Friday, January 30, 2015

"Superman" Sherrill comes through in the clutch... again!

Senior Devonte Thomas has scored
16 ppg during the past six games
I have written about GRU's Keshun Sherrill's amazing statistics and late game heroics.  Eighteen days after overcoming problems at the free throw line and putting the Jaguars on his back to earn a key victory on the road at then undefeated Lander, Sherrill did it again Wednesday.  Seconds after 12th ranked UNC Pembroke had taken its first lead of the game, Sherrill splashed a three from the left corner to put the Jags ahead.  And with the game tied on the final possession, he calmly dribbled the game clock near zero, attacked the paint, drew contact, and drilled the game deciding free throws to give the GRU its fifth conference win in six tries, a streak that began at Lander on January 10th.  And to give this timeline its proper due, I should add that in the middle of this impressive run was a Jaguars' win at Young Harris fueled by two Sherrill bombs in the final 2 minutes that helped coach Dip Metress's squad overcome a 5 point deficit.  Eighteen days and three instances of heroics later, is there any question why I after the Lander win I called Sherrill "Superman?"

I also call him the best college guard within a 150 mile radius of our area.  I've been in my fair share of gyms and I'm quite familiar with this region's basketball scene.  I don't know of an SEC, ACC, mid major or low major division 1 or 2 guard I would be more worried about coaching against than Sherrill.  He is a pure shooter with exceptional athleticism and basketball smarts.  And to steal a term once used by Allen Iverson to describe Kobe Bryant, Sherrill is an assassin in the game's deciding moments.

During GRU's recent run, which has allowed the Jags to claim the second slot in the Peach Belt's East Division, Sherrill has had reliable help from seniors Devon Wright-Nelson and Devonte Thomas, who have averaged 19 and 16 points, respectively, over the period.  Wright-Nelson's figure excludes GRU's win over Pembroke because the versatile leader left the game early with an injury.

As promised in the video above, here is a link to the special video I made after GRU's
win over Lander.

That injury and the overall depth and competitiveness of the league will make GRU's game Saturday at Clayton State even more challenging.  Both teams sport 7-4 records and both teams are looking to gain ground on conference leaders Columbus State (10-1), Montevallo (10-1), and Pembroke (8-3).  I can only imagine the anxiety and emotional swings coach Metress, his staff, and his players have experienced these past eighteen days.  But I'll say I am lucky to have been able to watch Sherrill's heroics from the stands and through the computer screen.  And I look forward to watching the Jags' February sprint to the regular season Peach Belt conference finish line.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Region Race 2015 (episode 5)

Link to episode 4
Link to episode 3
Link to episode 2
Link to episode 1

Here is the outline for episode 5 of region race:

Intro highlights

Region 3A
- Preview Saturday's game between area's best teams:  Laney and Butler
- Recap Butler's journey back to 2nd place in the region standings
- Detail how Washington County bounced back from loss at Butler to beat Josey and stay out of 4th place
- Preview upcoming games of note

Region 2A (Harlem)
- review home wins versus Dublin and Swainsboro
- describe the strengths Harlem posseses versus class 2A competition

Region 1A (Aquinas)
- review Aquinas's place in region standing
- preview Friday's game versus GMC and why it is important

Region 5A
- Grovetown has all but clinched the regular season sub region title
- where do the local 5A sub region teams go from here?

Augusta Christian
- review the Hammond and Cardinal Newman region losses
- Describe the Lions' inside-outside duo of talented underclassmen, Isaiah Kelly and Madison Williams

- Show highlights of one of my all time favorite teams, Alleluia.

- Exit the show with highlights

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Brinson and Gordon lead Aquinas to a non-region win over Glenn Hills

San Antonio Brinson is our area's best "prospect."
Twenty-five days is too long, especially during the heart of the high school season, for a hoops junkie like me to not take the opportunity to see Aquinas's San Antonio Brinson play.  In our area, his qualities are truly unique.  I recently told friend and Augusta hoops legend Keenan Mann the case for Brinson becoming a contributor on a major college basketball team is straightforward and compelling:  He is 6'7" and he shoots, dribbles, moves and jumps very well.

More importantly, Brinson is a good student and a better person.  He possesses those old fashioned and endearing qualities that make me cheer for his on and off the court success.  Take his reaction to adversity Saturday in the most tense moments of Aquinas's overtime win at home over non region rival Glenn Hills.  After missing a couple free throws and failing to convert a fast break layup, San Antonio was visibly shaken.  This is not a criticism.  Anyone interpreting it that way is badly missing my point.  His reaction revealed a genuine concern for his teammates and his own execution on the court.  Caring matters.  It leads to relationships and experiences that matter.  Brinson, who is abnormally young for an elite 11th grade basketball player (he only recently turned 16) will soon learn that he has built up so much goodwill with Aquinas's players, coaches, and fans that no amount of mistakes will disappoint them.  And as he grows even more comfortable in his role as our area's best player, those people, and more importantly San Antonio himself, will be in for a treat.

All of this is not to say Brinson played poorly in Saturday's win.  Far from it.  As usual, he did it all, leading all scorers with 18 points.  When 6'4" Maurice O'Bannon guarded him, Brinson beat him off the dribble and drew fouls.  When smaller players defended him, he patiently worked his way into the paint, both from the wing and the post, shooting over the defense and getting to the foul line.  There have been times this season when the scoring opportunities he took have been mostly of the catch-and-shoot three pointer variety.  But during the last two Aquinas games I've seen, in December versus Midland Valley and Saturday, Brinson has imposed his will on defenses.  His teammates and he will all benefit as his confidence grows and he continues to push that envelope.

Speaking of confidence, one Aquinas player who has never lacked it is junior Kham Gordon, who played better Saturday than I had seen him play at any time prior.  Gordon used his strength and ball handling skills to get high percentage shots.  And none were more important than the bank shot he made after a baseline drive in overtime that provided the Fighting Irish's final lead.

I have commented on Aquinas's youth and potential and expressed optimism that this group will improve enough during the regular season to make a deep post season run.  Hancock Central has been the only region team to slow down this group.  I hope Saturday's win over a fine Glenn Hills group gives the guys confidence heading into the final weeks of the regular season before region tournament and state tournament action begins.

Glenn Hills continues to compete despite challenges

The level of play in region 3A and the familiarity I have with its teams, as well as that with the 5A teams, has caused me recently to miss some of the games involving Harlem, Aquinas, Augusta Christian, Midland Valley, Burke County, and Alleluia.  But I set aside an eight day period, beginning last Friday, to get reacquainted with as many of these teams as possible.  And I am planning ways to stay connected with all the teams I follow as they finish the regular season and move towards the post season.

I am very glad I chose to attend Glenn Hills' visit to non region rival Aquinas Saturday.  Coach Travis Mcrae has done a masterful job keeping his Spartans near the .500 level in the most difficult region any of us know.  Glenn Hills has gotten into position to make a run at a state playoff birth under the most difficult circumstances:  the Spartans exited the first week of January with a 1-3 region record and had recently lost its senior team leader, Zi Cook, to injury.  Cook will likely return for the post season, but probably not before what Mcrae calls the coming week's "gauntlet" of difficult region games versus Butler (Tuesday at Glenn Hills), Josey (Friday at Glenn Hills), and Washington County (Saturday in Sandersville) ends.

