The road to a state championship is always tough, though year-in and year-out, there always seems to be one side of a bracket that makes the road rougher than others for those teams unfortunate to land on it.
In the case of the Class AAAAAAA boys basketball tournament, the separate paths to the title game in March in Macon seems to be a little bit more evenly distributed in terms of difficultly, with six of the classification’s top 10 teams distributed on one side of the bracket and four on the other.
However, a closer look at the brackets and their relation to the final regular season Kyle Sandy/Georgia Sports Writers Association rankings indicates that this year’s road to Macon could very well run through Gwinnett County.
County teams make up half of the current top 10, four of which — Grayson, Shiloh, Norcross and Berkmar — reside in the top six, joined by No. 9 Archer.
And with those aforementioned top four teams set up for a possible collision course with each other in the state quarterfinals — Shiloh and Bekmar on one side and Grayson and Norcross on the other — sheer numbers suggest Gwinnett should be well represented when state’s largest classification tournament reaches its penultimate round at Buford City Arena.
“Absolutely. We play good basketball out here,” Grayson coach Geoffrey Pierce said after his top-ranked Rams (26-1) defeated second-ranked Shiloh (23-3) for the Region 8-AAAAAAA title Monday. “I know football is the breadwinner, but we hoop out here, too, you know what I mean? It’s going to go through Gwinnett. I think our region will fare well in the state tournament.”
Of course, Pierce, as well as every other coach in all classifications, knows that first things first. Their teams have to get through the opening round.
Several teams decided to get a jump on their starts to the tournament with first-round games Thursday, including fifth-ranked Norcross (24-3) and No. 6 Berkmar (16-9).
The Patriots, in particular, are a perfect example of another axiom of state tournament play that involved the importance of peaking at the right time.
After starting the season 2-8, coach Greg Phillips’ squad has lost just once in its last 15 games dating back to Dec. 7, making Berkmar and unranked North Gwinnett (16-11 and winners of five straight and six of seven) among Class AAAAAAA’s hottest teams heading into the tournament. Region 8-AAAAAA Lanier (22-5 and winners of 15 of its last 16) and Region 8-AAAAA champ Buford (20-6 and winners in eight of their last nine) also enter their respective tournaments riding hot streaks.
But even after avenging the only loss in that stretch by upending Norcross in the Region 7-AAAAAAAA tournament title game last Friday, Phillips was taking nothing for granted as the Patriots prepared for Thursday opening-round game with West Forsyth.
“We’ve got to get by West Forsyth first,” Phillips said. “We struggled with Cambridge (back on Jan. 11), and (West Forsyth) is a very similar team, and maybe a little better.”
What Bekrmar has going for it most right now is the team’s health, something that was a major issue during the struggling start in November and early December.
But with current starters Malique Ewin and Julius Reynolds and key reserve Jermahri Hill now closer to 100 percent, the Patriots have been able to build team chemistry, which Phillips points to as a big factor in their recent surge.
“It took us time to get healthy,” Phillips said. “But we got back from Christmas, we were able to get together and the kids started buying into what we’re selling.”
In addition to good health and team chemistry, the other big key to success in the postseason involves being able to handle the pressure that comes with playing on the state’s biggest stages.
If there’s one team that should be ready for that attention, it’s Grayson, which has faced sky high expectations from the beginning of the seasons with the return of several starters from last season in guards Deivon Smith and Josh Smith and post Ian Schieffelin, as well as the influx of big-time transfers Caleb Murphy and Toneari Lane.
But as Pierce points out, playing under such close scrutiny is nothing new to many of the Rams.
“All these guys, they’ve been playing in big games throughout their high school careers, whether it’s AAU or with their high school (teams),” Pierce said. “Deivon’s been to two Final Fours. Caleb’s been to a state championship game. Toneari’s been playing varsity since he was a freshman. Josh (has been tested). They’re equipped. They’ll be ready to go.”