Friday, January 1, 2016

Laney, South Aiken top AugBball's first Power Poll (Boys)

1) Laney
2) South Aiken
3) Westside
4) Morgan County
5) Richmond
6) Thomson
7) Greenbrier
8) North Augusta
9) Burke County
10) Cross Creek

Great teams win. So it makes sense that at this time of year, three of the top five boys teams and the top three girls teams (the girls poll is coming soon) in AugBball's first power polls have just completed championship runs through their respective holiday tournaments.

Laney (12-0)
Class 3A

Both in the very recent past and in the past 24 months, Laney has earned its place at the top of the boys poll. The Wildcats ran off 6 wins over the holidays, including two over 3rd ranked Westside and one each over #5 Richmond and #6 Thomson during a 12 day period in which the area's top team picked up a key region win on the road and a Richmond County Christmas tournament championship.

Those wins earned over a full season would thrill most coaches. Go back another few weeks and you'll find another win over Richmond, one against #4 Morgan County three days later, and another over #7 Greenbrier on the road in the Wildcats' season opener.

Of course, we can take this drill further back in time than many can even remember. Since December 13, 2013, when Laney's current senior leaders Zep Jasper and Christian Keeling were sophomores, the Wildcats' only loss to a team inside the power poll boundaries was against Morgan County in the semifinal round of last season's state playoffs.

Laney has won 3 of 4 meetings against Morgan County during that time period. And no other team has beaten the Wildcats. So I think there will never be a more obvious choice for the #1 team than the current Laney Wildcats.

South Aiken (9-1)
Class 4A (South Carolina)

That said, many have said South Aiken has looked like the area's best team. The Thoroughbreds steamrolled through North Augusta's Christmas tournament with convincing wins over Thomson and North Augusta, both power poll teams, and a third over Strom Thurmond, a 2015 state finalist.

South Aiken's resume of wins is one factor in the buzz the team has created. The other is the team's appearance and the impressiveness of the highlights coming from their games. 6'6" guard Chance Prandy can be the most entertaining player around while scoring "only" 10-15 points because of the variety of things he does well.

Prandy runs the floor and tries to dunk everything. He handles the ball against pressure and feeds his capable perimeter mates Gemini Bell and Melvin Mckie. But the real differentiator is South Aiken's frontline. Three players are as tall and explosive as Prandy.

Add all that up and you get a stampede of Thoroughbreds that have captured the curiosity of fans like me who once thought Midland Valley and North Augusta would be the most impressive power poll teams from the South Carolina side of the border.

Westside (6-2)
Class 3A

I called Westside, the power poll's #3 team, the area team that is playing the best basketball after the Patriots started the season 6-2 and won 3 games over some of Augusta's most well regarded teams (all by double digits) during an eight day period which also included a pair of close losses to Laney (both decided on the games' final possessions).

My statement about the Patriots playing the area's best ball looks questionable after reading Laney's resume above. But in my post about Westside's extremely impressive 9 day sprint into the holidays, I tried to acknowledge that in some cases a team can look better than its competition and still come up short. And there is no shame in coming up just short to Laney twice during a run that includes double digit wins over Richmond (on the road), Butler and Josey.

I haven't seen a starting five that is better than Westside's. Christian Robinson, Trez Hawes, Justin Phillips, and Dekwan Lewis all score and shoot well. And Elijah Brown works harder and is usually more productive than his taller opponents in the paint.

Morgan County (10-3)
Class 3A (Region 8)

Morgan County is on the outer edge of the AugBball Power Poll's geographical boundaries. But with all the memories they've given area fans (its 2014 state championship, its 2015 state runner up finish, and its win over Laney in the semifinal round of last season's state playoffs), I am happy to include the Bulldogs in our mix.

But don't think they are the number four ranked team because of accomplishments from prior seasons. Morgan County, which includes two division one signees on its roster, held a 20 point first half lead at Laney and came within a Zep Jasper three of defeating the top ranked Wildcats in their own gym in their December 4th showdown. The rivals meet again January 9th in Madison. I've never seen a game between these two teams that wasn't absolutely electric. This one should prove no different.