That slate is enough to discourage (or scare!) lesser competitors.  But coach Mcrae's group has proven itself to be uniquely prepared to handle such daunting challenges.  Consider as an example its January 9th win defeat of Washington County.  Senior Aaron "Toot" Williamson embodies the team's competitive spirit.  Toot always has played much bigger than the ruler measuring his official height reads.  In Saturday's game he caused havoc on the defensive end, grabbing steals, rebounds, and loose balls that helped the Spartans cobble together enough easy baskets to force overtime against Aquinas.  When Williamson wasn't creating something from nothing, his younger teammates were knocking down timely three pointers.

Although they came up a bit short Saturday, Glenn Hills has shown the ability to win with or without its full roster.  See how they do it below.  And don't be surprised if the Spartans record some impressive wins before and after Cook's return.

Perhaps with the help of some much deserved luck, Glenn Hills will earn one of region 3A's four state tournament bids, a truly noteworthy accomplishment.  I would not enjoy being the state tournament team tasked with facing in the first round any 3A team, including coach Mcrae's Spartans.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Alleluia and Augusta Christian meet Tuesday in game of contrasting styles

Alleluia has suddenly become one of our area's best teams
This is a public service announcement... or at least a bit of information relevant to people like me who watch and enjoy our area's high school basketball action.  Alleluia is very good.  If you haven't seen the Angels play, I recommend you treat yourself.  Tuesday's date with Augusta Christian is a great opportunity.

If you have seen coach Dennis McBride's team in action, but your last look was before this season, then you will think you are seeing a brand new team.  Even if you last saw the guys as recently as December, you will notice a transformation.  The rate at which the players improve is truly remarkable.  That Alleluia would visit Ludowici, Georgia, and beat one of the southeast's best independent schools, Faith Baptist, would have seemed impossible a short time ago.  Yet that is exactly what the Angels did Saturday, tallying 90 points in a 9 point victory over the Crusaders.

There is nothing physically intimidating about this group.  But they are mastering the game's fundamentals faster than any group of players I've seen in years.  Tuesday's game at defending South Carolina Independent School Association (SCISA) state champ Augusta Christian will not be the last time hoops fans have a chance to see the Angels in action.  For the majority of the players have eligibility remaining after this season.  But it is a game that has been circled on my calendar since October.  Augusta Christian will refocus its attention after dropping a heart breaking region game Saturday.  And Alleluia will need to find a way to defend the Lions inside, where 6'9" Calvin Taylor and 6'6" freshman Isaiah Kelly hold a distinct advantage that should provide a fascinating contrast to Alleluia's fast paced, sharp shooting attack (see video below).  I'll be there to watch and report here soon afterwards.  As always, I'll see you in the gym!

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Butler earns its way back into second place with "character exercise"

Basketball is teaching Coleman and his
teammates a valuable life lesson:
when life knocks you down, get up
and keep moving forward!
I have written and spoken critically about the GHSA's ruling that stripped Butler of two region wins.  These will be my last words on the subject because actions speak louder and better than words.  And the actions that have screamed the loudest have been those of Butler's players and coaches.  True to form, Butler's leader, coach Cervantes Boddy, had only these powerful words in response to my inquiry about the forfeits, this week's crucial wins over Josey and Washington County that have returned the Bulldogs to the second slot in region standings, and his suspension from Friday's game:  "Adversity is character exercise."  Amen.

Adversity is also the gift competitive basketball gives it participants.  Those who practice performing under pressure while facing head on the possibility of failure learn enduring life lessons.  I have been touched by the maturity of Butler's players.  Riding high with a 14-1 record leading into its January 9th showdown with Laney, Butler came up short and experienced its first setback.  What came next would have rattled less impressive young men.  The GHSA stripped Butler of four wins even though weeks later I have yet to hear a single credible account of wrongdoing (read here for more background).  One Laney game and one unfortunate ruling later, Butler went from 14-1 to 10-6.  And the Bulldogs went from second place, two games ahead of both Josey and Washington County, to fourth place, behind those same teams.

How did Butler's players respond to this unique form of adversity, its first true test of the season?  Coach Boddy may say his players exercised their characters by rattling off consecutive wins over Josey (after trailing by 15 at halftime) Tuesday and Washington County (in overtime and without their head coach present) Friday.  By maintaining composure and "exercising character," Butler has regained the second place slot in the region 3A standings almost as quickly as it was lost.  Here are my game notes from Friday's overtime thriller:

Butler 79, Washington County 70 (Overtime)

Friday's heavyweight battle between two teams aiming for region 3A's second place slot reinforced something I strongly believe:  this region is where the big boys play.  Butler's overtime win and return to second place is obviously the biggest story.  But a close second is Washington County's proven ability to be a threat to beat any team in any gym.

AJ Gray and Ti Lewis were featured after the Golden Hawks defeated Josey weeks ago.  Antonio Jackson's turn came Friday as the shooting guard made big shots to help Gray and Lewis keep Washington County within striking distance despite a hot shooting Butler squad.

Don Coleman and Ben Rhodes have been the most effective scoring duo in the area this season.  The two began Friday's game with a barrage of threes.  And the few that didn't find the bottom of the net early were rebounded and converted into points by 6'8" junior center Ricquail Smoot.

I've detailed the change in Smoot's aggressiveness and effectiveness during January, a time when Butler's competition has been fierce.  He played even better Friday than against Laney, Jenkins, and Josey, games I had said were the best I'd seen him play.  His 24 points against Washington County were scored very efficiently.  In addition to putting back Rhodes and Coleman's misses, he scored driving right and left from the high post, he frequently drew fouls and made a good portion of his free throw attempts, and he stepped out and made a three on the first play of the second half.  The other half of the story concerning Smoot concerns his defensive presence.  Many teams have effective inside scorers.  But Smoot's size gives Butler a special edge on defense.  After seeing Ti Lewis get most any opportunity he wanted in games against Josey and Laney, I was struck by Smoot's ability to give the talented junior so much trouble by holding his position and making Lewis shoot his jump hooks and turn around jump shots over his outstretched arms.

In recent weeks, I have spent much space and video editing time explaining the stellar play of Coleman, Rhodes, and Smoot.  But as I did after wins over Josey and Heritage during December, I am happy to highlight the contributions of senior guards Tyekeith McClattie and Jaylon Archie.  In the final minute of regulation in Friday's crucial contest, they saved Butler's chances.  Trailing by 3 with 38 seconds remaining, McClattie calmly buried a deep three pointer to tie the game.  Immediately afterwards, AJ Gray came off a Ti Lewis screen, attacked the rim, and appeared to have a free path for the game winner when Archie stepped in, took what had to be a painful charge (AJ is a big guy!), and gave his team the additional four minutes needed to get the crucial win.

As Butler, Washington County, and Josey, all with three losses, head into the final third of their regular season region schedules with three losses each, there is no time to look ahead.  But I will do so nonetheless.  For the one thing missing from Friday's heavyweight battle, a full and crazy crowd, will surely not be missing the next time I visit Butler.  That will be Saturday when Laney visits and for the second time in 22 days we hoops junkies will be treated to a game between our area's best teams... I'll see you in the gym!

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Shame on me: Harlem is in better position than I realized.

