Thursday, October 13, 2016

AugBball College Hoops Preview Part 2

Players with area ties dot the college basketball map at all levels of play. In anticipation of November's 2016-17 tip-off, here are six preview stories involving players familiar to many of us who are competing on the men's side, including Ahmed Hill (Aquinas --> Virginia Tech); Christian Keeling (Laney --> Charleston Southern); Frank Booker (Westside --> Florida Atlantic); Tookie Brown (Morgan County --> Georgia Southern); Tamyrik Fields (Aquinas --> Augusta University); Jashawn Brooks (Laney --> Augusta University); and Matt Miller (GAIS --> USMMA)

***And click this link to see my first college hoops preview, which features Ricky Moore and Alterique Gilbert (UConn); Don Coleman (Butler --> California); and Keshun Sherrill (Augusta University)***

Hill is back to play on the nation's biggest stage

Ahmed Hill (Aquinas, class of 2014) followed a spectacular high school stint - he scored the third most points in Georgia hoops history (3,024) and averaged 30 points and 12 rebounds as a senior - with a solid freshman season for the rapidly rebuilding Virginia Tech Hokies. During the 2014-15 season, Hill logged 9 points and 4 rebounds per game, and he started 30 of 33 contests. After arriving in Blacksburg, Hill quickly gained the reputation as an exceptionally hard worker on the court and in the classroom, earning 33 minutes per game of playing time in the team's 18 ACC games and making the honor roll in a semester during his first year on campus.

Sidelined last season with an injury, the explosive athlete with a sweet stroke who teammate Seth Allen calls "Money-Med," according to Hill in the video above, watched coach Buzz Williams orchestrate a massive 12 month turn around as the Hokies (20-15, 10-8) won 9 more games overall, and 8 more in ACC play, than the previous season.

Cleared to play in June, Ahmed hit the ground running leading into his sophomore season:
And after four days of coach Williams's "boot camp," which tipped off this season's official practices, Hill had won team "MVP" honors twice:
Hill's reintroduction to Virginia Tech's rotation, to which 7 of last year's top players return, should help speed up even more the team's improvement process. Athlon Sports tabbed the Hokies as the nation's #22 preseason team, citing wins last season over Virginia (last season's #4) and Miami (last season's #7). Hill was the team's fourth leading scorer two seasons ago, including a career high 19 in a loss at Florida State.

Of course, Virginia Tech's conference schedule, which includes a New Year's Eve home game against preseason #1 ranked Duke and a January 26th visit to #6 ranked North Carolina, as well as games versus #9 Virginia, #16 Louisville, and #21 Syracuse, gives Ahmed a special opportunity to play against college basketball's very best programs.

But before league play tips off, a game of special interest to you and me will be against Charleston Southern, the new home of Christian Keeling of Laney, on December 20th in Blacksburg. 

Keeling arrived in Charleston and quickly generated, along with a pair of fellow freshmen, a significant amount of buzz about the Buccaneers' latest recruiting class:
With Christian and Ahmed, who both earned Augusta Chronicle Player of the Year honors during their respective senior seasons, squaring off before Christmas, I am reminded of a pair of Martin Luther King Day games in 2013 and 2014 that were as highly anticipated, and entertaining, as any high school games our area has recently seen.

Those games were played during Hill's junior and senior seasons when he was the area's undisputed king of the hill, and Keeling, then two years behind Ahmed, was just beginning to earn his reputation. It would have been difficult then to imagine Christian making an impact similar to Ahmed's. But Keeling's play as a senior, when he averaged 23 points per game, leading Laney to a 14-0 start, a 26-3 overall record, and an Elite 8 state playoff finish, sparked the imagination and adoration of local fans every bit as much as Hill did two years before.

No fewer than seven current and soon to be Division I and II players shared the floor during those memorable MLK Day thrillers at Evans High. It will be fun to see two of this decade's best battle again at the next level in December.

Booker is back after transferring from Oklahoma to Mike Curry's Florida Atlantic University

Like Hill, Augusta's sharpest shooter Frank Booker (Westside, class of 2013) must be itching to take the floor after a year away from live action. The former Patriot last played for the Oklahoma Sooners during their 2015 march to the Sweet Sixteen round of the NCAA tournament. Booker made 4 of 6 threes in the team's second round win over Dayton that year.

Soon after, Frank transferred to Florida Atlantic, where he soon will begin his junior season after sitting out last year per the NCAA's transfer rules. His new coach Mike Curry is Augusta's most accomplished player after starring at Glenn Hills High School, Georgia Southern, and several NBA teams during a decade plus stint at the game's highest level. After retiring as a player, he spent a season as the Detroit Pistons head coach and worked as an assistant in Detroit and Philadelphia before moving into his current position.

