The Class AA basketball region tournaments were completed last weekend, which means the state playoffs begin this week. That means it’s time for my annual playoff predictions.
For me, there’s only one team — regardless of gender — that stands out as a runaway favorite and that’s Laney’s Lady Wildcats, who take a 27-0 record into the tournament. Naturally, I have them winning it all for the second year in a row, third in the last four years.
On the boys’ side, I feel the tournament is wide open, as no AA team has dominated the classification. My predictions reflect that, as I have the No. 5 Therrell Panthers defeating the No. 8 Washington County Golden Hawks for their first state title in program history.
Below, you’ll find my filled-out brackets, with a further breakdown how I reached these conclusions.
First, let’s take a look at the final rankings heading into the state playoffs, which were released on the Sunday following the conclusion of region tournaments. The previous week’s rankings are in parenthesis and the overall record follows the team:
- (2) Laney, 25-3
2. (1) Glenn Hills, 24-2
3. (3) Thomasville, 23-3
4. (4) Dublin, 22-3
5. (5) Therrell, 18-7
6. (6) South Atlanta, 23-4
7. (10) Chattooga, 23-3
8. (NR) Washington County, 17-8
9. (NR) Banks County, 24-4
10. (7) Swainsboro, 20-6
As you can see, Laney came in to steal the top spot by beating previous No. 1 Glenn Hills 55-41 in the Region 4 championship. It was the second time in a row the Wildcats beat the Spartans by double digits — they won 59-49 on Jan. 19. It was tempting to have the Wildcats winning it all in my predictions to give Laney a sweep of the boys and girls tournament. However, I have them coming up short against South Atlanta in the quarterfinals.
I said previously that no team has dominated AA and that the tournament is wide open. So much so that a No. 1 seed going out in the first round is a real possibility. Thomasville, a top seed from Region 1, has to face 2017 state finalists Swainsboro, which enters as a No. 4 seed after a disappointing loss to Vidalia in the 2-AA tournament. The Tigers had beaten Vidalia twice during the regular season and entered the region tournament with a 14-0 record against 2-AA, so entering as a No. 4 seed is a shock to say the least.
The Tigers greatly overachieved last year, going on a magical run following the offseason death of their coach. Conversely, the Bulldogs underachieved last year by losing handily at home to Chattooga, 68-51, in the second round after reaching the quarterfinals in each of the previous two seasons. I still have Thomasville beating Swainsboro but make no mistake: this will be the most-anticipated game of the opening round.
Another No. 4 seed to watch out for is Hapeville Charter of Region 6. I don’t give the Hornets as good of a chance to beat Spencer as I do Swainsboro beating Thomasville, but an upset win is within the realm of possibilities.
I have the defending-state-champion South Atlanta Hornets losing in the semifinals to Washington County. The Hornets even getting there is no lock, however, as they have a realistic shot of exiting as early as Round 2, when they’ll most likely go up against a strong Banks County team. If they survive that game, they should be greeted by top-ranked Laney. While this season’s Hornets team isn’t as talented or senior-heavy as last season’s, they still have veteran coach Michael Reddick, and he’s a solid bet to have his teams ready for the postseason.
However, this year, I have South Atlanta meeting its fate against Washington County. As you may remember, the Golden Hawks had South Atlanta on the ropes in last year’s quarterfinals and led most of the game until the Hornets went on a furious run to force overtime and escape with a 75-69 win. I believe the Golden Hawks get their revenge this year and reach the state finals to face another Region 6 team in the Therrell Panthers.
Picking the Panthers to win it all is bold and could turn out to look like a really dumb choice when it’s all said and done. Thomasville, Dublin, Glenn Hills, Laney, Banks County, Washington County, South Atlanta and even Chattooga all have a legitimate chance to be this season’s champion. Again, that’s how wide-open the field is. In fact, with the Panthers (seven losses) and Golden Hawks (eight losses) I have the two ranked teams with the most losses meeting in the championship.
Despite going against the grain with my championship matchup prediction, both predicted finalists have a solid strength of schedule rating according to MaxPreps — Therrell at 4.6 and Washington County at 6.8 — so playing tougher competition led to less-flattering records. Both teams won region titles and the Panthers beat South Atlanta three times. I believe the Panthers are battle-tested enough to pull through and win the title.
There’s a lot to like about the Panthers, including the fact that they’re just getting started. They are led by three sophomores — Deandre Brown, Roman Son and Cameron Fortson — and a freshman (Robbie Armbrester). They’re young and hungry, and that’s why I have them shocking AA to take home the title.
Here are the girls’ final rankings heading into the state playoffs:
- (1) Laney, 27-0
- (6) Banks County, 23-5
- (5) Dodge County, 23-4
- (4) Josey, 24-4
- (3) Swainsboro, 22-4
- (7) Model, 22-3
- (2) Putnam County, 20-4
- (8) Rabun County, 22-6
- (9) Washington County, 19-7
- (NR) Fitzgerald, 14-5
Unlike the boys’ side, there is a clear-cut No. 1 girls team in the Lady Wildcats and if all goes according to their plans, they will win AA and do so rather easily. Not only would a second consecutive title give them a 32-0 record, it would also extend their win streak to 62 games dating back to Nov. 22, 2016, when a 62-56 loss was all that prevented them from a 32-0 record last season.
Under coach Otis Smart, the Lady Wildcats are in the midst of an incredible run. They’re led by seniors De’Sha Benjamin and Jhessika Williams. Last season, Smart earned the AJC’s AA coach of the year honors while Benjamin earned AA player of the year honors. Benjamin — who signed her letter of intent to play for Alabama — is in line to repeat as AA player of the year and with averages of 22.3 points, 3.8 steals 7.9 rebounds, 1.6 blocks and 2.6 assists, she’ll get consideration for player of the year regardless of classification.
The closest any AA school came to the Lady Wildcats this season was Region 4 rival Josey, in a game Laney won 68-62 on Feb. 2. However, a week later in the 4-AA championship, Laney beat Josey 66-41. Laney will have about as tough of a road as any AA team getting to the title game, with a formidable opponent coming at them as early as Round 2, where in all likelihood they’ll face No. 5 Swainsboro. From there they’ll likely face No. 2 Banks County, followed (most likely) by either No. 3 Dodge County or No. 6 Model in the semifinals.
Then, in the finals, I have them meeting Josey for a fifth time this season — they played two regular season region games, one holiday tournament non-region game and the region championship — for the win. For me, it seems fitting for the Lady Wildcats to end their perfect season against the region rival who gave them the greatest challenge among AA opponents.
It must be said, however, that Laney winning it all is not a lock based on all of the wins they’ve accrued over the past 1.5 years. Anything can happen to derail the Lady Wildcats — a poor performance, foul trouble to key players, injuries, etc. Nothing can be taken for granted, especially when it comes down to one game and not a series. Swainsboro, Banks County, Model, Dodge County, Josey, and possibly Fitzgerald are all possible, worthy opponents that aren’t going to lay down for the Lady Wildcats.
But…if the Lady Wildcats play to their capabilities, they’ll run away with the title.