There is no substitute for putting in the the work.  Consistently.  After trumpeting throughout November and December my belief that Harlem will win its region and advance deep into the class 2A state playoffs, I probably made a mistake in concluding, without doing any real homework, that Harlem's early January losses at Swainsboro and Dublin were evidence that the Bulldogs' chances aren't as good as I had hoped.

Providing good insight would have required me to see Harlem play between my last visit to a game (the December 19th thriller versus Grovetown) and now.  And if that were impossible, a phone call or a text exchange with coach Kim Chambers would have done the trick.  But Friday's chance exchange with Chambers made apparent some factors that suggest the Bulldogs are in a much better position to win its region, either in the regular season, the tournament, or both, than I had realized by simply checking the scores of January's games.

In Harlem's 73-49 loss at Swainsboro, the Bulldogs' first game since the holiday break, Chambers sat all but the six players who attended all of his holiday practices.  Playing short handed, Harlem remained within striking distance of the now 7-1 region leaders until the third quarter when the Bulldogs finally "ran out of gas."  And during its 83-80 loss at Dublin, Harlem was on the short end of a 49-25 disparity in free throw attempts.

In my early November post declaring my intention to closely follow Harlem, I predicted a deep playoff run.  Watching the Bulldogs beat Greenbrier, Lakeside, and Grovetown before the holidays reinforced my confidence.  The way the regions are aligned caused me to choose to watch games other than Harlem's during most of January.  But not seeing the Bulldogs play in a month is not a good excuse for not being prepared.  A simple call or text to coach Chambers would have done wonders.  Lesson learned.

But no harm no foul because while I watched Augusta Christian and Hammond play Friday, a buddy filmed Harlem's "payback" opportunity versus then 7-0 Swainsboro.  On its home court, Harlem will have had the chance by Tuesday to even the series with the two region opponents who have beaten the Bulldogs, Swainsboro and Dublin (Tuesday).  More importantly, two wins would move Harlem into second place, or even a tie for first if the Bulldogs get some help.  At stake is the bye into the semifinal round of region tournament play that goes to the region's top team.

And so far so good as coach Chambers' group disposed of Swainsboro (64-49) with relative ease at home Friday.  Florida Gulf Coast signee Reggie Reid led the way with 18 points.  Rayshaun Morris and Steven St. Claire added 14 and 12 points, respectively.

Harlem's athleticism is a major advantage over its 2A peers.  And nowhere is this advantage more pronounced than at the point, where Reid plays.  As I saw him do against Lakeside in December, Reggie had stretches Friday where he cleared the defensive glass and went coast to coast and either finished the initial shot or rebounded his own miss until he converted.  He rebounded his own misses after jump shots and free throws, leaving the impression that he can almost score at will with a lack of taller players protecting the rim.

Besides his exceptional athleticism, Reid also distinguishes himself with his selflessness.  Because of his gifts, I have often found myself wishing he were more selfish.  And he certainly has the ability to dominate a game by attacking repeatedly, as he did in Harlem's comeback win over Grovetown one month ago.  But he is more comfortable helping teammates be successful.  And his generosity looked contagious Friday.  Specifically, Torrien Beard, who has impressed me all season, repeatedly set up teammates for easy scores in Friday's win.  The combination of these two guards' athleticism, scoring ability, and unselfishness will be difficult for 2A teams to handle this post season.

I mentioned being impressed with Beard.  And everyone who has watched Reid has been impressed with him for years.  But coach Chambers has more weapons, as was evident Friday.  Rayshaun Morris began his senior season with a 10 point first quarter against Greenbrier that set the Bulldogs off and running months ago.  Friday's first quarter reminded me of that November evening as the slashing wing finished with his off hand (his left) with soft floaters in transition.  And Steven St. Claire shoots the ball well every time I watch him play.

Whether or not my faith in the Bulldogs wavered recently, I am happy to see Harlem is on track to have a post season to remember.  I will be sure not to watch the end of January from afar!

Friday, January 23, 2015

McDaniel carries Hammond to victory over Augusta Christian

In the latest Region Race episode, I mentioned the "internet fame" of Hammond's Seventh Woods (whom ESPN currently labels the 60th best junior in the country) and the anticipation for his visit to Augusta Christian for an important region contest.  But Friday's biggest star was another player who is no stranger to fame, Xavier McDaniel.  Only this “X-man” is not the one I grew up watching bully NBA guards and bury threes for the Seattle Supersonics.  But the former NBA star’s son was a chip off the old block Friday in Hammond’s 57-55 win in the defending state champions’ gym.

The filled-to-capacity crowd no doubt expected big things from Woods.  But he didn’t score a field goal Friday.  However, McDaniel made shots from all angles, including behind the three point line, floating towards the basket, and above the rim.  Many times.  Every time Hammond needed a basket, he seemed to answer the call, including a jump shot from the free throw line that gave the Skyhawks a 55-53 lead with less than one minute remaining.  Immediately afterwards, Augusta Christian’s Madison Williams tied the game with a reverse layup only to set up an anticlimactic finish. Woods was fouled 50 feet from the basket and sent to the line, where he made the game winning free throws with seconds remaining.

The home loss must sting after the Lions seemed to control much of the game.  Junior Madison Williams played brilliantly, and the only times Augusta Christian seemed vulnerable were the moments he was forced to sit because of foul trouble.  While on the court, he got where he wanted off the dribble and finished almost everything.  

And the Lions’ attack was balanced as 6’9” senior center Calvin Taylor and 6’6” freshman forward got numerous attempts in the paint.

But coach John Harris’ team has a history of returning even stronger after setbacks.  The Lions lost both regular season meetings versus Hammond last season before defeating the Skyhawks in the post season and eventually winning the state championship.  Assuming Hammond is more talented than any SCISA team Augusta Christian will face, there is nothing about Friday’s game that suggests the Lions won’t be poised to make a serious run at repeating as SCISA’s champs in the next 60 days.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Region Race 2015 (epsiode 4): Halfway point in region play

Episode 4 of "Region Race 2015" follows this outline:

- Laney beats region foes Washington County on the road and Josey at home.  I show highlights and talk to Laney coach Buck Harris about junior Collin Young.

- Augusta Christian faces Hammond and Seventh woods Friday in what should be a packed house.  I talk about the Lions' impressive advantage inside and its exceptional talent level.

- Region 1A update:  Aquinas is heading for a second place finish heading into region tournament action.  But the post season will give the Irish another chance at region leader Hancock.
"Mr. January" Christian Keeling flies over Josey in region action

-  Region 2A update:  Harlem can finish anywhere from 1st to 3rd, depending on the results of approaching home games against Swainsboro (Friday) and Dublin (Saturday).

- Region 3A update:  I vent some more about the silly decision the GHSA made in stripping Butler of two region wins.  But I detail how Butler made up a 17 point deficit in a key win over Josey Tuesday and gets a chance to get back into second place in a showdown with Washington County Friday.

- Region 5A update:  Grovetown has won five consecutive region games and taken current control of the lead in the region standings.

Thank you for reading and watching.  Please comment here or on the YouTube video if you like.  I have been getting a lot of emails ([email protected]), phone calls (706) 550-2229, and texts.  Thank you for that.  I like hearing from you.  Please continue.  Feedback helps me make better stuff!