Booker is not the only familiar face joining Curry this season. Freshmen Jailyn Ingram and Devorious Brown, fresh off winning two 3A Georgia high school state titles and a runner up finish in the last three seasons, are also new to the roster. Their road the last two seasons went through Augusta's Laney High. Their Bulldogs handed our Wildcats three of Laney's five  combined losses during the past two years, both times spoiling potential state title runs by what has been our area's best team during that time.

Booker and Ingram were among Florida Atlantic's leading scorers during the team's summer trip, a three game series in the Bahamas. Curry's new additions bring the habit of winning, Booker at Oklahoma, and Ingram and Brown at Morgan County. That habit will come in handy as Curry tries to build it into the culture at Florida Atlantic, which has compiled a 17-45 record these last two seasons.

Tookie Brown is still filling up the scoreboard. Now in Statesboro

Another product of that Morgan County dynasty, Georgia Southern sophomore Tookie Brown (class of 2015), burst onto the college hoops scene last season, leading the Eagles in scoring (18 ppg); earning All Sun Belt first team and conference Freshman of the Year honors, and grabbing the attention of several national media outlets. That campaign followed a storybook high school career in which Brown scored more than 3,000 points and claimed a state title and a state playoff runner up finish.

But as impressive as Brown has been these past five years, I haven't seen anything that could impress me more than his play during a series of three games against Laney his senior year. During a late November matchup at Laney, I watched him almost singlehandedly knock off the Wildcats, losing two defenders on an isolation play out by half court and finishing on a tough drive to the basket to force overtime before the Bulldogs eventually came up short.

Determined to even the score in the January return game in Madison, Brown literally played until he dropped. He was sent to the bench for good during the game's second half. The word from SUVtv broadcaster Marques Burnett was that Tookie had expended so much energy keeping his Bulldogs close to Augusta's juggernaut (Morgan County trailed Laney by three when Brown was sidelined) that he was dehydrated and unable to continue.

In the third meeting between the teams, the class 3A state playoff semifinals at Columbus State Unviversity, Laney again appeared to have Morgan County's number as the Wildcats, aiming to win their 30th straight game, led by 8 at halftime. But Brown scored 32 second half points, most against multiple defenders, to carry the Bulldogs to another state championship game.

Many players score a lot of points. Some win while doing it. Tookie is special because he does both things during the biggest moments against the longest odds. Such effort will be needed to help Georgia Southern (14-17, 10-10 last season) finish this season at the top of the Sun Belt Conference this year.

Fields and Brooks will try to take another step forward for hometown Jags

In an earlier college hoops preview post I vowed not to miss a game of Keshun Sherrill's final season with Augusta University. His leadership last season carried the Jaguars through rocky times early, which was enough for coach Dip Metress's young core (6 freshmen in the rotation) to be able to find a rhythm in time for a season ending six game winning streak that only ended when Lander's JR Washington tipped in a game winner in double overtime of the Peach Belt Conference tournament, leaving Augusta just outside the NCAA tournament picture.

Sophomore Tamyrik Fields (Aquinas, class of 2014) needed no such warm up period. His improvement over his freshman campaign was evident from the beginning of last season. His points per game shot up from 2.5 to 11, and he scored in double figures 20 times. He added the ability to score in the post with left handed AND right handed jump hooks; he could suddenly make turn around jumpers turning both ways; and he became reliable catching and shooting mid range jump shots.

If another local product, sophomore Jashawn Brooks (Laney, class of 2015), can make a similar leap this season, the Jaguars will be difficult to stop. Brooks certainly had his moments as a freshman. He scorched the nets in his first home game, an overtime win against cross town rival Paine. And he was the hero in another home game, this time against conference foe UNC Pembroke.

The Jags are loaded with young talent. In addition to Fields and Brooks, Augusta has several sophomores who are proven contributors, including Tyvez Monroe, Aaron Byrd, Ben Ursich, Deane Williams, Andrew Parker, and Vlad Cobzaru, a starter as a freshman two seasons ago who has returned to the roster after last season's medical redshirt.

Miller closes in on a decade of getting buckets

Ready for his senior season is Matt Miller of the United States Merchant Marine Academy (USMMA). The will be the first time in three years when the former Augusta high school dynamo hasn't been at sea for months just prior to his team's October 15 season opening practice. This will be the eighth year I've tracked Miller's progress, the first four as the coach of his high school team, the GAIS Eagles. During those years he scored over 3,000 career points, earned to two National Christian Homeschool Basketball Championship top ten finishes, and twice earned NCHBC All American honors.

At USMMA, he has continued to pour in the points. After averaging 16 points as a sophomore and 13 as a junior, Miller needs only 47 more to tally 1,000 college points, which will cap nearly a decade of getting buckets for the lefty with the smooth stroke and crafty off-the-dribble game.

College basketball teams of all levels will have begun practice by this Saturday. Stay tuned for coverage of our area players making an impact in the college game, wherever they play.

Click here for part 1 of my AugBball College Hoops Preview

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