The Adairsville and Cass boys basketball teams were mere spectators for last season's state tournaments. Not so, this time around, as both squads used similar approaches to make triumphant returns to …
The Adairsville and Cass boys basketball teams were mere spectators for last season's state tournaments. Not so, this time around, as both squads used similar approaches to make triumphant returns to the playoffs.
Using a recipe of strong defense, balanced offense and senior leadership, the Tigers and Colonels each managed to earn state tournament bids out of rugged regions. In doing so, they became the only Bartow County teams to make it to state, although next season should certainly see an uptick based on reclassification and realignment.
"It's a good feeling for them," Adairsville head coach Alex Disbrow said of his players qualifying for state. "I'm glad to see their hard work, their commitment to excellence and their character pay off. About 65% of the state's teams are at home now. We're still practicing, so that's great for us."
The Tigers (12-16) finished the regular season tied for sixth in Region 6-AAA, but Adairsville strung together consecutive wins over Coahulla Creek and Murray County in the region tournament to punch a ticket to state. Losses to Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe and Calhoun saddled the Tigers with a No. 4 seed, forcing them to play at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Region 8-AAA champion Jefferson.
Meanwhile, Cass (16-12) knocked off Villa Rica in the Region 7-AAAAA quarterfinals after both teams ended the regular season tied for fourth in the league. The Colonels wound up falling to Kell in the semifinals before rebounding to edge Paulding County for third place. Cass will face Region 5-AAAAA runner-up Columbia at 5 p.m. Saturday on the road.
"That's really the challenge, to make sure we know our assignments defensively and do a good job there," Colonels head coach Sean Glaze said. "Defensively, I think we're a pretty strong team. We do a nice job and with help stuff. We have to take care of the boards.
"Against the defenses that they run, we have to do a good job of playing with some poise, executing and giving ourselves the looks it will take to come away with a 'W.'"
That formula has proved successful for Cass for much of the season. Despite playing in one of the tougher basketball regions in 5A, the Colonels have managed to hold teams to an average of 60 points per game.
Offensively, Cass has four players averaging 10-15 points per game. Zaylan Chaney leads the group with 14.7 points per night, but he gets considerable help from Braxton Benham (11 points), C.J. Pipkin (10) and Jordan Ford (10).
It's a big difference from last season, when DTN Player of the Year Jacquez Fountain averaged 18 points, but the Colonels only had one other player average double-figures. That was Ethan Carter, who chipped in right at 10 points per game.
"I think that's such a tough thing for other teams to do against us," Glaze said. "They can't just identify one or two guys that they have to stop. ... Any night, we probably have five guys who could score 15-20 points each. To their credit, they continue to share the ball and defend. It doesn't matter who is scoring, as long as we are making the right play."
Adairsville has used an extremely similar philosophy to earn its first state berth since the 2016-17 season.
The Tigers play in a region in which scoring is at more of a premium than the high-flying region the Colonels call home. However, that shouldn't take away from the impressive nature of Adairsville's defense, which allows just under 50 points per game.
The Tigers don't often score much more than that themselves, but they do utilize the kind of balanced scoring that makes it hard for teams to scout. Opponents have used different tactics to try to keep Adairsville off the scoreboard.
For much of the season, the Tigers haven't been a great shooting team, often relying on Jaxon Welchel to get easy looks inside, Malachi Gardner to score on putbacks, and the combination of Savaun Henderson and T.J. Printup to slash through the lane.
As of late, Adairsville has improved from distance. It's somewhat a byproduct of how teams now prefer to defend the Tigers, so the Dragons could choose to play a different defensive scheme. Even still, the outside shot making of Henderson and Tucker Deams, in particular, will be key to pulling off an opening-round upset.
"We're going to have to be able to shoot it," Disbrow said. "Teams like to collapse, so they can double down on Jaxon in the post and keep Savaun and T.J. out of the lane. That opens up shooting opportunities. We just have to have kids with 10 toes on the line and two hands ready to catch and shoot."
While the offense (and to a lesser degree, the defense) can fluctuate for both Adairsville and Cass, the veteran presence of each side's group of seniors has been a constant source of steady leadership.
The Colonels only have three seniors in Ford, JaQuan Heard and Alfred Washington.
Of the three, Ford is the one most heavily relied upon to be an in-game calming influence. His steady demeanor is balanced out by Heard's high-intensity motor. Washington brings good size at 6-foot-4, 190 pounds, and he has been seeing more minutes down the stretch due to his rebounding ability (59 boards in limited action across 14 games).
Cass has several talented underclassmen, led by sophomore Chaney and juniors Benham and Pipkin. Those players will get their first real taste of the playoffs Saturday, because the Colonels' last trip to the state tournament came in 2018.
"One thing you learn as a coach is that just about every year, you'll be as good as your seniors will let you," Glaze said. "As much as young kids can step up and certainly be talented, there's a lot to be said for maturity and poise that comes with experience.
"I'm excited for our young kids to experience the state tournament — and hopefully, a few rounds of the state tournament. It will definitely serve us moving forward."
Unlike Cass, Adairsville is a little more senior laden. The Tigers start a trio of 12th-graders, with two more in reserve roles. Henderson, Gardner and Welchel have been leaned on at times over the course of the season, although Printup has been stellar in his sophomore season and Deams, a junior, has shined recently, including 25 points in the third-place game of the region tournament.
Whether Adairsville advances to the second round or ends its brief state tourney run Friday, the Tigers will have at least achieved something great this season to send out a deserving group of seniors.
"That's been the most rewarding part of this season, seeing the tremendous character kids like Savaun and Malachi who have poured their heart and soul into this program for four years get to the state tournament," Disbrow said. "Jaxon, who has worked so hard to turn himself into a varsity basketball player and a fringe college recruit. The William Longmores and the Jonathan Jarretts who have accepted a role and excelled in their role coming off the bench. ...
"If you want to be in the state tournament, you have to have kids who are willing to accept those roles. That senior class has done that. That's been the most rewarding part is seeing that senior class get to go to the state tournament."