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Butler and Grovetown pass big tests... More ahead

Don Coleman has led Butler into an
important week of class 3A action
The fundamentals are always important.  Building a strong basketball program takes mastery of the fundamentals, and one crucial factor is scheduling.  Teams will not grow without difficult tests that expose flaws so improvement opportunities can be identified and addressed.  These tests also inevitably lead to failures, which players and coaches absolutely have to learn from if true growth is to occur.  I have written extensively about Laney's exposure to such opportunities.  Lately Butler, and just recently Grovetown, both teams with designs on deep postseason pushes in their respective classifications, placed themselves into situations ripe for this kind of learning.

In back to back games at the MLK Day Invitational at Evans High School, Butler and Grovetown lined up against the state's #2 and #4 ranked class 3A teams, respectively.  Butler's most recent test came ten days after facing #1 ranked Laney and dropping its first region game of the season.  And although Grovetown's opponent may be a member of a smaller classification, my guess is they posed a uniquely difficult challenge compared to the Warriors' local 5A competitors.

The Jenkins-Butler, #2 versus #3 matchup was of special interest because not only have the teams proven themselves to be among the state's elite, but the final four teams that emerge from Butler's region 3 tournament will be matched with those who emerge from Jenkins' region 1 tourney.  Additionally, Jenkins proved in a January 3rd battle at Laney that the Savannah based team is a force.

But most important was the experience the Bulldogs and Warriors gained in stepping outside of region play to face two of the state's best.  Butler, stinging after being stripped of two region wins for seemingly nonsensical reasons, needed to be in top form going into Tuesday's home game versus region foe Josey.  In any scenario, this rematch of Butler's come-from-behind road victory over the Eagles in December, which included an old fashioned shootout between the area's top scorers, Butler's Don Coleman and Josey's Darius Williams, always would have been must see action for this hoops fan.  But the game took on an even greater meaning as Butler suddenly found itself, by the stroke of a pen, with a 3-3 region record, at the time tied with Glenn Hills behind Laney (6-0), Washington County (4-2), Josey (4-2).  What does that mean?  Certainly nothing yet, as we are still only one game past the 12 game (3A) region race.  But it is difficult not to spend at least a moment on the impact of the GHSA's ruling to reverse Butler's wins at Josey and Washington County.

*Records are stated here as they stood before Tuesday's round of region games.  I will update them later in the post when reporting on Tuesday's action.  The point here is to show what Butler faced leading into the week.

*Before Ruling                             *After Ruling
Laney (6-0)                                     Laney (6-0)
Butler (5-1)                                     Washington County (4-2)
Washington County (3-3)               Josey (4-2)
Josey (3-3)                                      Butler (3-3)
Glenn Hills (3-3)                            Glenn Hills (3-3)
Hephzibah (1-5)                             Hephzibah (1-5)  
Westside (0-6)                                Westside (0-6)

I read Wayne Staats' (whose work I enjoy greatly) report of the GHSA ruling and understand that nearly forty days ago, Butler's Don Coleman fouled an opponent, the foul was ruled a "common foul," and after the opponent was discovered to be injured, the officials changed the fouled to a "flagrant" status.  Evidently, flagrant fouls result in two game suspensions in GHSA play.  Coleman didn't sit against Josey and Washinton County, so the GHSA stripped Butler of those wins.

What do I think about this situation?  Unless there is more to the story, I think the adults have botched this one big time.  In what common sense based basketball league are fouls "upgraded" to punishable-by-two-game-suspension offenses, after the initial call, because the player being fouled is discovered to have been injured?  And in what common sense based basketball league is a coach expected to know, I suppose by diligent study of the encyclopedia-like GHSA rulebook, that flagrant fouls are to lead to two game suspensions?  It's not like this is common in mainstream basketball associations or leagues.  But the adults made a rule.  So let's all hide behind it and pretend it makes sense...  Nonsense!

But the good news is the young men are smart enough to know things are ultimately decided on the court, the place where they are safe from the well-meaning, yet at times bumbling adults.  Except the officials, that is.  But the players long ago learned to deal with them.

Now that I have have described why I was so interested in Butler and Grovetown's weeks, and vented about what I believe to be Butler's misfortune, I'll share my thoughts from Monday and Tuesday's games.

Butler vs Jenkins:  Monday, January 19th

Monday's MLK Day Invitational non region matchup between Butler, the state's third ranked class 3A team, and Jenkins of Savannah, who is 8-0 in region 1 play and pegged as the state's second ranked 3A team, was every bit the heavyweight battle all the other high profile games between class 3A titans we've been fortunate enough to see this month (#1 Laney vs #2 Jenkins; #1 Laney vs #3 Butler, and #1 Laney vs #5 Morgan County).  Butler controlled the action in the first half, benefitting from stellar play by Don Coleman, Ben Rhodes, and Ricquail Smoot.  All three are playing better than I've ever seen them play.  They are playing efficiently and finding and making high percentage shots.  Coleman did a great job not only of scoring, but of setting up his teammates for good opportunities.  A product of my seeing him play so much this season has been a growing appreciation for his range of skills and intangible qualities.  I've talked about his competitiveness and, of course, his ability to score in bunches.  And although he has created opportunities for teammates all season, the "point guard" portion of his "combo guard" skill set that Florida Atlantic coach Mike Curry must be so excited about is what struck me most while watching Monday's game.  See Coleman's facilitating and scoring, Rhodes' play making, and Smoot's somewhat newly found interior dominance during this action from Monday's first half:

But Jenkins is undefeated in region play and sporting a resume second only to Laney (18-1, 7-0) for good reasons.  And the Savannah based team fully displayed its capabilities in Monday's second half, scoring 56 points to earn a 78-65 victory before both teams got back to region action Tuesday.

As noted after its game at Laney, Jenkins plays extremely hard.  And its weapons are varied and plenty.  6'7" "point forward" Nicholas Severado has been fun to watch breaking the full court traps Laney and Butler have used to rattle so many opponents.  He uses his ball handling skills and mobility to beat bigger defenders playing in unfamiliar territory on the perimeter.  Monday he drew help defenders, gave teammates free looks, and finished a sweet floater on the move.  And his contributions are made on both ends.  He uses his length and athleticism to change and block shots.  Severado is probably the most skilled player of his size I've watched this season.

Butler vs Josey:  Tuesday, January 20th

Darius Williams and Josey stood in the way of Butler's
quest to regain its footing in the region 3A standings
Before going into detail, I'll say Tuesday's game between region 3A contenders Butler and Josey was no work of art.  Possessions were lost, quick and off-balance shots were heaved without many passes or much patience, and bodies constantly flew to the ground in pursuit of a loose basketball.  This is to be expected from two teams who know each other well, who during this point in the season likely aren't very fond of each other, and who are certainly each in pursuit of a second place finish in the 3A regular season region race.  The reason this spot, or even the third spot, is so important is because the team in the fourth spot, which before Tuesday belonged to Butler after two of its region wins had recently been stripped away by the GHSA, will likely be destined to meet Laney (currently 7-0) in the semifinals of the region tournament.  I concede that neither team is afraid of Laney.  But no sane mind would want to face that buzz saw earlier than necessary.  And the prize for finishing first or second in the region tournament is one or more home games during the state playoffs.

