Region 5-7A boys basketball teams play their first head-to-head games Friday. Forsyth Central hosts South Forsyth, Lambert hosts North Forsyth and West Forsyth hosts Milton.
Here's a look at where teams stand going into the games that count toward positioning themselves well in the region tournament.
At this point last year, Central had a winning record and optimism as it headed into the Region 5-7A schedule. This season, the Bulldogs have just one win and a litany of issues on the court to address.
Still, head coach Greg Dirst says he isn’t disappointed. He reminded his team recently that even with last season’s winning record and optimism, the Bulldogs dropped their final three games of the season, including in the region tournament, spoiling perhaps its best chance to reach the state playoffs since 2001.
“It’s not really where you’re at now that matters,” Dirst said.
Some of Central’s slide from last season can be attributed to a significant jump in competition. Four of the Bulldogs’ 12 wins last season came against Chestatee and Pickens. Neither team wanted to play Central this season, so Dirst scrambled to find teams to fill out the Bulldogs’ schedule. He found Berkmar (8-2), Kennesaw Mountain (6-0) and Roswell (5-2), all likely state tournament teams in Class 7A. Central is 1-6.
Dirst has tried to divert his team’s attention away from their disappointing record and toward improving their shot selection and cutting down on turnovers. The team is heavy on seniors but still light on varsity experience. Dirst says the most consistent player has been sophomore point guard Anthony Roveto.
With so many new contributors, Dirst spent a lot of time over the summer building relationships amongst the group. Despite the disappointing start, the fruit of that work is still intact.
“The chemistry in the locker room is still amazing,” Dirst said. “It just hasn’t carried over to the floor yet.”
Same old, same old with the Longhorns.
The county’s preeminent program is 5-1, its only loss coming in overtime to McIntosh, the No. 3-ranked team in Class 5A, according to MaxPreps. It’s played an array of teams with varying styles but solid athleticism and pedigree like East Hall, Newnan and South Atlanta.
“I’ve been pleased with the performances,” Lambert head coach Scott Bracco said. “We’ve played a great schedule to this point.”
Lambert’s biggest question mark entering the season was replacing accomplished point guard Andrew Melms. Returning starters Mitch Ganote and Jordan McIlwain have shared that role depending on in-game situations.
“It’s been a great one-two punch,” Bracco said.
Returning starters Austin Deckard and Damon Stoudamire Jr. have been significant contributors again, and sophomore forward Colin Granger has made a big impact in his first season as a starter, averaging a double-double.
“He’s been cleaning the glass for us very well,” Bracco said.
Lambert’s schedule only gets more ambitious. The Longhorns play in the Atlanta Hawks Classic next Thursday, the Tournament of Champions Holiday Classic at Wheeler from Dec. 27-30 and the Peachtree Corners Invitational on Jan. 20.
“We set the schedule up so that it would prepare us for our (state semifinal) run this season,” Bracco said. “It’s only going to make us better offensively and defensively.”
With a team as young and inexperienced as the Raiders, head coach Brian Moon is pleased with the group’s progress.
They’re already two wins away from matching all of last season’s total.
“I feel like we’re getting better,” Moon said.
Moon says Trevor Elliot, after missing last year with an injury, has been a “great surprise” in his role coming off the bench, and Braden Collins can “really shoot it.” Both played a big role in North’s comeback win against Chestatee this past Tuesday. That was also the first time Moon said he saw returning point guard Jonathan Pefanis back to his promising 2016-17 form after missing the first team’s first few games of the season with an injury.
But Moon acknowledges the Raiders are a team that needs more than a few contributors to compete for its first state playoff appearance since 2006.
“We’re a team that doesn’t have superstars,” Moon said. “We have to do things collectively to win.”
Evan Cole was a big presence for South boys basketball the past three seasons. The 6-foot-8 forward, the 2017 Forsyth County News’ Boys Basketball Player of the Year who is now at Georgia Tech, helped the War Eagles reach the state playoffs in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 2007-08.
Cole is gone, and South is still trying to create an identity entering tonight’s game at Central.
“You don’t replace a kid like Evan Cole,” South head coach Scott Givens said. “You just don’t.”
The collective play of guards Isaiah Magee and Santhosh Saravanan and forward Fredrick Scott, all seniors, has been South’s best bet. Givens noticed all three played well in South’s three wins. In South’s five losses, one or more struggled, and the team struggled to adjust.
“We rely on those guys a lot,” Givens said.
Givens has noticed Cole’s loss has been most noticeable on the offensive end, and it’s affected the team’s defensive effort at times. But Givens believes the team’s potential is still intact.
“We’re going to play better offensively,” Givens said. “I’m confident of that.”
Second-year head coach Frederick Hurt knew his team would be improved from last season, when the Wolverines went 5-21 but managed an upset win in the Region 5-7A tournament to qualify for the state playoffs. The only question was whether the team’s record would reflect that improvement.
West is 1-4 this season going into tonight’s game against Milton, just like it was last season when the Wolverines opened their region schedule against the Eagles.
But Hurt still sees the improvement.
“We’ve played much better this year,” Hurt said. “We’ve been in the games. We got some kids that are buying in more each day.”
West is more discriminating in its shot selection and also turning the ball over less. Some of that has to do with freshman Broc Bidwell’s emergence at starting point guard, which has allowed junior Michael Zabatekis to move to the wing.
Terrence Taylor Jr. has been the Wolverines’ most consistent scorer, finishing in double figures every game, and promising sophomore guard Joseph Staiti is just returning to form after missing the first month of the season with an injury.
Overall, Hurt sees the signs of more wins on the way.
“If we hang in there, we’re going to turn the corner,” Hurt said.