Richmond Academy (10-4)
Class 5A

Richmond Academy has shown fantastic improvement this season. The arrival of Illinois State bound Madison Williams is certainly a huge part of that equation. The Musketeers have only lost two games, one to Laney and one to Westside, with Williams in the lineup. And coach Steve Nobles's group followed a runner up finish in the Richmond County Christmas tournament with a championship in another holiday tournament in Dublin.

Richmond's step forward has not come solely from Williams's addition. Senior Rashad Calloway has played terrific basketball, dominating the backboards and attacking the rim ferociously all season. And the inside combination of 6'7" Nick Roberts and 6'5" Moses Williams gives the Musketeers the area's most skilled offensive play in the paint.

Thomson (9-2)
Class 4A

Thomson bounced back from its 68-59 loss to South Aiken the week before Christmas to look as good as any team I've seen this season in a near upset of Laney in the Wildcats' building right before the calendar turned to 2016.

The Bulldogs led Laney 50-45 in the fourth quarter despite being without the services of San Antonio Brinson (due to foul trouble) for much of the game. For a team that won 7 games last season, learning how big games are won these past couple weeks should be invaluable experience entering the region 4A race.

Region play promises to be thrilling as the favorite, Liberty County and its junior phenom Davion Mitchell, awaits for a pair of games. And power poll member Burke County will aim to defend its regular season title as well.

Greenbrier (8-5)
Class 5A

Greenbrier possesses two wins over Josey, the team I picked #2 in my preseason top 11. And coach Casey Heckathorn's senior led group also won at Strom Thurmond, a 2015 South Carolina state playoff runner up.

The team has no trouble scoring with Justen Hartfield bullying smaller guards and Jakob Nelson nailing threes from all over. And freshman Richard Crawford brings playmaking and skill to the perimeter mix.

Greenbrier's first region matchup with Cross Creek, another power poll team, should give us an early read on which teams are likely to challenge Richmond for leadership in the much improved region 5A landscape.

North Augusta (8-3)
Class 4A (South Carolina)

The North Augusta Yellow Jackets' only losses have been to Strom Thurmond and South Aiken. Coach Tony Harrell's group is quick and highly skilled. Senior point guard Jock Smith leads the charge. I don't think any area guard will be able to keep Smith in check for long as his quickness and shooting ability are difficult to contain. A well coached team (which North Augusta is) with a player like Smith possessing the ball so much will be a serious threat in a region that includes powerhouse South Aiken.

Burke County (7-2)
Class 4A

Burke County's pair of wins over Cross Creek and its 2015 regular season region championship are enough to include the only area team I haven't seen in the power poll.

Great tests for coach Purvis Dukes's Bears include region matchups with Thomson and Liberty County. The boys from Waynesboro visit Davion Mitchell and company (Liberty County) January 8th in a much anticipated rematch of last season's region tournament championship game...

Cross Creek (7-5)
Class 5A

Cross Creek is on a roll. The Razorbacks have won four straight and they earned a Monterrey Christmas tournament championship with wins over Aquinas, Grovetown, and host Evans. Moses Jones is averaging 23 points per game in the six games I've tracked, five from holiday tournament action in wins against the teams mentioned as well as losses to Laney and Butler.

Honorable mention:

Cases can be made for including Westminster, Josey, Evans, Butler, and others in the power poll. Believe me, I have notebooks of paper and video reels of footage to prove it. So I'll mention those teams as well as Lincoln County, Grovetown, Lakeside, Gatewood, Butler, Aquinas, Augusta Prep, and Alleluia as teams who will not surprise me if they are to make an appearance soon in the AugBball power poll!

Special Note: Defending state champ Midland Valley was originally slated as the #6 power poll team. But until Daniel Carr recovers from an injury sustained in his football team's state championship game and rejoins the team, and the Mustangs get back on a winning track, I'm keeping them on the watch list.

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