18-10) | Atlanta, GA
Notable wins: St. Francis, Eagle's Landing, Lithonia, Pinson Valley (AL), Jonesboro, Fayette County, Duluth, Pebblebrook, Holy Innocents', Wheeler, Campbell
Notable players: SR Chase Hunter, SR Quincy Olivari, SR D'Antaye Page, FR Dillon Hunter
Notes: There is something to be said about winning the Region 2 Championship. The state’s most difficult region is not for the faint of heart. Coach Darron Rogers has a good core of experienced seniors to battle with as the Lions make their march to Macon. Chase Hunter is one of the most entertaining players in the state. His brother, Dillon, is one of the best freshman in Georgia’s state tournaments.
McEachern (25-0) | Powder Springs, GA
Notable wins: Miami Christian (FL), Paul VI (VA), Mountain Brook (AL), Imhotep Charter (PA 2x), Findlay Prep (NV), Springfield Christian (MO), Shadow Mountain (AZ), Sunrise Christian (KS), Rancho Christian (CA), Holy Spirit, Westlake, North Paulding, Wheeler, Marietta, Hillgrove, Campbell
Notable players: SR Isaac Okoro (Auburn), SR Jared Jones (Northwestern), SR Alyn Breed, SR Quinton McElroy, JR Sharife Cooper
Notes: The Indians have answered the call every single game this season. They are, by our account, the best team in the nation and the de facto favorite to win the entire AAAAAAA state tournament and the GEICO Nationals in April. Point guard Sharife Cooper and wing Isaac Okoro make for the toughest 1-2 punch in the entire state tournament. Big man Jared Jones has been a major contributor this season, filling the void left by Babatunde Akinbola.
Etowah (17-9) | Woodstock, GA
Notable wins: West Forsyth, Walton, Dacula, Marist, Woodstock, Cherokee
Notable players: SR Jaxon Etter, SR G Alex Forde, JR PF Zach Futch
Notes: After starting the season 7-6 during the 2018 version of the schedule, Etowah has gone 10-3 in 2019 and ran the table in the region tournament. Jaxon Etter, the team’s senior leader, is a postseason stud. The Eagles are a force on the defensive end of the floor, holding teams to 50 points a game.
Milton (20-7) | Milton, GA
Notable wins: Cambridge, Discovery, Roswell, Lambert, West Forsyth, Forsyth Central, West Ashley (SC), Cape Fear (NC)
Notable players: SR Donaven Hairston, SR Malachi Martin, SR Jordan Yates, FR Bruce Thornton
Notes: The Eagles are hot in the back half of the season, losing only one game since the new year. Their guard play and defense have been the catalysts to their success during that run. The team has a nice foundation of toughness. In their current nine-game win streak, Milton is beating teams by an average of nearly 21 points a game.
Discovery (22-5) | Lawrenceville, GA
Notable wins: Drew Charter, Southwest Dekalb, Houston County, Mountain View, Milton, Duluth, Eagle's Landing, Upson Lee, Peachtree Ridge
Notable players: SR Leslie Nkereuwem, SR Hasahnn Reynolds, SR Ian Hardy, JR Jaden Walker, JR London Riley
Notes: The Titans have made it to the state playoffs in the school’s short basketball history for the first time and they did so by winning the region and earning a No. 1 seed. Nkereuwem, a Longwood signee, has been outstanding this season. He’s one of the best interior defenders and rebounders in the state this year. The starting lineup is interchangeable and multi-positional. Few teams in the AAAAAAA bracket have racked up more wins against state playoff teams quite like the Titans have. Their body of work is impressive.
Meadowcreek (21-5) | Norcross, GA
Notable wins: Wheeler, Discovery, Dacula, Parkview, Norcross, Berkmar, Holy Spirit, The Heritage School, Brentwood Academy (TN), South Shore (NY), Greenforest Christian
Notable players: SR Jamir Chaplin, SR Jalen Benjamin, SR Damian Dunn, SOPH Kendrick Green
Notes: The defending AAAAAAA state champs have been something to see this season, shifting their philosophy from interior basketball last year to guard-centric this season. Both experiences have been nothing short of outstanding. The Mustangs have the steady play of South Florida bound Jamir Chaplin, who was outstanding in the Region 7 championship overtime win over Norcross. Dunn, a Temple signee, and Benjamin, a UAB signee, can both be a 20+ point game scorer, too. Defensively, the Mustangs are one of the best teams in Georgia.
