- Mitchell Northam The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Drew Catlett is going to have a hard time picking a side to root for on Thursday night.
When the head boys’ basketball coach of Alpharetta’s St. Francis School flips his television to TBS around 10 p.m. to watch No. 11 Xavier take on No. 2 Arizona in the Sweet 16, he’ll see two of his former players on opposite ends of the floor in San Jose.
“It’s going to be a tough game for me to watch, but I’m so proud of both of those guys,” Catlett said. “I thought about going with half Xavier gear and half Arizona gear. I’ll probably just sit at my house in my sweats and just root for my guys to do well.”
On one side is Kaiser Gates, a sophomore forward for the Xavier Musketeers. On the other is Kobi Simmons, a freshman guard for the Arizona Wildcats. Only one will advance to the Elite Eight.
Gates and Simmons are both former North Fulton residents who starred for the St. Francis School basketball team, leading them to two state titles. The duo grew up together, connected by hoops.
And they’re still very close, and so are their families.
The Gates’ and Simmons’ families hopped on a plane together Wednesday morning that went from Atlanta to Los Angeles. When they arrive in San Jose on Thursday, they’ll be sitting together and wearing custom-made T-shirts that support both players.
“When we saw the initial bracket, we were definitely hoping for this, for sure,” said Necia Gates, Kaiser’s mother. “I’m rooting for Kobi too. It’s going to be a lot of fun.”
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Simmons is the all-time leading scorer at St. Francis with more than 2,400 career points. He is also first in career assists and steals. Gates scored more than 1,200 points at St. Francis and is the program’s all-time leading rebounder.
Together, they led St. Francis to two state titles.
“More than the stats, when those guys were here we won,” Catlett said. “A lot of kids will look to transfer during high school nowadays, and those guys stuck together and were here all four years. They wanted to win together.”
Gates has been a key player off the bench for Xavier during its March Madness run.
Over the season, the 6-foot-8 forward has averaged 5.6 points and 3.8 rebounds per game while playing about 20 minutes per contest. The sophomore is seventh on the team in scoring and fourth in grabbing boards.
But the Alpharetta native has been at his best on the biggest stage. In the Musketeers’ opening round upset over No. 6 Maryland, Gates tallied 11 points, a steal, a rebound and an assist. In Xavier’s next March Madness upset, a victory over No. 3 Florida State, he notched 14 points, five rebounds and two assists. Since March 1, Gates is shooting about 41 percent from behind the arc.
In Xavier’s game against Maryland, Necia Gates said Kaiser broke his finger, but played on.
“He was very happy to get those wins in Orlando,” she said. “He’s had a few setbacks and injuries, so he hasn’t had a fair consistent chance to develop in the way he is going to.”
Coming out of St. Francis, 247sports.com rated Gates as a three-star recruit and the 10th best player in Georgia. He picked Xavier over Texas Tech, Vanderbilt, Florida State, Georgia and Missouri.
Catlett said when Kaiser returned home from his first season at Xavier, he had grown an inch and gained almost 30 pounds.
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“The best thing I like about Kaiser’s game is he’s just an ultimate team guy,” Catlett said. “He can pass it, rebound it, defend and shoot. The next step for him is to add scoring off the bounce, putting the ball on the floor and getting to the rim.
“He’ll have a chance to play when he’s done at Xavier.”
And Simmons likely will too when he’s done at Arizona.
As a freshman, Simmons has been a bit more impactful for his team than Gates was for Xavier. The 6-foot-5 guard has started in 19 of the 35 games he has played in and is sixth on the team in scoring with nine points per game. He grabs an average of 1.7 rebounds and dimes out 2.1 assists per game.
Arizona’s veterans have seen more playing time than Simmons in the NCAA tournament. In the Wildcats’ wins over No. 15 North Dakota and No. 7 Saint Mary’s, he played just 20 minutes combined, scoring six points and notching a block and a rebound.
“Kobi can score the basketball,” Catlett said. “His playing time has dropped some, but he was playing well. He can shoot from three, he can get to the basket and he’s good in transition.”
But Simmons has had moments on the big stage. Against conference foe and then-ranked No. 3 UCLA on Jan. 21, he tallied 20 points, six rebounds, five assists and two steals in an 11-point win for Arizona.
ESPN rated Simmons as the top player in Georgia in 2016. He picked Arizona over UNLV, Kentucky and Ohio State.
Catlett still texts both of his former players often.
When he settles in near his television on Thursday night, he knows he’ll get to congratulate one of his guys and keep rooting for him, but he may have to console the other.
“I can’t lose, because one of them will win,” Catlett said. “But it will be sad because one of them has to go home. But it’ll be exciting to see one of them possibly make the Final Four.”
So, who is he rooting for? Will Simmons or Gates advance?
Said Catlett with a chuckle: “I’ll have to get a half and half T-shirt with an X on the back and an A on the front.”