I apologize for looking so far ahead.  But after the GHSA's ruling has so significantly changed Butler's mid season positioning, and after Tuesday's passing of the halfway point in regular season region play, Butler's matchup with Josey took on a new meaning.  Above I mentioned Butler's MLK Day test versus class 3A's second best team, Jenkins, and how crisp the Bulldogs looked, even in defeat.  The flashes of brilliance were fewer and further in between during Tuesday's come-from-behind 65-64 home win over Josey.  But if I were to poll Butler's players about which day was better, we all know the uglier win is much more satisfying than the aesthetically pleasing loss.

The same players who played with such great rhythm Monday made the most impact Tuesday.  Ricquail Smoot continued his development by dominating the paint on both ends.  This makes three consecutive games (versus Laney, Jenkins, and Tuesday versus Josey) where he has consistently done something I hadn't seen him do prior to this January:  use his size to get easy baskets in the paint.  He has always been a skilled player.  Mixing his touch and his knack for scoring with some ferociousness inside has yielded good results for the Bulldogs this month, and most recently last night.

The most effective combination of wing players I've seen this season has been Butler's Don Coleman and Ben Rhodes.  Rhodes made important baskets in Tuesday's second half that seemed to instantly erase Josey's 42-27 halftime advantage.  And Coleman's nifty baseline drive-and-finish (after Butler patiently ran 30+ seconds off the clock) to give the Bulldogs a 65-62 advantage with less than a minute remaining was the type of tough basket only he can consistently deliver.

Will things get easier for coach Cervantes Boddy's Bulldogs?  Of course not.  This is region 3A basketball.  Butler will host Washington County Friday.  As noted, the region wins stripped from Butler were earned against Josey and Washington County.  So a win Friday would no doubt give coach Boddy's group some emotional satisfaction.  But more importantly, and quite impressively, the Bulldogs could find themselves right back in second place in what is likely class 3A's best region, which is no small feat given the obstacles recently placed in Butler's path.

Grovetown vs Cedar Grove:  Monday, January 19th

Logan Morris and Grovetown have now won 5
consecutive region 5A games

Grovetown was able to stay with its highly ranked 3A opponent for one half Monday.  Despite losing, the experience likely helped the Warriors prepare to win its fifth consecutive region game Tuesday at Cross Creek, repaying the Razorbacks for Grovetown's only loss in this season in 5A play.  With four games remaining, Grovetown is in the driver's seat to earn a high seed in its region tournament.  Solomon Gause, Logan Morris, and Shamar Barrett form a formidable trio of perimeter shooters/scorers.  See them in action versus Cedar Grove here:

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Laney is halfway through another mini obstacle course

Jaylen Taylor's leadership has been key in Laney's run
When friends have told me no area team can possibly beat Laney, I have disagreed.  I have told them the players at Butler, Washington County, Josey, Glenn Hills, and Westside have played with and against Laney's guys their entire lives.  These guys want more than anything shut up the mouths of we who comment on local hoops action.  Also arguing for an eventual Wildcat slip is the amazingly difficult schedule coach Buck Harris has constructed.  I extensively covered Laney's 8 day stretch in which they toppled class 3A's #2 (Jenkins), #3 (Butler), and #5 (Morgan County) teams.  That was last week.  Upon conclusion, this week's obstacle course will have included 4 games in 5 days against probable state tournament teams:  Washington County (away), Josey (home), Buford (in Atlanta) and Glenn Hills (home).

So far, so good.  After experiencing a brief scare at Washington County Friday and playing in front of the best high school basketball crowd I've probably ever seen in Saturday's famed Laney-Josey matchup, the Wildcats are 2-0 halfway through their trying stretch.

Laney's 17 game wining streak, and its general dominance, can never be attributed to only one player, or even two or three.  But in January, a time the team has played mostly in town, giving me the chance to see the action up close rather than viewing through the web, I've found myself repeatedly saying Christian Keeling's play is making a huge impact.  Before the new year Keeling certainly impacted games with his attacking style, finishing drives and getting to the foul line.  Since the turn of the calendar he has added a dimension:  a consistent perimeter jump shot.  This is no surprise because Christian's form has always been solid.  The magic of game repetitions has worked in his favor and he is now scoring from all spots and angles.

But while I am not surprised with Keeling's improving outside shooting, I truly have been by his sudden burst of high flying finishes.  Christian is no first time dunker.  But lately he has dunked in various ways (two-handed tip dunk off two feet versus Butler; in stride on the break after receiving a pass versus Morgan County, and another off the stride and off the pass dunk with two hands Friday at Washington County).

Little did I know these were teasers of what keeling would do Saturday to send the packed-to-absolute-capacity crowd at Laney into hysterics.  For there is a difference between finger tip dunking in practice, and on breakaway plays during meaningless moments of games, and the types of plays described above.  Then there is what he did in Saturday's game against Josey!  In traffic and through contact, Christian rose above the crowd and finished with two "body-to-body" one handed dunks off the stride.  No basketball plays electrify a crowd like these.  And no crowd is more ready to be electrified than Saturday's.  This sequence certainly has my vote for the most exciting sequence at this point in the 2014-15 season.

As noted, Laney's success cannot possibly be attributed to one player.  Another crucial factor in the team's run has been junior Zep Jasper's play.  He has consistently made life difficult for opponents' best scorers.  There is not a "tougher cover" than Josey's Darius Williams.  I haven't seen anybody force Williams into as many difficult situations as Jasper (and Harris' overall defensive scheme) did Saturday.  And Zep absolutely controls games offensively.  Through his leadership, shooters like Jashawn Brooks and Collin Young get clean looks, and finishers like Jaylen Taylor and Jervon Walker are set up properly.  When Jasper looks to score, he does so efficiently.  He has no trouble blowing by quick guards and finishing either at the rim or with soft floaters over taller help defenders.  And Saturday he made a "rhythm dribble three" as his defender gave him space to keep him out of the paint.  This was exciting to see.  It's the only thing I haven't seen from Jasper this season.  (Note there is a difference between this kind of shot and the catch-and-shoot three created by others that Zep has consistently made all season.)

There are too many Laney contributors to describe!  Staying with juniors, I'll move to Collin Young, who has made big shots all season.  In Friday's game, Young was instrumental in keeping his team close, and eventually helping it pull away from Washington County.  He continued to make a difference Saturday versus Josey.  During both games, Collin did far more than make open jump shots.  He created opportunities off the dribble, scoring in the mid range and in the paint.  And like all intelligent scorers, he crashed the offensive glass for additional chances.

And the above accounts tell only part of this weekend's Laney story.  The team's battalion of senior leaders is so consistent.  Brooks continues to make shots and lead in so many important ways.  Jaylen Taylor always impacts games in the paint, and Saturday he showed more of his perimeter skills.  And Jervon Walker, Tyqwan Wilson, Tommy Smith, and Nick Myers are all players that just about any coach of a state tournament team would be thrilled to have in his starting lineup.

There are so many good reasons Laney has had such a great season.  And the results have been perfect during the first half of a particularly difficult four game in five day stretch.  I wouldn't bet against the Wildcats Monday against Buford in Atlanta or Tuesday back at home.