Grayson (24-3) | Grayson, GA
Notable wins: Newton, Meadowcreek, Shiloh, North Atlanta
Notable losses: Shiloh, Peachtree Ridge
Notable players: JR Deivon Smith
Notes: The rise in Deivon Smith’s play has directly correlated to Grayson’s great record to this point in the season. There’s a lot of pieces to watch as senior guards Reco Hallmon Jr. and Jevon Tatum are more than capable, while Ian Scheflin provides the team with some interior toughness. Here’s a team that’s accustom to postseason play so don’t be surprised to watch them compete amongst the rest of the states best.
THREE BEST FIRST ROUND GAMES
East Coweta (24-2) at McEachern (26-0): This is the best first round game in the state regardless of class. Throughout the year, both clubs were in the top 5 in the polls for Class AAAAAAA and were No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, in the final poll before the postseason. Does it get better than this? Nope. Not at all.
Lambert (21-6) at Newton (21-6): If you are looking for a chess match between two similar styles of play and two very good coaches, this is your game. Both teams are playoff tested and used to the big stage and big match-ups. Both clubs have great seniors, great point guards and big men who get the job done.
Pebblebrook (18-9) at North Paulding (20-7): A sneaky good game in the first round puts Pebblebrook on the road against a team who knows what it is like to face a team with good guards. A senior-heavy backcourt for Pebblebrook will be tough for NP, but the Wolfpack has played McEachern twice this season in region play. They’ll be ready for this one.
Which game is the best 1st round AAAAAAA match-up?— HoopSeen Georgia (@HoopSeenGA) February 12, 2019
STORY STARTER POTENTIAL
Every year, a player using the state tournament to start their story and propel their profile into the statewide, and sometimes national, conversation. Here’s a peek at some players who could be that dude this month.
A difficult choice when looking at the sophomores at Pebblebrook, the duo of Youngblood and Stroud at East Coweta, and the young but bright career of Dillon Hunter. Ultimately, Sam Hines of Wheeler could be a difference maker that very few teams can utilize down the stretch. Head coach Larry Thompson has the ability to squeeze a ton of juice out of his 6’5 forward that brings an edge and versatility to his backline. It may be time for the low maintenance forward to expand on his current niche.
Earlier in the regular season, Milton freshman Bruce Thornton locked horns with dynamic guard Mitch Ganote of Lambert and Thornton’s defense was next level impressive. Ganote, a senior with multiple position skill, was knocked off his game in the match-up and Milton cruised to a win. Thornton’s carved out a niche for himself in Region 5 as a big time defender. A great showing like he had in the regular season could really propel his game to another level.
Parkview sophomore wing Miles Kelly terrific shooter and, as any good follower of hoops knows, a good shooter can carry your team in the postseason. He and his teammates will have a tall test in a good Discovery program.
Shiloh is lead by two of the hardest working talents in the area as Toneari Lane and Kendall Lewis never take a play off. If they were to be knocked out, it won’t be for a lack of effort. That being said, if you are looking for a Final Four sleeper, the Generals could be a program to make such a move.
North Paulding was the second best team in Region 3 all season but because the Wolfpack played behind McEachern all season, the team’s success may have been overlooked. Senior big man Jacob Harris is quietly having one of the best big man seasons in the state.
NOTES FROM OUR NOTEPAD
There are 11 teams from Gwinnett County and seven teams Cobb County in the bracket. There are 32 total teams in the entire bracket.
We have 22 seniors in our top 60 that are in the bracket and 11 juniors from our top 40 in the bracket.
FINAL FOUR PICKS
Justin Young: McEachern, Grayson, Meadowcreek, Wheeler
Tai Young: McEachern, Norcross, Meadowcreek, Wheeler
CHAMPIONSHIP GAME PICKS
Justin Young: McEachern, Meadowcreek
Tai Young: McEachern, Meadowcreek
Justin Young: McEachern
Tai Young: McEachern
Tai Young also contributed to this story.