Friday, December 16, 2016

League play is in focus Friday night as Greenbrier and Lakeside will battle with much more than a county rivalry at stake

In addition to Augusta University's Peach Belt Conference schedule opening double-header at North Georgia, which I previewed here, AugBball's focus Friday will be on a key high school region matchup which could figure significantly in the final regular season standings even though we are only in the first week of league play.

Lakeside visits Greenbrier in a rivalry game when records will mean little

Local hoops followers have called this game both a matchup of great sophomore guards, Lakeside's Kalen Williams and Greenbrier's Richard Crawford III, and a battle to see which team is the "king of Columbia County."

I agree that seeing Williams and Crawford play at the same time will be fun. But I believe this class AAAAAA, region 3 opener is about so much more than an individual matchup. And Lakeside and Greenbrier have much loftier ambitions than being the best in their five school county. Both have shown as much in pre-conference play. And both have opportunities to prove they should be considered in discussions involving the state's better teams, not their county's.

Despite their much different non-conference schedules, Lakeside (7-3) and Greenbrier (3-8) should be very evenly matched.

Lakeside tipped off the season against class AA #3 Butler.

Both coaches set out this season to test their teams in the opening month of non league play. Lakeside has had more success in the win column, splitting games with Josey and beating Laney and Glenn Hills after losing a close game at Butler on opening night. All four opponents have been ranked, or soon will be ranked, in class AA's top ten according to GHSA expert Kyle Sandy

Greenbrier played the same four teams in an eight day period. After coming a Donald Henley buzzer beating game winner away from topping Laney in the Wolfpack Challenge Tip-Off tournament, coach Casey Heckathorn's team dropped its games against the other three area powerhouses by 5, 7, and 8 points.

These results will mean nothing when the region tournament comes in February. But if I am correct that Greenbrier and Lakeside are the two teams most likely to challenge Heritage, class AAAA's #5 team, for their league's crown, the team that goes into, and exits, the region tournament with the league's #1 or #2 position will be much more likely to advance in state tournament play. And tonight's head-to-head result will factor significantly into that equation.

The excitement surrounding Williams vs Crawford III is warranted

Lakeside's Kalen Williams and Greenbrier's Richard Crawford III have been producing results for their teams for what seems like so long a time that I sometimes take for granted their abilities, especially given their ages. And although the play of their teammates has been, and will continue to be, equally important to their teams' fortunes, it is worth considering the statistics they've compiled already in the first month of their sophomore seasons.

Williams leads the Panthers in scoring with 19 points per game. And he has produced those points shooting fewer than 10 times per game! The guard who is probably best known by his peers for shaking defenders out of their shoes with his changes of direction off the bounce has made a remarkable 67% of his two point field goals and 43% of his threes this season. And he has gone to the free throw line almost as many times (92 attempts so far, including 17 in the opener at Butler) as he has shot from the field (97 attempts).

Williams from 12 months ago when he burst onto the scene with monster games against Westside and Lincoln County:

Williams's sophomore season shooting statistics are no fluke. As a freshman he was the only area player to post shooting percentages similar to Augusta Chronicle Co-Players of the Year Zep Jasper and Christian Keeling when he made 58% of his two's and 40% of his threes while averaging 14 points per game. The biggest change this season has been his ability to get to the foul line. Last season he attempted 76 free throws, and he has already surpassed that amount in the first month of his sophomore campaign.

Crawford III has added every bit as much to his impressive freshman year showing in the first month of his sophomore campaign as has Williams. Greenbrier's leader is scoring 16 points per game, compared to just under 10 a season ago. And he has already made nearly twice the number of free throws (51) this season as he did all of last year.

"We gave him a free throw goal of 8 per game this season, and he has hit that in 8 of 10 games so far," coach Heckathorn told me Thursday. Crawford led Greenbrier in important wins over region opponents last season, including 17 points in a win over Cross Creek and 22 in another over Lakeside. And he nearly willed the Wolfpack to a season opening victory over Laney last month.

But framing Friday's game as an individual matchup is misleading

Lakeside's senior duo of Deon Berrien and Kre'Sean Hall both average double-doubles, with Berrien clocking in at 16 points and 12 rebounds per game and Hall at 13 points and 11 boards. Both players have logged monster statistical nights in emotional wins over highly regarded opponents. Berrien scored 27 points and grabbed 14 rebounds in the win over Laney and 27 and 11 in the victory over Glenn Hills. And Hall tallied 27 points and 14 rebounds against the Spartans.

Greenbrier's most important contributions alongside Crawford III's have come from junior Austin Canaday and senior David Harris, whom Heckathorn rightly calls "Mr. Intangible" because his effectiveness is not fully captured by the most common statistics. After sitting out last season with an injury, Canaday's 13 points per game has helped Greenbrier to not miss a beat after the graduation of key players from last season's 14-12 team. And Harris, who leads the Wolfpack in rebounding at 8 per game, took 3 charges in the Wolfpack's most recent game, a 56-55 loss to South Aiken, an elite 8 South Carolina state tournament team of a year ago.

Other games of particular interest Friday night:

#9 Laney will try to make tonight the third straight game in which the Wildcats have knocked off a ranked team at home when region rival Butler (#3) visits in a clash of class AA, region 4 teams. Butler will try to bounce back from Tuesday's loss at Josey, while Laney is riding high after a win over #8 Glenn Hills that same night. Laney's region record stands at 2-0, and Butler's is an even 1-1.

Another noteworthy battle will be between the #6 class A private school team, Aquinas, and the visiting Lincoln County Red Devils, which has started its season unranked, but finished last season in the state tournament's elite 8 round.

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