Tift County’s boys basketball team, playing with just one major college recruit and ranked only No. 7, turned Class AAAAAAA on its head last week when it won the championship at Georgia Tech’s McCamish Pavilion.
Tift knocked down Marietta, No. 8 Berkmar, No. 3 Newton, No. 1 McEachern and finally No. 4 Norcross over five rounds. The final three opponents held top-25 national rankings at some point this season. - Each of runner-up Norcross’ top six players have Division I offers, four from ACC or SEC schools.
And there were no lucky bounces or buzzer beaters. The Blue Devils were in charge of every playoff game come the fourth quarter.
They also did it without high-profile move-ins or transfers, something that no other boys team in the highest classification had done in nearly 20 years, not even Tift’s 2014 champion, which came perhaps the closest with just one among its starting five. Georgia Tech junior Tadric Jackson, star of that team, came through Tift's feeder program.
‘’That’s what makes it special. We won it with our kids,’’ Tift County coach Dr. Eric Holland said. “’When we won it, everybody in Tifton was so happy for those kids, and the kids were so happy for them. They did this together. They won for people who prayed for them and who fed them and went to see them on the road. We were everybody’s biggest crowd all season.’’
Holland said his 2017 team wasn’t his most talented. In fact, he suggested it was his least talented of eight he’s coached in Tifton.
Tift County thrived as a close-knit, highly focused, inner-driven team with great chemistry and community support.
Tift County teams with higher expectations in 2013 and 2016 suffered painful playoff losses at home.
This team closed ranks and ignored the noise around it. The players bought into Holland’s motto that challenged them to look inside: “We’re not here to prove others wrong, but ourselves right.’’
Holland touted the leadership of his three seniors – Preston Horne, Micah Johnson and Fred Lloyd – who played on the 2014 championship team. Those seniors were 111-10 in four seasons with four region titles and two state titles. Only 12 of those wins were by fewer than 10 points.
Holland then gave credit to his administration and the fan base. Tift County has only one public high school. The Blue Devils were the only major contender in the highest classification that could count on county-wide support.
‘’It’s one of the best jobs in the state because you aren’t in competition with anybody,’’ Holland said. “We’re the only show in town. Everybody comes to the games. There’s no rival school across the street. The school board and superintendent and athletic director give us the resources we need. They’ll never say no. There are a lot of people around here who love basketball.’’
Having just one school system also makes for a more efficient feeder program. In many metro powerhouses, the middle school teams don’t resemble the varsity years later.
At Tift County, all 16 members of the championship team have been in the program since seventh grade. The coaches from middle through high school are on the varsity staff. All the teams run the same system. ‘’We speak the same language sixth through 12th grade,’’ Holland said. “It’s all one staff.’’
Holland builds on those relationships at the varsity level.
In preseason this season, Holland gave his players and coaches homework. They had to use each letter of the alphabet to come up with 26 words or phrases that represented essential ingredients to a championship team. Holland had his own list. They then met and shared their answers and arrived at a consensus.
The project encouraged the players to introspect and take ownership of their season. Holland called it the A-B-C’s of success. He put it on t-shirts and referenced it frequently at practices and games.
‘’I said we’re going on a journey, and we thought of 26 things we needed to have to win it all,’’ Holland said. “Everybody did it. We were 90 percent consistent on what we needed from Attitude to Brotherhood to Character to Discipline. We felt we could beat anybody on our schedule if we did those 26 things.’’
The A-B-C’s were just one of many themes and projects that Holland initiated to take the game beyond the X’s and O’s.
Players are required to maintain resumes. Holland also assigns each player a ‘’credit score’’ for character. Players get points for good grades, timeliness, community service and punctuality, and they get an updated score each week. They also can get deductions. If the player’s credit score dips too low, he loses playing time. In fact, the roster dropped to 16 from 20 during the season over ‘’credit scores.’’
On Mondays, the team does not practice. Instead, the players come to school dressed nicely - Holland calls it ‘’Dress for Success Mondays’’ - and they go to a local church after school and meet with pastors or church leaders about spiritual topics.
Holland requires that the players do 40 hours of community service a year. They go to the elementary and middle schools. They do public speaking. They mentor younger kids.
On the court, Tift hangs its hat on hard work and defense. The blue collars on their warm-ups are symbolic. Many of Tift’s playoff victims expressed that they were most impressed and unprepared for the intensity of Tift’s man-to-man pressure. Holland felt his team was the hardest-playing and best defensive team in the state.
‘’When I talk with any college coach about skill set, I go straight to defense,’’ Holland said. “I don’t talk about offense. Their statistics show if they can play offense. We hung our hat on getting stops.’’
Players wore ‘’no buckets’’ on t-shirts this year, something Holland started with the 2014 team. ‘’That’s second-chance points, transition points, no bad fouls, easy 3-pointers. We take those out of the game and make people score in the half court. That’s what we mean by no buckets.’’
Holland believes in making each player valuable. With 16, that’s not easy. Only six actually played in the championship game against Norcross. But all 16 mattered, Holland said, and he praised his bottom five, his scout team.
Their job is to watch film of their opponents and then come to practice prepared to be the opponents’ best players in practice. The scout teamers note how opponents in-bound the ball. They learn their basic plays. They might even recognize their hand signals. The coaches would send them video of their opponents’ games on Monday.
‘’When we get to practice on Tuesday, they’ve broken it down,’’ Holland said. “They prepared us for any and every thing that we could imagine from how they want to screen us to how they want to cut.’’
Tift also had outstanding chemistry. The players’ basketball skills complemented each other.
‘’If you’ve got the same piece of the puzzle, you’ll never put it together,’’ Holland said. ‘’The word that separates a team winning and losing is chemistry. The C word. If you’ve got selfish dudes, you’re going to lose.’’
Horne, a 6-foot-7 forward that Holland says is underrated and has NBA potential, has signed with Virginia Tech. Johnson, the guard who scored 24 in the victory over Norcross on Saturday, is going to Alabama State. Lloyd, the third-best player, is better at football. He has signed with South Florida in his fall sport.
Rashod Bateman, Marquavious Johnson and Montavious Terrell are younger role players who will be in the forefront next season.
‘’In terms of talent, this is probably the least talented team I’ve coached since I’ve been here,’’ Holland said. “In terms of teams, it’s the best team I’ve coached, ever, because they cross the T’s and dot the I’s. The make A’s, not B’s. None of them goes to the office. They eat lunch together. They just do it the right way.’’