McEachern’s boys basketball team has risen to national acclaim in the past week, first by winning the Tournament of Champions Holiday Classic at Wheeler, then by claiming the No. 8 national ranking in MaxPreps’ Xcellent 25.
That’s big news for a program that, while consistently successful for years, has never advanced past the quarterfinals in the state playoffs, not even in the days of future NBA star Josh Smith.
I spoke with McEachern coach Mike Thompson this week, and he discussed the progress of his young but talented team. He also went out on a limb and identified the team that he believes has the best chance of winning loaded Class AAAAAAA this season.
To see how loaded, check out these national rankings by Ballislife.com, which includes No. 32 McEachern, No. 37 Wheeler, No. 40 Pebblebrook and No. 43 Norcross in its top 50, and also last week’s blog, which discussed the ‘’super teams’’ in this classification. And note that Newton is No. 13 in MaxPreps’ computer national rankings this week.
McEachern entered the discussion after beating four quality teams in four days last week. Those were Oak Ridge of Orlando (No. 2 in Florida’s Class 9A), Jefferson of Brooklyn (top 10 in its New York classification), Scotlandville Magnet of Baton Rouge, La. (No. 15 nationally by MaxPreps) and Wheeler (perennial Georgia power and preseason top 10 nationally).
Here are coach Thompson’s thoughts expressed mostly in question-and-answer form.
What did that tournament do for your team and how you see yourselves now? Or did you already see yourself as that kind of team?
‘’I think we see ourselves as that kind of group in a year. We’ve got young kids, and we’ve progressed well and we knew they were good. We felt really good about what we did, but we still have quite a ways to go. Even in our state, Westlake, Pebblebrook, Newton County, people like that, there are a lot of good teams here.’’
Is this a special year in Georgia’s highest classification? Can you recall there being this many teams on the national radar?
‘’It seems a little different because normally you have Wheeler and Norcross [that are nationally prominent and loaded with high Division I prospects], but now you have Westlake [defending champion, returning most starters] and Pebblebrook [state runner-up the past two seasons] in that situation. Then there are Newton County [13-0, beat McEachern in a preseason scrimmage] and ourselves [12-0]. Our class is deeper than it’s been in a while. The other thing is that a lot of them are young. The point guard at Newton [Ashton Hagans], he’s a sophomore. Isaac Okoro that I have is a sophomore. Westlake has some good young kids.’’
Which one do you feel is the team to beat?
‘’I saw most of them last weekend. I saw Pebblebrook [which defeated Norcross in another bracket final at Wheeler]. I’ve seen Newton County up close. We played Wheeler. The only team I haven’t seen this year is Westlake. If I had to give an advantage to anyone, it might be Pebblebrook just based on the fact that they have a player who is probably the best player in the state that they have to lean on.’’
That would be Collin Sexton. The point guard is the consensus No. 7 senior recruit in the country and is headed to Alabama. How good is he?
‘’The kid is almost to a point where he’s either going to get a basket or going to foul line. When you have kid like that, it definitely gives you a big advantage in close games. Wheeler has some guys that haven’t been together, and I don’t know if they have the individual guy that’s better than everybody else. Westlake has a lot of good players, but I’m not sure if they have a go-to-guy like Sexton. Newton County has one in their point guard, Hagans, but he’s a sophomore. To me, Pebblebrook has that guy who is a senior who can take the ball at the end of the game and probably do something crazy with it.’’
Your sophomore Okoro [pronounced oh-CORE-oh] was named tournament MVP last week and averages 23 points and nine rebounds. His floater at the buzzer was the game-winner in the one-point victory over Scotlandville [video below]. What is he like as a player?
‘’If we're in that situation, that kid is getting the ball, and he’s going to be our guy. Those who really watch know he’s going to be special. Last week was just kind of a coming-out party for him. He’s improved so much. Originally he was a 6-5 slashing, get-it-to-the-basket, dunker-type kid. He spent all summer working on his jump shot, trying to become a better player offensively, and he did it. He’s a kid who can hit a 3 on you or go by you and dunk ball. He’s a nightmare for many people because he can shoot over a smaller guy, and if you put a bigger kid on him, he goes by them. He’s become a complete offensive player.’’
But he’s not just a scorer?
‘’Here’s the difference between him and other guys. He can dunk on one end and take a charge on the other. Not many high-level kids in high school will do that. He wants to be a great player on both ends.’’
Talk about some of your other guys. [The point guard is freshman Sharife Cooper. He is the brother of former McEachern girls player-of-the-year Te’a Cooper, now at Tennessee. Sharife had 18 points and eight assists against Wheeler and averages 12 and eight on the season. He has offers from Auburn and Rutgers.]
‘’Sharife Cooper has come in as a freshman as started at point guard, and that’s unusual. He doesn’t have great size [only about 5 feet, 9 inches, 145 pounds], but he has the best IQ of any freshman I’ve seen, and his skill level – his ability to handle the ball around the basket – is really good. He’s able to take it inside on an E.J. Montgomery [Wheeler] and the other big guys in the area and he scores. It’s not like he’s at a disadvantage. He’s just a really good player with the ball.’’
Then there’s Babatunde Akingbol, a 6-8 forward who is rated the No. 5 sophomore in Georgia. Akingbol averages 12 rebounds and eight blocked shots.
‘’He’s really a great athlete. He runs well, jumps well. Defensively he makes us a different team because of his ability to block shots. On that end of the floor, he’s the most important guy we have.’’
Thompson pointed out other players. Brandon Suggs is a 6-6 junior whom Thompson described as a ‘’surprise.’’ “He played on the team last year. He’s just kind of emerged. When you around kids like Okoro and Cooper who work every day, and he’s done that himself, he’s jumped in there with them during summer and fall and he’s reaping benefits.’’
Tre Peoples, a senior, had a good game against Wheeler. A tough defender, he comes off the bench, but if the game is on the line, he is in it. Tworn Seals and Devon Gordon, both sophomores, also play significantly.
McEachern plays next at North Paulding in a Region 3 game on Friday.
Check out Okoro's game-winner vs. Scotlandville: