Thursday, October 29, 2015

Augusta and Paine take turns hosting the All-Army team

The NBA and the Columbia County middle school schedules (I know, those are certainly two extreme ends of the competitive spectrum!) began earlier this week. But the debut I've been the most excited about involves our local college programs, Augusta University and Paine College.  Both will play in exhibition games this weekend against the All-Army team. Paine hosts its game Saturday at 7:00, and Augusta tips off at home Sunday at 4:00.

Augusta has been picked as the nation's 23rd best team in a recent preseason poll. The Jaguars hope to make their third consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament after last season's 23-7 campaign. The Jaguars are led by returning All American and Peach Belt preseason player of the year Keshun Sherrill. The junior dynamo is joined by an impressive contingent of newcomers and a host of players who grew up in Augusta.

Paine will aim to repeat as the SIAC's top team after posting a 23-6 record and winning the regular season title a year ago. Like Sherrill, Paine senior Denzel Dillingham has been chosen as his conference's preseason player of the year.

Sherrill and Dillingham are the two best players in town, and this weekend is an early chance to see them in action. Check back for full coverage of the season's first college hoops action.

Grovetown Middle opens the season with a bang!

The basketball season officially tipped off Tuesday. Many watched or heard about Stephen Curry's 24 point first quarter explosion in the defending NBA champion Golden State Warriors' home opener versus the Pelicans.

But on the same day a far less publicized, yet every bit as exciting, battle went down on the opening day of the Columbia County middle school hoops schedule.  In its home opener against Columbia Middle, Grovetown Middle trotted out an imposing front line that included 6'4" Chris Williams, a transfer from Texas, and 6'2" seventh grader Rickey McGhee. The Patriots dominated the paint, but Columbia's Christian Chambers did his best Steph Curry impersonation, draining 5 threes in a game that featured two lead changes in the final minute before Grovetown's Williams sealed his team's 31-30 win with a basket in the final seconds.

Williams and McGhee combined to score 25 of Grovetown's 31 points, and Chambers tallied 20 of Columbia's 30.  Williams adds athleticism and touch around the basket to his 6'4" frame.  Setting up Williams's game winner was set up by McGhee's late three that cut Columbia's lead to 28-27.

Chambers was probably the game's most impressive player.  Five threes is a lot in any game, especially one lasting 24 minutes.  He also attacked the basket, created opportunities for teammates, grabbed rebounds, and made key defensive plays to come within seconds of securing a road win.

Grovetown coach Dan Sneeringer told me Tuesday's game was the most exciting contest he's coached in 16 years. Marcus Curry, the AAU coach of many players in the game, agreed, calling it "a great way to start the season." My feelings exactly! Watching Steph Curry play Tuesday was certainly a treat. But I got just as much enjoyment watching Williams, McGhee, and Chambers bring in the new season of AugBball action with a bang!

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

My 2015-16 coverage plans, including the games to watch in November and December

These are the games I've circled in November and December             

Last season was my first operating AugBball alone. I was able to concentrate only on a few stories and teams. The Laney boys, eventually the Laney girls, the Butler boys, the top half of the region 3 race, and the Augusta University Jaguars were the teams and stories that got a full season of my attention.

But there are so many stories I want to follow. So I’ve set ambitious goals for the coming season. In addition to the highly competitive 3A boys race, I’ll closely follow the 4A and 5A races.

Transfer Madsion Williams and Richmond face Laney (Dec 1),
Glenn Hills (Dec 8), and Westside (Dec 15) on three consecutive Tuesdays.

And this season will include full coverage of the girls 5A and 3A action.

Laney's Desha Benjamin leads the defending state champs into early season
tournaments at Greenbrier (Nov 20-21) and Glenn Hills (Dec 21-23)
I’ll also add Paine and USC Aiken coverage to go along with Augusta University, forming a "local college" grouping I look forward to following. 

Returning All American and preseason Peach Belt Player of the Year
Keshun Sherrill leads Augusta into an early season showdown with Paine (Nov 21).

Finally, I'll add Aquinas, Westminster, Alleluia, and Lincoln County to the mix, as well as special features about areaguys who are elsewhere (Matt Miller, Ricky Moore, Mike Curry, and Ahmed Hill, to name a few).

In the video above, I describe my plans, and I go into detail about the November-December non-league match ups I've circled on my calendar. I'm excited for the season to start. I'll see you in the gym!

Monday, October 19, 2015

Coaches: Don't miss Dip Metress's (Free!) open practice!

October 15th came last week. That is the day college basketball teams are allowed to start practicing. As much as possible, I try every year to be at Augusta University's practice that day to see the new team and to see coach Dip Metress and his staff work.

This year I am particularly fortunate because Metress and assistant coach Jamie Quarles are hosting an "open practice" Sunday, October 25, from 3:00 to 5:00:

Coach Mettress is the best coach I know. He is extremely generous in giving advice and organizing opportunities for coaches to come together and learn from each other.

You can learn plenty watching Dip's team practice and asking questions. Something that always stands out is the volume and the amount of the chatter by his players throughout every breakdown drill, every transition between practice segments, and every possession of live action. The players ALL communicate constantly. Noticing this is the first step. Asking Dip how he created that "culture" at practice is something I'll do Sunday. Even in a breakdown drill emphasizing passing and cutting, everyone is loud and engaged, as you can see here:

Communication may be called an intangible quality. A tangible drill I've always liked that I learned from watching Augusta University's practices is one that teaches players to "get big" while defending a finisher in the paint. I like it because it develops the habit of standing your ground while not fouling, and making the offensive player make a shot over extended arms, which is usually better than bailing him out with a swinging foul. Here is an example of the drill:

Watching these guys coach and play is invaluable for high school and youth basketball coaches. And it will be fun to see so many basketball coaches in one spot as we crank up the 2015-16 basketball season.

Join us!

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Feedback about my "truth about you hoop dreams" post

I asked some of my favorite people for feedback about my "Truth about your hoop dreams" post. Here I'll include some of that feedback and more thoughts of my own.

Regarding the facts about how difficult it is to get paid to play basketball or earn a scholarship to a four year college, former Augusta University and Richmond Academy basketball standout, Keenan Mann, responded with this:
Keenan Mann

The truth is the truth, and it should always be told by those who know it.... Some kids with those dreams finish playing and don't know what happened. Some know what happened but don't know why. What you wrote could be instructive for both.  - Keenan Mann

The "don't know what happened" part of Keenan's response made me picture the young guy who graduates from high school with no clear path forward to college basketball. Like most of the other guys who excelled in high school and played on the travels teams in the "exposure events" throughout childhood, the numbers caught up to him and he wasn't the one in each ten "stars" who everyone expected to earn a scholarship, but didn't. He knows he didn't earn a scholarship, and there is no shame there. But what he does not know is that this scenario was the most likely all along. He doesn't know that he should have been preparing for this possibility, gaining knowledge in school and maybe getting practical adult experiences working. He has never really known that the right thing to do wasn't to "get his books" or to "watch what he says on social media" so the scholarship offers would flow. The right thing to do was to learn and excel in school and in work opportunities so he is fully living life and not at the mercy of the odds or the whims of college basketball coaches.

The "don't know why" part of Keenan's response made me picture the guy whose hoops playing dreams are not fulfilled who blames the circumstances: the coach, the lack of exposure, etc. He doesn't realize that the numbers dictate that many many expert level players don't make the transition from being a star in high school to a college scholarship caliber player. If he knew why he didn't achieve this particular dream he could more easily learn from the experience and plot his next move. And back to my response to Keenan's "doesn't know what happened" line, it's best if at this point the youngster had been preparing for this day all along.

The point is not to "crush dreams." I noted in the original post the difficulty in not being the cynical old man when trying to explain the odds of achieving these hoop dreams. Dennis McBride, Alleluia's head coach, helped clarify these thoughts by pointing out the invaluable experience of pursuing a goal that is so difficult to achieve:

As a coach, I always have more success when I have players who are highly, and I mean highly, motivated to be the best that they can be. You don't get those players very often, and whether or not they play in college is really not the issue. It's a life changing event for a kid to put such effort into something.  - Dennis McBride

The "life changing event" is real for all the players, those who earn the scholarship AND those who don't. This is where the math isn't cruel. Being an excellent high school basketball player is grasping an exceptional level of skill and accomplishment. Such a player should celebrate and know that he has many more decades of impressive accomplishments ahead of him. He should be emboldened to conquer all the obstacles life places in his path because he has the model for success: try hard and move forward in the face of adversity. And do those things more, and with more enthusiasm, than your competitors!

But back to my response to Keenan's "doesn't know what happened" line, it will help if the youngster prepares along the way for the mathematically likely event that the ball will suddenly stop bouncing, often before his plans dictate.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Butler grabs the 7th spot; and I recap picks 7-11

My picks for the top 6 area teams can be found here:

1) Laney
2) Josey
3) Richmond
4) Thomson
5) Alleluia
6) Westminster

#7 Butler

My preseason top 10 has been set for some time. I wrote rough drafts for posts and got the video clips ready to be edited weeks ago. One of the last conversations I had before settling the order was with Butler coach Cervantes Boddy. Like any good coach, he convinced me the expectations should be low after his Bulldogs lost all starters to graduation and transfer. I agreed and left Butler outside the top ten.

But after seeing the Bulldogs in fall league action and reflecting on a couple dominant performances I witnessed in June during the summer league, I have to insert them as my #7 area team. This group should once again challenge the very best teams in region 3-AAA, the area's most competitive grouping.

Sure the school's all time scoring leader (Don Coleman) has graduated. And the only starter who didn't graduate (Ricquail Smooot) is now at a "basketball academy." But Smoot's inside presence can be replaced by an impressive tandem of Will Lambert (6'5" junior) and Kyler Haynes (6'5" senior). 

And the perimeter is stocked with guards accustomed to making big contributions during big games. Jzwa Collier returns from last year's 21-7 team. And his finest moments came last season during the instantly classic pair of games versus area power Laney. He is joined by fellow returnee Deandre Barton and Aquinas transfer Jalen Holbrook, who is no stranger to state playoff basketball. Throw in promising underclassman Drez McBride and you have a team that may skip the rebuilding process and continue its run near the top of area play.

By suddenly inserting Butler into the top ten, I have now changed it to a "top 11." And I still may have the Bulldogs too far down. I'm sure glad these guys will settle such things on the court sooner than we realize!

Kyler Haynes adds size and athleticism to Butler's frontline.

#8 Glenn Hills

The Spartans have earned the benefit of the doubt. One of the area's two schools (on the Georgia side) with a recent state championship, and arguably the area's top team just two seasons ago, the Spartans never lack talent. After losing Aubrey Mcrae two seasons ago, and a trio of senior leaders last season, coach Travis Mcrae's group is probably in the rebuilding stage. But I've seen enough of this young group to predict they will be a factor in what should be a red hot region race again.

#9 Westside

Westside returns virtually everybody from a team that showed promise but rarely converted it to
success last season. The Patriots lost the first five region games before logging good wins over Glenn Hills and Washington County during the second half of the schedule.

Senior Demontrez Hawes is a four year varsity starter who is a capable scorer and leader.  Add juniors Christian Robinson and Elijah Brown and coach Marvin Fields has the ingredients to turn the corner this season.

Senior Trez Hawes is a proven scorer.

#10 Evans

Add Evans to the list of local Class 5A teams who should be much improved this season. Coach
Transfer Chris Stone brings
shooting to the Knights
Kevin Kenny's Knights return the inside-outside combo of Michael Steflik (6'6" senior) and Serron Spann (5'10" sophomore). And adding Augusta Christian and Augusta Prep transfers Joel Grant and Chris Stone, respectively, will make a huge impact, putting the Knights in position to compete for a spot at the top of the sub region and a state playoff bid, something Kenny had grown familiar with before last year's rare break from that tourney.

I recently saw this group beat Butler in a Fall League game. Stone knocked down three straight bombs to start the game. And Grant got to the paint consistently off the dribble. Spann does a good job of attacking the basket and finding open shooters, a skill that should blend well with Stone's perimeter shooting. Almost all the local Class 5A teams are stocked with good guards. Add Evans to that list. And with Steflick in the post, coach Kenny will have the balance to make a run in a wide open sub region.

#11 Cross Creek

I watched two Cross Creek games last season, and senior guard Moses Jones was in street clothes
both times. After seeing him throughout the spring and summer AAU circuit, I wished I'd gone to the Razorback games when Jones was healthy! The senior is one of the very best scoring guards in town, and his maturity and commitment should provide new coach Brian Anderson with a strong leader in a wide open sub region race.

Joining Jones is Artis Chapman, a very capable wing who shoots well and scores going to the basket, and senior Aquinas transfer Kham Gordon. The Razorbacks have the potential to field an improved team that can reach the state playoffs. But so do many other teams. The trick will be in the doing.

Cross Creek's Moses Jones leads the Razorbacks

Thursday, October 8, 2015

A Local Basketball Legend Is Honored - Again

Thanks to Keenan Mann
for the guest post!
Today's special guest post comes from area hoops legend, Keenan Mann. Before beginning his current career, he earned a Masters in Business Administration from Georgia Regents University, where he also earned his undergraduate business degree. Keenan also played basketball at GRU and is one of only 3 Jaguars to have his jersey retired. A four year starter, Keenan is the school's third all time leading scorer. He played high school basketball at Richmond Academy.

On October 8th, Michael Curry, a friend of mine, will be inducted into the Augusta City Classic Hall of Fame. This honor is just the latest in what has become an ever expanding list of similar gestures commemorating his contributions and accomplishments.

‘Curry’, as we called him back in the day, played his high school basketball at Glenn Hills (1982 - 1986). In 2005 the school retired his jersey and in 2014 they named the new school gymnasium in his honor.

He received a full scholarship to play at Georgia Southern University (1986 - 1990). Ten years later, the school retired his jersey and inducted him into their Hall of Fame.

After graduating, on time, with a business degree, he began what would be a very successful professional basketball career that would begin in Europe and end in the NBA.

After 15 years of playing professionally (and earning a Master’s degree in his spare time) he began a career as a coach in the NBA. He served as an assistant coach for the Detroit Pistons for one year before becoming the head coach a year later in 2008. He also served as an assistant coach for the Philadelphia 76ers for three years beginning in 2010.

After 6 years of coaching the pros and taking 1 year off, Mike headed to the college ranks to become the head coach of the Florida Atlantic University Men’s Basketball Program. This season will mark his second at the school. And based on the footprints he’s left at Glenn Hills and Georgia Southern, I can almost predict what will happen when he finally puts down his whistle and clipboard.

If all of that sounds like the beginning of a pre-induction speech, that’s good - because it is.

Well, kind of anyway.

I’m not making a speech on the 8th. Mike has a long list of people more appropriate for the occasion and task. And besides that, I won’t be at the ceremony because I promised myself after I got married that the next time I wore a tuxedo would be to the wedding of one of my children - if even then. But if I were there and if I had been asked to make Mike’s induction speech, I would have started it just like I did above.

Here’s how I would continue…..

Having known Mike for well over twenty-five years now, I can easily sum his character for you. He’s funny but no-nonsense. Tough but kindhearted. Super intelligent but simple thinking.

But back before I knew him, I knew of him. He was already a bit of a legend when he was 17 or 18. I’d heard about him through my high school teammate and good friend, Chuck Graham. Chuck’s name may be lost to history now, but In the late 80’s in the Augusta area, there was none more prominent on the high school scene. He was a starter as a freshman on a very good Richmond Academy team. Incidentally, while Chuck was starting on varsity as a ninth grader, I was getting my first year of high school basketball under my belt warming the bench (initially) as a 10th grader - on the jayvee team.

Anyway, one of the guards on the varsity team was named Alexx. Chuck related the story of how Curry had posterized (dunked on in a most degrading manner) Alexx. The description was graphic, but time has left the once vivid picture I had formed in my mind fragmented. I can only recall now that Alexx’s chest and glasses as well as Curry’s foot featured prominently in Chuck’s retelling of the story.

That was my introduction to Curry. Watch out he will dunk on you.

I didn’t play varsity basketball until my junior year, so I never played against or met Mike while I was in high school. I did meet him after my senior year though as we played lots of pickup basketball together.

It was after one of those games while I was marveling at something Mike had done on the court, that Gerald White, one of the three guys most responsible for my own (meager) basketball accomplishments, told me that Mike was not very good when he was younger. I think Gerald actually said he was “kind of goofy and uncoordinated”.

So I learned a lot about Mike through stories that were passed down. But the most powerful things I learned - the things that have stuck with me- are the things I saw with my own two eyes.

First, Mike was an absolute comedian, but in the strangest way. He turned that comedy into leadership. He could make the most serious issue funny as hell. By serious I mean having to do with winning a pickup game. And to an 18-26 year old pickup basketball player, nothing is more serious than getting to 8 or 10 first. It was nothing for Mike to ask a pickup teammate who had been repeatedly beaten by an opposing player a question like, “what’s wrong, you didn’t get enough sleep last night?” or “if I switch teams, will you let me score four in a row like that?” I’m sure the written words don’t convey just how funny these exchanges were. Mike was deadly serious and usually upset, but the delivery of the question/criticism, which was always straight faced and deadpanned, was hilarious, disarming, and most of all, effective. The people who played with Mike got better. And so did people like me who usually had to play against him.

I bet in 4 years worth of pickup games I wasn’t on his team twice and I had to guard him most of the time. I hated it, but it was the best thing for me in hindsight. He went hard all the time and I had to do the same or risk embarrassment.

Another thing I noticed (and this is part comedy and part mystery) was that Mike was a freak of nature. He had long arms, huge feet, could run all day, and had absolutely gigantic hands. In fact his hands were so big that one day during a lunch break at a clinic we were conducting at May Park, William “Six” Cunningham turned to Mike just as he was about to bite into a Big Mac and said, “ooh, you’re making that hamburger look like a sausage biscuit”. It was so true and it still cracks me up. Anyway, with all those physical attributes, I found it quite notable that Mike wasn’t “a leaper”. I mean he could jump but It wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. That said, I don’t think there was anybody in the gym he didn’t dunk on. And if there was it was because they got out of the way or wisely broke off pursuit when what was about to happen became obvious.

The pickup games were always intense because people like Mike refused to let the intensity level drop off. When the energy level did start to wane, I can remember Mike wanting everybody to pick it back up so we could play one more. We usually did.

Often times, after the pickup was over, Mike would want to shoot “10s” or something like that. I was right there with him. So were a few others.

So it doesn’t surprise me at all that Mike has done what he’s done basketball wise. And it also doesn’t surprise me that an organization like the Augusta City Classic would single him out for recognition. But, knowing what I know about his character, I think it would have been just as likely that he would have succeeded and been duly recognized on the same kind of level had he chosen a non-sports life path. Cream has a tendency to rise to the top, as they say.

But there are always naysayers. And I’ve borne witness to some of Mike’s detractors. I’ve actually been around when people have said, “he got lucky”. They were being negative, of course. But the more I think about it, they were right. He was lucky.

He was lucky he worked so damned hard all the time. He was lucky he was such a competitor. And he was lucky that he wasn’t a quitter. Because the more he worked, and the harder he competed, and the longer he hung in there, the luckier he got.

I don’t know this for sure, but I’m guessing the plan all those years ago was not to be in multiple Halls of Fame. Yet, here he is. And it is well deserved.

Congrats Mike.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

My second AugBball fall league report

I like the action at the fall league. The high school division features several of the area's most promising teams. And the players have competed fiercely.

Last week, I highlighted the play of Laney's Tahj Tanksley and Donald Henley, who led the Wildcats in a hard fought win over Alleluia. The duo followed that act one week later with a similar performance in a win over Westside, the second consecutive without seniors Christian Keeling and Zep's Jasper.

Tanksley delivered the first blow, a catch-and-shoot three off of a Henley drive and dish that gave Laney a 38-30 lead with 10:54 remaining. A couple slashing scores from Tanksley and Henley followed, and the Wildcats appeared to be rolling. But a late mini meltdown led to a one point Westside lead before Tanksley netted 6 free throws in the final minute and Henley grabbed two crucial steals to seal the game.

I make quite a fuss over seniors Christian Keeling and Zep Jasper. Rightfully so, given they are committed to play division one college basketball next season. But Tanksley and Henley will be just as pivotal as anyone to the Wildcats' continued success if Laney is to extend its streak this coming season to seven consecutive final four appearances.

Richmond senior Madison Williams recently committed to attend college and play ball at Illinois State. His Richmond Musketeers are well represented in the fall league under the Brown Suns name. Playing most of its games without seniors Nick Roberts (6'7") and Rashard Green (6'5") has given 6'5" junior Moses Williams, a lefty with good athleticism, a chance to play a big role.  He and senior Trey Brown complimented Williams nicely in a win Saturday against Alleluia.

Alleluia burst on the fall league scene last week with an impressive performance in a close loss to Laney. Saturday, the Angels got help from Cross Creek senior Moses Jones, who tipped in his own miss to win one of the most entertaining games of the Fall, an overtime Alleluia victory over Westside.

Alleluia's Mac McBride and Hayden Hebert, both seniors, looked unstoppable most of the day in the win over Westside and in a close loss to Richmond. Junior sharp shooter Ben Dresser continues to improve his entire game, and Jones made many big plays while hounding Westside's Trez Hawes and Richmond's Madison Williams for about 60 total minutes.

Westside's Hawes has been a consistently effective scorer and a game competitor throughout league play. So has junior teammate Elijah Brown. But I have yet to see Westside notch a win.

Aquinas is the team I've learned the most about by hanging around the fall league. Sophomore Tre Gomillion has matured a great bit on the court. I've watched him consistently ask for the ball and proceed to attack the basket, seeking contact and living at the line.

But Gomillion is not alone. Gerald Merriweather a sophomore transfer from Hephzibah, can score. Cameron Gardner, yet another sophomore transfer from Hephazibah brings size and potential. And at least during the fall league, Hephzibah sophomore Jozquez Smith brings more shooting and perimeter play to the Irish.

I know if I enjoy fall league action this much, I'll love the season, which is right around the corner. In the meantime, I'll see you in the gym.