Monday, February 18, 2008

Breaking down the bracket: 5A

Thirty two teams in the AAAAA classification have a ticket to the Gwinnett Arena. Only four teams will make it and only one will be happy come March 7.

Who will it be this year? In a year that has a pair of powerhouses at the top and a million of others close behind, the AAAAA state tournament should be wild and one that people will be talking about. Sounds a lot like last year's tournament, doesn't it?

The favorites are two fold, in our opinion. Wheeler, the top team on the Georgia Hoops Top 20 power poll, is the best team in the state and no one in the state has knocked off the Wildcats. The same can be said for Norcross, the other favorite.

There are a number of teams chasing down the Atlanta area programs. The race to knock them out begins on Friday, Feb. 22.

Researching the No. 1 seeds

Coffee (19-3)
Region 1 tournament champions
Wins against playoff teams: Atkinson County 64-39, Ware County 40-31, Atkinson County 66-55, Ware County 50-48, Lowndes 66-42, Valdosta 58-53, Valdosta 67-65, Tift County 63-42
Notable losses: Americus-Sumter 43-54, Washington County 39-58, Tift County 52-54
Notes: There is always a surprise out of region 1 and Coffee certainly has the makings of that. The team's best player is a sophomore in Trevis Simpson and the 6-5 multi-positional prospect is one of the best players in South Georgia this season regardless of class.

Douglass (19-4)
Region 2 tournament champions
Wins against tournament teams: Stephenson 75-72, Redan 51-48, M.L. King 78-56, Newnan 53-44, Southside 72-49, Redan 41-40, Redan 51-47, Stephenson 68-63
Notable losses: South Atlanta 68-83, Stephenson 65-67, M.L. King 56-58 (OT)
Notes: The Astros don't wow you with great size but they are tough, deep, and scrappy on the defensive end of the floor. Coach Tilford Ellerbee has a team that could quietly win enough games to reach Savannah State.

Savannah Johnson (23-4)
Region 3 tournament champions
Wins against tournament teams: Statesboro 58-49, Statesboro 52-42, Beach 67-59, Groves 62-46, Groves 56-48, Beach 70-38, Savannah 65-52
Notable losses: Savannah 75-89, Savannah 52-55
Notes: Every year there is a team from Savannah that advances to the Gwinnett Arena. This team could very well be that team. The Atom Smashers are playing great basketball at the moment and all of the cylinders are clicking at the right time. The team has size and athleticism inside with Toby Veal, Josh Smith and Ben Evelyn and talented young guards, especially in Jareal Smith.

Mundy's Mill (22-4)
Region 4 tournament champions
Wins against tournament teams: Shaw 54-51, SACA 61-47, Riverdale 70-62, Peachtree Ridge 47-45, Newnan 76-62, Riverdale 59-57, Savannah 71-69, Morrow 88-71, Newnan 68-66, Hiram 68-61
Notable losses: Hiram 64-77, Forest Park 47-56, Hiram 81-86, Newnan 48-51
Notes: Every year this team gets better and better. The size is there with the Tigers, anchored by LSU bound Dennis Harris and 6-7 center Michael Allen. Guard play will have to be the key for Tu Willingham's crew. Senior Todd Salter has been here before. Freshman Adam Smith has not. Overall, keep an eye on this group. They might just be the best team in the quadrant they are in.

Marietta 25-3
Region 5 tournament champions
Wins against tournament teams: Campbell 56-45, Harrison 59-53, McEachern 74-58, Centennial 63-59, Harrison 76-71, Campbell 64-52, McEachern 74-65, Campbell 70-66
Notable losses: Blessed Trinity 35-50, Whitefield Academy 54-66, McEachern 56-63
Notes: The Blue Devils lost to Norcross last year in the state tournament. If all goes well, Marietta could face the Gwinnett County power in the third round of the playoffs. And Marietta could very well win that game (but we aren't counting on that to be a reality). That is the kind of team Charlie Hood is working with though. The team is balanced, experienced and should have junior point guard Chris Tanzy back for the tournament. That's scary.

Wheeler 26-2
Region 6 tournament champions
Wins against tournament teams: McEachern 87-78, Centennial 93-64, Sprayberry 68-59, Sprayberry 85-79, Miller Grove 82-77, Northview 84-66, Northview 74-42, Centennial 76-67
Notable losses: None to Georgia teams
Notes: Meet our clear cut favorite to win the AAAAA state championship. The Wildcats have the best starting five in the state and of those starters, only one is a senior in Mr. Georgia Basketball candidate Dequan Jones. Sophomore point guard Phil Taylor and junior big man Richard Howell have been steady all season and have a great feel for their respective roles on the team. Taylor has been the steady force throughout and has proven himself as a deadly scorer when needs be, too. Juniors Ari Stewart and Tahj Tate are both capable of high-scoring numbers and don't lack for athleticism. If the bench, the clear weakness on the team, can step up, watch out.

Norcross 24-2
Region 7 tournament champions
Wins against tournament teams: Collins Hill 76-43, Peachtree Ridge 70-37, South Forsyth 77-30, Westlake 62-57, Collins Hill 65-54, Peachtree Ridge 64-29, South Forsyth 61-47, South Forsyth 61-54, Peachtree Ridge 82-32
Notable losses: None to Georgia teams
Notes: Can Eddie Martin and his staff make it three in a row? If Al-Farouq Aminu continues to play like has been this season, it isn't out of the picture. The Wake Forest bound big man is having the best season of any senior in the state and raised the level of play up for Norcross this season. He's truly embraced his role on his team and having a tremendous season. Big man A.J. Hawkins has proven himself as an interior defender while Denzail Jones can hit the big shot and Taariq Muhammad has tasted the big game before. Depth is the big question mark with this team.

