The Wildcats came one shot away from playing for it last season. Jerron Love attempted a game-tying shot at the buzzer that didn’t go in, and Wheeler had to settle for a 56-54 loss to county rival Hillgrove in the state semifinals.
The Wildcats, however, have returned virtually their entire roster, with the exception of point guard Austin Smoak, who graduated. The returning players, most of whom are upper classmen, are a big reason why the Wildcats were ranked No. 10 nationally by the Student Sports and No. 17 by MaxPreps in their preseason rankings.
“We have the same team as we did last year,” said Lipscomb, entering his 21st season. “If we make an effort, and if we play together, we can be successful.”
The Wildcats also have two five-star recruits in junior 6-foot-6 forward Jaylen Brown and junior 6-foot-9 center Daniel Giddens. Brown has already received 18 offers from Division I schools that includes Georgia, Georgia Tech, Vanderbilt, Florida and Alabama. Giddens has also been offered by many of the same schools, and he also recently received an offer from Big Ten power Indiana.
Other standouts returning for Wheeler include 6-6 senior forward Elijah Staley, who has committed to Mississippi State, and senior point guard Avery Patterson, who committed to Western Kentucky.
Senior twins Malik and Bilal Abdur-Rahim, the younger brothers of former Wheeler standout and retired NBA player Shareef Abdur-Rahim, are also back.
Hillgrove, after spoiling Wheeler’s run to the state championship game, has enough weapons returning to once again factor into the postseason.
That includes senior shooting guards Kyle Castlin and B.J. Brown, both of whom helped lead the Hawks to their first appearance in a state championship before they fell 60-48 to Norcross.
The Columbia-bound Castlin anchored Hillgrove last season with 19 points and 6.5 rebounds a game, and he’s expected to pick up where he left off. Brown averaged 12 points and 5.5 rebounds.
“They are two kids who have been around here since middle school,” Hillgrove coach Ed Morris said. “I remember, the first year we opened, B.J. was a fifth-grader playing on the sixth-grade team. It’s great to see them having success and doing well. They are doing a good job of leading.”
Like Wheeler, North Cobb also was a state semifinalist in AAAAAA. But unlike the Wildcats, the Warriors may be forced to reload.
North Cobb graduated eight of the seniors that helped it to two Region 4AAAAAA titles and a combined 32-3 region record during that span.
It will likely be up to senior guards Noah Cotton and Micah Woodward and senior forward Daniel Beausejour to step up and take charge in a competitive region that includes Hillgrove.
In Region 6A, North Cobb Christian is in a similar predicament as Wheeler. The Eagles have a senior-laden team eager for one last run at a state championship after underachieving in postseason the previous two years.
North Cobb Christian came up short in the state quarterfinals to Athens Academy by two points and was stunned two seasons ago with a two-point loss to St. Francis following an undefeated regular season.
Seniors Kendall Crute (15.2 ppg), Stephon Jelks (11.1 ppg, 8.7 rpg) and Hunter Ware (11.2 ppg) will lead a senior-laden squad eager to finish the season with the Eagles’ first state championship as a Georgia High School Association program.
All three of North Cobb Christian’s leaders are college-bound — Crute to Ohio University, Jelks to Mercer and Ware to Bryant.
“We have everyone back,” North Cobb Christian coach Greg Matta said. “And if we can stay healthy, I hope they can come together and finish strong this year.”