***Here are some posts from the past about Laney***

January 11, 2015
Laney defeats Butler to in "instant classic" to stay undefeated in region play

January 7, 2015
Region Race 2015 (episode 2)... plus a look at "Class 3A Week"

January 6, 2015
Laney starts its most difficult (and exciting) week of the season

Dec 25, 2014
The full gyms at Laney's games remind me of something

Dec 16, 2014
Laney hustles its way to another huge win

Dec 9, 2014
Laney's Secret Sauce:  Playing Harder (Easier said than done)

Dec 1, 2014
Laney Beats Morgan County at Home

Nov 24, 2014
Friday at the Will Avery Tip-Off Tournament

Nov 16, 2014
Laney falls short in season opening thriller

Nov 11, 2014
Laney Opens Season with Nationally Ranked St. Francis

July 11, 2014
Brooks, Taylor, and Walker: ABR Live Summer Send-off

Nov 25, 2013
Laney and Aquinas Open Season with a Statement

March 15, 2012
Laney Makes History

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Region Race 2015 (episode 3)

On this week's episode, I look back at Friday's "instant classic" between our area's two best teams, Laney and Butler.  I also highlight Grovetown, who recently moved into first place in the region 5A standings.  And I highlight this weekend's key games with implications for region and state rankings. I hope you enjoy it!

Link to episode 2

Link to episode 1

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

GRU wins roller coaster ride of a game at Lander

GRU Augusta defeated Lander 97-88 in overtime Saturday, gaining a much needed conference win to bring the Jags' Peach Belt record to 3-3.  I wrote Sunday about the roller coaster ride of emotions that comes with highly competitive hoops.  Coach Dip Metress' squad, hungry for a win after a recent home loss to North Georgia, had a tough task on the road at Lander, who before the game sported a 13-0 record.

The Jags had many chances Saturday and for a time struggled to capitalize on opportunities to build leads with untimely missed free throws and turnovers in the second half.  I very much wanted the Jags to pull out the win.  So as I watched these heavyweights trade blows in a game where neither team led by more than seven points, I was quite anxious.  And I'm only a fan!  Think of sophomore sensation Keshun Sherrill, who scored 25 points in the game's final 25 minutes.  Sherrill has had exceptional scoring bursts all season:  a 37 point season opener, another 25-points-in-the-last-25-minutes spurt in a road win at cross town rival Paine, and most recently a 22 point first half in last week's loss to North Georgia.  But even the seemingly invincible Sherrill, who I have been saying "plays like Superman," can stumble in the heat of conference action.  For in the midst of his offensive explosion Saturday, Keshun missed some key free throws, including one that would have cinched the game after a miraculous "hoop and harm" earned with the Jags down 81-79 with 2.1 seconds remaining.  So as absurd as it seems, the roller coaster the game takes a player on would have Sherrill believing he would have been to blame for a potential Jags loss.

But never fear.  Even the hoops gods were not that cruel Saturday.  Sherrill was rewarded for his stellar performance after he scored the second half's final four points to force overtime and the Jags controlled the extra period to earn the important win in Peach Belt play.  It was a heck of a game.  Every Peach Belt game I've seen this season has been.  The Lander broadcaster took the words out of my mouth when he wondered out loud "when the easy Peach Belt games would come."  I've been trying to puzzle how GRU took a 2-3 record into Saturday's game.  They look great offensively.  The stats concur.  And the team doesn't appear to lack defensive chops.  So after seeing Sherrill average 29 points while shooting over 60% from the field in last week's games, and watching seniors Devon Wright-Nelson, Devonte Thomas, and D'Angelo Boyce make play after play, all while the Jags claw their way to a .500 record 6 games into the conference schedule, I have come to a conclusion:  Peach Belt teams are flat out good!  Winning more than you lose in this league is a notable accomplishment.  I know coach Metress' crew has higher aims than that.  And if Saturday's game at Lander is any indication, I will have plenty of fun watching their roller coaster rides through the league...

The next ride is Wednesday versus Armstrong.  The game is at home and starts at 7:30.  The women play at 5:30.

***Here are some posts from the past about the GRU Augusta Jaguars***

Jan 2, 2015
Jags rout Wingate 83-70

Dec 23, 2014
GRU splits pair of home conference game

Dec 11, 2014
GRU senior trio has big impact during road trip

Dec 5, 2014
Throwback Thursday:  Jags Sophomore Sensations (25 years removed)

Dec 4, 2014
GRU Impressive in City Classic Win at Paine

Nov 28, 2014
GRU's Statistical Wonders

Nov 15, 2014
Sherrill drops 37 in GRU's Opening Win

Nov 12, 2014
Another Exciting Year Ahead for GRU Augusta

Nov 13, 2013
This Week in Jags Hoops: Episode 2

Nov 5, 2013
One of the Greatest Jags

Oct 27, 2013
This Week in Jags Hoops: Episode 1

Oct 25, 2013
GRU Pep Rally: Dip Baby Dip

Jan 12, 2013
Jags Top Armstrong

Monday, January 12, 2015

Region Roundup - Jan 13 edition

We have a jump ball at the top of the local region 5A standings as four teams (Evans, Grovetown, Cross Creek and Richmond) all enter Tuesday's round of league games with records of 2-1.  One of the two hottest teams is Evans.  Senior guard Kameron Mason is back on the roster and coach Kevin Kenny's team has won two straight, at Lakeside last Tuesday and at home against then unbeaten (in region play) Cross Creek Saturday.  Coach Kenny credits his team's ability to win close games (the Knights beat Lakeside by 7 and Cross Creek by 5) to the difficult lessons his players learned while losing 8 non conference games by 4 points or less before the new year.

The Knights visit the region's other surging team, Grovetown, which after dropping a home game to Cross Creek has since defeated Richmond and Greenbrier on the road.  The Warriors had great crowd support when Cross Creek visited.  I sure hope the Grovetown and Evans student sections suit up and make themselves heard in Tuesday's duel for a share of the lead in the 5A standings.

The Grovetown student section at a home game in 2013

Richmond Academy and Cross Creek will attempt to retain their shares of the lead in league's standings as each visits a team reeling in many ways.  Greenbrier, losers of a heart breaker to Lakeside and a second half lead at Cross Creek, is closer to winning than its record indicates.  Coach Casey Heckathorn's team will look to knock Richmond off its stride and begin a climb up the standings.  But Richmond's size will pose a challenge to Greenbrier's guard oriented attack.

Speaking of contrasting styles, I credited Cross Creek's initial two region wins to its perimeter scoring.  But coach Carlos Carter tells me his Razorbacks made only 3 of 24 three point attempts in its loss at Evans Friday.  His guys will need to get into the paint to play well enough to win at Lakeside.  After all, perimeter players can score near and at the rim.  And the good ones do!

6'9" Panther center Jake Gilbert will be waiting.  But to use that as an excuse not to attack would be playing to Lakeside's strength.  Coach Jody Hilley received a blow last week as senior point guard BJ Raymond apparently decided not to play any longer.  But I won't underestimate the Panthers.  Guards Kre'sean Hall, Luke Harmon and Za Banks can all make plays, and they deliberately feed Gilbert near the rim.  A good combination for sure.