Berkmar 21-5
Region 8 tournament champions
Wins against tournament teams: Clarke Central 78-65, Tucker 77-64, Central Gwinnett 81-56, Meadowcreek 80-63, Central Gwinnett 69-53, Meadowcreek 66-58, Meadowcreek 63-49, Central Gwinnett 75-52
Notable losses: Parkview 62-63, Parkview 66-68
Notes: For the first time since the turn of the century, Berkmar has a team that can do some damage. The scoring punch of Wesley Witherspoon, the most versatile player in the state, and Demarion Gordon has proven to be a worthy 1-2 in AAAAA play this year. The Patriots have only lost two games in state and both came against Parkview. Both losses came by a bucket, too.

Must see games

What is it about the first round of the tournament and Norcross? Last year's tournament began with a bang as the Blue Devils held off Wheeler in one of the greatest games in Georgia high school basketball history.

While Norcross doesn't have the same team it did last year and a match-up against Harrison won't have a line that wraps around the school, this match-up in the opening round is intriguing.

While the Hiram-M.L. King game doesn't scream sexy to the Atlanta area crowd but expect this one to come down to the wire. Both teams have laid low under the radar this season.

Hiram has one of the best backcourts in the Atlanta area with Stewart Clark, Antonio Nuckles and Justin Garner while M.L. King has a true brusier in Greg Henry and a high-flyer in Demetrius Bates. This one should be a classic.

Others we are watching closely: Wheeler-Parkview; Mundy's Mill-Redan; Savannah-Tift County; Stephenson-Newnan.

There will be a major upset in the first round. Of all of the brackets, the first round match-ups in AAAAA are clearly the best and don't be surprised to see one of the big dogs go out early.

News & Notes

The first two rounds of the state tournament will be played on the home court of the higher seed.

Last year's state championship game could happen again if Norcross and Centennial win in the first round. The two would play Feb. 26 at Norcross.

Savannah and Mundy's Mill could meet up again. Mundy's Mill beat Savannah in January by a bucket.

Top 1 seed: Wheeler

Top 2 seed: Savannah

Top 3 seed: McEachern

Top 4 seed: Harrison

Keep an eye on

The state tournament always brings out the sleepers. Here are five seniors to watch:

Yaw Gawya, Parkview – For Gwinnett County hoops fans, the Colgate bound forward is no sleeper. In fact, he's the most prolific scorer in Parkview basketball history. That is saying something. Don't be surprised to see him go for 25 and 15 against Wheeler.

Matt Sundberg, Harrison – For Cobb County hoops fans, the College of Charleston forward is no sleeper. In fact, he's the best player to come from the school since the coach that recruited him to CofC in Andrew Wilson. Sundberg and Al-Farouq Aminu will be a fun match-up to watch in the first round.

Will Tollfree, Stephenson – The 6-6 senior is coming into the tournament after posting 30 points and 20 rebounds in a region tournament game. He's long, defensive minded and

Kevin Williams & Norris Rumph, Savannah – Okay, this isn't exactly one but the two combo guards are the heart and soul of the storied program on the coast. Williams, a 5-11 combo, has a quick trigger from deep while Rumph plays with power at the rim.

Yannick Crowder, Redan – The 6-7 post won't put up big numbers but he'll make his presence felt inside with blocked shots and rebounds at the cup, freeing up the other block for the team's best offensive force.

Five young players to watch

Phil Taylor, Wheeler – There isn't a sophomore in the state with as much control over a team like he has with the No. 1 ranked Wheeler Wildcats. He's been around the winning program for a long time and has been big in the big moments this season.

Trae Golden, McEachern – Like Taylor, Golden is no sleeper. The Ohio State bound guard has big time scoring potential and has also been asked to run his team like a veteran. He'll have his work cut out for him in the bracket.

Trevis Simpson, Coffee – The 6-5 sophomore is the power and punch for the top big school from South Georgia. He's a high-flier that should earn some more notoriety with a big state tournament showing.

DeVonta White, Central Gwinnett – Is there a hotter sophomore guard in the state right now than him? He's playing tremendous basketball and playing like a seasoned veteran. There is a great opportunity for him to shine against Northview in the first round.

Jay Rome, Valdosta – The freshman doesn't play like a freshman. The well-built 6-4 power forward is the muscle inside for Valdosta and has played like a seasoned veteran all year long.

First round predictions

Coffee (19-3) vs. Groves (15-12)

Stephenson (18-7) vs. Newnan (19-8)

Savannah Johnson (23-4) vs. Lowndes (11-15)
Hiram (21-6) vs. M.L. King (22-6)

Berkmar (21-5) vs. Sprayberry (12-15)

Campbell (19-9) vs. South Forsyth (17-9)

Wheeler (26-2) vs. Parkview (20-6)

Peachtree Ridge (17-10) vs. McEachern (21-7)

Centennial (23-5) vs. Meadowcreek (17-9)

Norcross (24-2) vs. Harrison (20-8)

Central Gwinnett (13-14) vs. Northview (19-8)

Marietta (25-3) vs. Collins Hill (20-8)

Valdosta (15-9) vs. Beach (13-14)

Douglass (19-4) vs. Morrow (14-12)

Savannah (25-2) vs. Tift County (21-6)

Mundy's Mill (22-4) vs. Redan (14-9)

Bolded and italicized teams are my picks to win