But it’s No. 10 Whitefield Academy that could be the hottest team of the 16-team bracket.
Last year’s Class A state champion seems to be peaking just at the right time with an 18-10 record following a 6-8 start to the regular season. The Wolfpack went on a streak of nine consecutive victories down the stretch — including one over then-No. 1 North Cobb Christian — before St. Francis beat them 71-64 in overtime in last Saturday’s Region 6A championship.
A rematch with St. Francis could happen for Whitefield, but it will have to win two games to get there. The Wolfpack will open the postseason Saturday against No. 7 seed W.D. Mohammed (22-2) in a game played Crim Open Campus High School in Atlanta.
A coaching change had something to do with Whitefield’s slow start. So did having a young team.
Eddie James took over for longtime coach Tyrone Johnson, who is taking a one-year leave of absence for personal reasons, and the team had to adapt to a new voice.
With four freshmen and a sophomore transfer on the roster this season, the Wolfpack also needed a few games to mesh.
Everything has seemed to have come together over Whitefield’s last 10 games.
“It’s been interesting,” James said, looking back on the regular season. “They finally stopped thinking and started to react. Our offensive scoring went up because of that.”
Eric Lockett is averaging 22 points and 15 rebounds on the season — he had 39 points and 15 rebounds in Whitefield’s loss to St. Francis — and freshman Brendon Myles has also posted double-digit numbers on the offensive end as of late.
The only adversity Whitefield will have to face in the postseason is playing without point guard Berto Dryden, who is out for the season with a leg injury.
For Whitefield to have a successful playoff run — even without Dryden — the it must revert back to its nine-game winning streak, in which it played successful pressure defense and scored in transition.
“That was when we were playing Whitefield-style basketball,” James said.
North Cobb Christian, which ended up as the fifth seed, is ready to redeem itself after a rocky ending to an otherwise strong season. The Eagles (22-4) ended the regular season with a loss to St. Francis before falling to Whitefield in the semifinal round of the Region 6A tournament.
Another chance for North Cobb Christian to make a statement in the playoffs will come Saturday afternoon, when archrival Mount Paran Christian (18-8), the No. 12 seed, comes to visit.
After facing the familiar opponent three times this season and winning all three meetings by an average of 30 points, keeping Mount Paran’s shooters in check will be key if North Cobb Christian wants to take the next step.
North Cobb Christian will also need to execute offensively, with Hulian Terrell and Stephon Jelks patrolling the inside and Hunter Ware and Kendall Crute working the perimeter.
When it comes to being mentally prepared, coach Greg Matta said the Eagles have to focus on basketball only and avoid the off-the-court distractions.
“We have a basketball game,” he said. “Let everyone else worry about everything else. Last year, we got involved with everything else but basketball. We’re here to play a basketball game.”
Last season, North Cobb Christian marched through 28 games without a loss before being upset by St. Francis in the first round of the state playoffs.
Mount Paran struggled out of the gate in its three previous meetings with North Cobb Christian and had to play from behind. Coach Scott Varner said it’s a pitfall the Eagles are looking to avoid, and they will need their top two leading scorers, Blake Jones and Jordan VerSteeg, to hit their shots early.
The ninth-seeded Mount Paran girls will make their first postseason appearance Friday at No. 8 Atlanta International (14-5).
To succeed, the Lady Eagles (15-6) will have to control the defensive rebounds, coach Theresa Gernatt said. Brianna Brown is Mount Paran’s leader with 7.6 rebounds per game, to go with her 15.7-point average.
“Every shot is (like) a pass to me, and we can’t allow them to have second shots,” Gernatt said.