Region 3A

My Minecraft-loving sons may call last Friday's Laney-Butler duel for the first place slot in the region 3A standings an "epic battle."  I tested the phrase "battle on the Boulevard."  But no matter the name, I submit it as the first in hopefully a long list of "instant classics" from local 3A region teams.  I spent a good bit of time and virtual ink on what I termed "Class 3A Week."  Laney's convincing victories over #2 (statewide) Jenkins at home and #5 (statewide) Morgan County on the road were impressive to say the least.  But its defense of its homecourt and its undefeated region record against crosstown rival and likewise undefeated (in region play) Butler was the story of all Augusta basketball stories last week.  What coach Harris' team was able to accomplish in an eight day span is truly remarkable.  So I give you the opportunity to take it all in again here:

- My report of Laney's 60-49 win over class 3A's #2 ranked team, Jenkins

- My report of the best local high school game (Laney-Butler, #1 vs #3) in our area in 20 years

- AugBball and SUVtv's live broadcast of Laney's convincing win over class 3A's defending state champ and class 3A's #5 ranked team, Morgan County...

But the rest of the region's heavyweights hardly stood in place during the past week.  Josey won its second straight region contest Friday against Westside, and the Eagles will attempt to continue its march up the standings this Friday at Hephzibah.  Glenn Hills, winner of a crucial home game Friday over Washington County, will aim to reach the .500 mark as the Spartans host Westside Friday.  The Eagles and Spartans (and Butler as well) are in a sense being "repaid" after facing such difficult stretches in the early parts of their region schedules.  Westside and Hephzibah, the only opponents on these teams' schedules this week, have combined region records of 1-7.

That said, there are hardly such things as "easy" 3A games in our area.  Ask Washington County, who after beginning its schedule with the likes of Butler, Josey, and Glenn Hills, draws Laney Friday (along with Westside Tuesday).  Coach Carlos Hope's team impressed me with a home win over Josey two Fridays ago.  The Golden Eagles will aim to rebound from its road loss to Glenn Hills with two home dates this week.

"Single team regions"

It is more difficult for me to follow (in person) the teams who compete in regions in which I don't follow all the teams.  For this reason I regret missing key games.  For example, after Harlem recently dropped a game to region leader Swainsboro, the Bulldogs looked vulnerable approaching Saturday's road game at high scoring Dublin.  And I hate that I missed the 83-80 Dublin victory.  The Bulldogs (2-2) will attempt to get back on the winning track this week against Metter (Tuesday) and Jefferson County (Friday).  The brighter side of missing the Swainsboro (3-0) and Dublin (3-0) games is that there are surely more such games on the horizon.  In addition to Dublin's January 27th regular season visit to Harlem, the Bulldogs will likely face these teams in the semifinal and/or the championship round of region tournament play in February.  Finishing first or second in this region is a tall order.  But the prize will be one or more home games in state tournament play.  I'll somehow arrange my calendar to catch some of this action!

Speaking of marking my calendar to catch some must see hoops, the 3-1 Aquinas Fighting Irish faces Hancock Central, by far the class of its 1A region, one week from Tuesday.  As long as Aquinas takes care of Taliaferro County Friday, the trip to Sparta will give me the opportunity to see how far the young Irish have come since Hancock recently routed them.

Augusta Christian and Alleluia both opened region play Friday with road wins at Ben Lippen and Nathaniel Greene, respectively.  The Lions host Cardinal Newman Tuesday and travel to Heathwood Hall Friday.  The Angels play area rival Victory Baptist Tuesday in a non conference game and host region foe Hancock Friday.  I sure hope to see these teams in person soon.

***See last Friday's edition, the first ever, of "Region Roundup" at this link***

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Laney defeats Butler in "instant classic" to remain undefeated in region play

Two of the best on the sidelines, Laney head coach Buck Harris (left)
 and Butler head coach Cervantes Boddy (right)
 meet before the clash of their unbeaten teams Friday.

Friday's Laney-Butler showdown was highly anticipated.  The stands were full and the tickets gone three hours before tip-off.  It was emotional.  The composure of the players, coaches, and referees were tested as fans scrutinized every action.  Players trash talked and went chest to chest in ways that somehow didn't seem inappropriate, even in a time when such things are usually frowned upon and curtailed by officials.  Fans argued and taunted each other, accusing each other's school of "recruiting" or "not being all that good after all."  Heck, someone near me threw a plastic bottle on the court and as the entire gym gazed up at our section of the bleachers I thought for a second a swat team would be called!

Let's just say the atmosphere was intense.  More intense than any high school game I've seen in decades.  And by the time Laney squeaked out a 72-65 win to become region 3A's only undefeated team, the players had been through a roller coaster ride of emotions.  It is during these moments when the game teaches its most important lessons.  I believe the biggest reason for Laney's victory can be traced back to its season opener in the gym of nationally renowned Saint Francis, a team with a likely future McDonalds all american, a Florida State and an Xavier signee, and a "fourth best player" who is 6'11" and heading for division 1 college basketball next season.  Down 18-3 early in that game, the Wildcats looked overwhelmed and unsure of themselves.  That was one moment.  The next moment, Buck Harris' team rallied to play harder, smarter and more cohesively than its famous opponent and came roaring back only to lose on the game's final possession.  The Wildcats have since proceeded to do the things they did after that moment in mid November on every possession of every game since, no matter the opponent, its size, its overwhelming talent, or its ranking.  The result has been 15 consecutive victories and the commonly held belief that Laney is our state's best team.  So when Butler led by 9 early, Laney's guys knew the formula:  play hard, play smart, play together.  Good things will happen.  And they did.

Butler has taken a different path, yet one no less impressive.  The Bulldogs have mauled nearly every opponent in its path.  And by giving Laney its biggest scare (on Laney's home court) since Saint Francis, coach Boddy's team no longer deserves to hear they are not Laney's peer.  But before Friday, Butler's guys had not had its moment.  Its "Saint Francis moment," if you will.  Well they have had it now.  And the way they deal with that moment will say everything about whether this Butler team is headed for true greatness.  I believe they are.  Prior to Friday's game, I told everybody who would listen (including Laney's coach... ask him!) that Butler would give Laney everything it could possibly handle.  Now I expect this group to bottle up all the good things that come from the learning experience they were lucky to have Friday and unleash it one game at a time from this point forward.

As thrilling as Friday's event was, it was only one game in January.  Both teams have many similar battles ahead as they navigate through what may well be the finest region in the state, regardless of classification.  So although Laney's pre-conference schedule sped up its learning curve and in effect gave it a head start by providing a mid November "moment," Butler having its gut check time on January 9th is plenty early to set up the Bulldogs for a path similar to the Wildcats.'

We basketball fans are lucky this season.  I'll do my best not to miss a second of any action that is anything like what I witnessed Friday.  Now let's look at some of the game's most interesting details.  There are more than I can possibly share.  But I'll do my best!

Game Notes

First I'll share a quick video I made for Facebook to try to provide a snapshot of the level of play in this game.  Below this video I will share very detailed analysis.  But seeing this gives a flavor for the intensity, athleticism and skill on display when our area's two best teams collided.

Zep Jasper's double duty

Butler's Don Coleman has been unstoppable, or at least "unstopped," this season.  Laney's Zep Jasper has been called upon to contain the state's best guards (Pebblebrook's Jared Harper, Morgan County's Tookie Brown, etc) all season.  He did Friday what has been by far the best defensive job I've seen against Coleman.  He made it very difficult for him to touch the ball.  When he did, most times he was not in his usual spots.  Zep didn't "stop" Don.  But he kept him from singlehandedly beating Laney, something he is certainly capable of doing.

