McEachern’s boys basketball team may be ranked eighth in the country by USA Today and 10th by MaxPreps, but there is a list of worthy opponents capable of challenging the Indians for the Class AAAAAAA state title when the state playoffs begin today and Saturday.
Region 3AAAAAAA champion McEachern will host Walton in the first round today. Should the Indians prevail, they could face the likes of three-time state champion Westlake, five-time champ Norcross, six-time champ Wheeler or Region 8AAAAAAA champion Newton at some point on its side of the bracket, just to reach its first state final.
“Our class is strong when you look at the brackets,” McEachern coach Mike Thompson said. “There are some teams that don’t go where they need to based on the way the bracket is done, and that’s unfortunate for Georgia basketball.
“The way it’s done now, the best matchups can happen too early. I think tournament seeds need to be seeded accurately according to a ranking, not some predetermined placement, but this is our system, and we’re going to play it to the best of our availability.”
McEachern made its first semifinal trip last year, the quarterfinals in 2016 and the second round in 2015 — all as region champion. Expectations are high for the Indians given their lofty national status, and Thompson believes his team, which includes standouts Sharife Cooper, Babatunde Akingbola, Jared Jones, Isaac Okoro and Brandon Suggs, will be competitive judging by what he has seen.
“All I can gauge is what I’ve seen at practice and how we play,” Thompson said. “We don’t talk much about rankings. We talk about state and region championships. I like what I’ve seen from past practices. The kids are locked-in, and it appears we’re handling things OK.”
The first round matchup against a county opponent will be a welcome sight for Thompson.
“It’ll be neat to have a nice, local crowd at the game,” he said. “Plus, (Walton coach Bo Abney) spent years as my assistant, so it’s good to see his career get off to a nice start. They do a lot of what we do, and we’ll be similar as far as philosophies and ideas. It’ll be fun. They’ll probably be a regular in the playoffs under him.”
Pebblebrook has also become a playoff regular. The Region 2AAAAAAA champion Falcons have reached the quarterfinals or better the last four seasons, including back-to-back finals appearances in 2015 and ’16.
Pebblebrook will open at home Saturday against Region 6AAAAAAA at-large Collins Hill, which is 20-5 on the season.
“This is a challenging matchup,” Pebblebrook coach George Washington said. “Look at their record. They’re not even a 4 seed. They’re like a 1 or 2 seed that got upset in their region tournament. This will be a different first-round matchup than what we’ve faced the past couple of years.”
The Falcons were not considered a state championship threat at the start of the season, but players like Dwight Murray, Mervin James, Jalen Harper, Josh Graham and Grant Howard put Pebblebrook squarely in the Class AAAAAAA discussion.
“I’m not surprised we are where we are,” Washington said. “These guys have worked hard since June 1, setting goals and reaching every one of them. They’re surrounded by good people, too, which makes them appreciate what they have that much more.”
South Cobb, which will host Tri-Cities tonight, is just as appreciative of its success. The Region 6AAAAAA champion Eagles feature a team of first-year varsity players, led by Roscoe Spruill, Mike McClendon, Jaiden Diamond and Demetrius Bowen.
Last season, South Cobb made the state semifinals for the first time since 2001.
“There are no similarities between this team and last year’s team besides how they play defense,” South Cobb coach Gregory Moultrie said. “This team is totally new to varsity. They were all on JV last year, and they’re learning on the fly.
“They believe in each other and they’ve come together at the right time. It’s a huge accomplishment for them to win region and enjoy the moment. There’s no pressure on them. They’ve exceeded expectations already. Now, they just need to finish the drill.”
Walker, which is back in the Class A private-school playoffs after sitting out last year, was seeded No. 13 in the bracket and will host No. 20 Tallulah Falls tonight. Omar Cooper, Burke Chebuhar and Chandler Baker lead the Wolverines.
“We’re excited,” Walker coach Bryce Brickhouse said. “We’ve been working towards getting back to the playoffs. Walker hasn’t made the tournament often, so it’s a blessing, and we’re happy to be in. Class A is a tough league, and this will be a tough game.”