This feat is impressive, but not nearly as impressive as simultaneously being Laney's most consistent offensive player throughout the entire game.  Teammates Christian Keeling and Jashawn Brooks led the way at different times in the game.  But Jasper made timely baskets at every turn, whether in the first half as Butler was riding high and threatening to pull away, or in the second half when a winded Coleman switched to guard him and Jasper blew past him for two scores in the paint.  It was tweeted after the game that Jasper was offered a scholarship by the Charleston Southern coach who was in attendance.  I have two things to say about that.  1)  The coach is smart.  2)  I confess to being wrong before the season when I told friends that Zep would fit best with a very good division 2 team or a good "low major" division 1 team.  I vowed months ago to no longer doubt Coleman.  I make that same pledge regarding Zep now.  Buck is lucky to have him holding Laney's keys.  And so will the college coach lucky enough to land him.

Coleman will grow from Friday's experience

Let's get a couple things established.  I believe Don Coleman is our area's best player.  Former Glenn Hills and Georgia Southern graduate, NBA veteran player and head coach, and current Florida Atlantic head coach Mike Curry is a smart guy.  He long ago put his scholarship money where his mouth was and scooped up this highly competitive scoring machine.  I can imagine Don's thoughts as he has heard Laney's praises trumpeted all season.  He was featured in Friday's Augusta Chronicle, which on the day of a game like this has to add tons of pressure.  And from my perspective, he played a fine game Friday.  He scored, rebounded, and set up teammates.  He encouraged friend and running mate, Ben Rhodes, whose development has been so important to Butler's emergence as a top team statewide.  But he is a teenager.  And at a point in the fourth quarter, with the game in the balance and emotions running extremely hot, he said or did something to earn a seat on the bench.  Kudos to coach Boddy for upholding standards that he believes are important to his players' growth as players, but more importantly as men.  And kudos to Don for cheering his teammates along from the bench those final three minutes.  And kudos in advance to both of them for what I expect to see going forward:  a duo that has been through the fire, leading by example and showing its Bulldog family members what it means to compete every possession of every game while keeping the good of the team at the top of their priority list.

Too many contributors to count

A coach from a medium sized college in South Carolina became a texting buddy of mine last week.  He wanted to get familiar with our area's hoops scene.  I told him Friday's Laney-Butler game was a "must see."  The image
to the right shows our text exchange Friday.  Let's say this game had many good players and performances.  I'll try to point a few out here.

I mentioned Keeling, Brooks, and Rhodes above.  At different times, each looked like the game's best offensive player.  Or at least the most impactful.  Keeling continued what he started last Saturday against Jenkins, a relentless attack on the basket off the dribble that more often than not ended with a score, a trip to the foul line, and/or a body or two crashing to the ground.  Despite his track record of scoring at the rim, I've never believed he had extraordinary athleticism.  But his finger roll off the stride at the beginning of the game and his two handed tip dunk "off the vert" made me do a double take.  Christian is only a junior.  He is improving rapidly and channeling his fearlessness and confidence into major production, becoming a major offensive weapon on an elite team.

Another Laney weapon is Jashawn Brooks, who has become so much more than the shooter I once knew.  He now does all the little things, which are always the most important.  He takes charges and attacks the basket, regularly earning trips to the foul line.  And he has developed a knack for making shots in the game's deciding moments when many players freeze.  Brooks led the Wildcats in scoring with 20 points Friday.  The timeliness of his points made them more important than the exact number indicates.

Rhodes' development has been remarkable.  He has had brilliant moments this season, like his 25 point burst versus Richmond Academy.  But before Friday he had yet to shoulder the kind of scoring responsibility he did Friday.  He answered the call admirably, making shots from deep and attacking in the open court.  The Bulldogs suffered a major blow when Ben fouled out with 4 minutes remaining.  The pace of his improvement makes me eager to see how well he will play as he gets more games like Friday's behind him.

Bright future

I have regularly referred to Butler's senior leadership, almost taking for granted that the Bulldogs will take a step backwards when Coleman, Rhodes, Jaylon Archie, and Tyekeith McClattie graduate.  But games like Friday give players an opportunity to show a side of themselves not previously uncovered.  I appreciate the skill level and shooting touch of Butler's 6'6" junior Ricquail Smoot.  But I hadn't, before Friday, seen his aggressive side.  "Necessity is the mother of invention" is an old saying that can be stretched a bit to apply here.  6'6" tall or not, anyone playing Laney and not playing aggressively will be eaten alive, as they say.  After failing to finish a couple point blank shots early, Smoot began throwing his body into defenders, scoring on post feeds, off the offensive glass, and slashing to the rim.  And there were times when he singlehandedly manned the defensive boards for Butler.

Another Butler junior, guard Jzwa Collier, made contributions far in excess of what I expected.  He changed the flow of the game with great on the ball defensive pressure soon after checking in during the first quarter.  Playing point guard for much of the night, he handled Laney's full court pressure with composure.  He calmly sank his free throws and made important shots, including a three pointer that tied the game at 64 late with Coleman and Rhodes seated for the evening.  Collier, Smoot, and sophomore Will Lambert give coach Boddy as good a nucleus as just about any local team to build for next season.

***See post from the pasts about Laney and Butler here:***


January 7, 2014
Region Race 2015 (episode 2)... plus a look at "Class 3A Week"

January 6, 2014
Laney starts its most difficult (and exciting) week of the season

Dec 25, 2014
The full gyms at Laney's games remind me of something

Dec 16, 2014
Laney hustles its way to another huge win

Dec 9, 2014
Laney's Secret Sauce:  Playing Harder (Easier said than done)

Dec 1, 2014
Laney Beats Morgan County at Home

Nov 24, 2014
Friday at the Will Avery Tip-Off Tournament

Nov 16, 2014
Laney falls short in season opening thriller

Nov 11, 2014
Laney Opens Season with Nationally Ranked St. Francis

July 11, 2014
Brooks, Taylor, and Walker: ABR Live Summer Send-off

Nov 25, 2013
Laney and Aquinas Open Season with a Statement

March 15, 2012
Laney Makes History


January 7, 2015
Region Race 2015 (episode 2)... plus a look at "Class 3A Week"

January 4, 2015
Friday evening with region AAA

Dec 29, 2014
Rhodes and Coleman lead Butler to win over ARC

Dec 24, 2014
Butler avenges season's only loss

Dec 17, 2014
Butler takes a backseat to no one

Dec 1, 2014
Don Coleman:  A Timeline

Nov 24, 2014
Friday at the Will Avery Tip-Off Tournament

Aug 27, 2013
Coleman Measures Up Nicely

Jan 3, 2013
Butler Controls its Destiny

Jan 24, 2013
Butler's Coleman does it Again

Dec 1, 2012
Thoughts from the Weekend:  Butler

Nov 23, 2012
Thanksgiving Classic Notes:  Butler Bulldogs

Aug 1, 2011
Southern Kings 14u Return from Vegas with Heads High

July 21, 2011
Southern Kings 14u AAU Team Returns from Orlando, and Heads to Las Vegas