When the Adairsville and Jefferson boys basketball teams tip off Friday night in the first round of the Class 3A state tournament, those in attendance might think they are seeing double.
On paper, the Tigers and Dragons look extremely similar. So similar, in fact, that this matchup seems to come straight out of The Twilight Zone.
The teams would have matched up laughably well early in the season, but sometimes, things change throughout the course of a campaign. Even still, both sides have several players who won’t have to look too hard to find their equivalent on the floor Friday.
“From what I’ve seen so far, I think they’re a little bit like us,” Adairsville head coach Alex Disbrow said. “They’ve got good guards who are sound defensively and don’t make a whole lot of mistakes. They have a 6-9 post player who is committed to Navy. I’m really looking forward to Jaxon Welchel facing a Division-I post player. They have a 6-3 athlete who is a Power 5 football recruit.
“They kind of look a lot like us, to be honest, as far as physically. I’m really looking forward to the challenge.”
While the two teams may appear to be carbon copies of each other, it’s more appropriate to call Disbrow’s group Jefferson-lite. As such, Adairsville will enter the road game as heavy underdogs.
The Dragons are coming off a Region 8-AAA championship. After pulling off an impressive upset to qualify for state, the Tigers dropped their final two games in the Region 6-AAA tournament to finish as the No. 4 seed.
There’s some recency bias there, but over the course of the season, Jefferson has an 18-7 record and a No. 6 ranking in 3A. Meanwhile, Adairsville is below .500 at 12-16, ranking 35th in the classification — behind a few teams that didn’t even qualify for the 32-team state tournament.
All that being said, the Tigers still have a chance to pull off the win. Disbrow knows it will come down to his team’s ability to limit the Dragons offense.
“Keeping them from scoring in bunches is going to be the challenge,” he said. “If we can keep them consistently 8-10 points a quarter, I think we have a chance. If we keep them 8-10 points for three quarters and one quarter they have 18-20, I think it’s going to be difficult for us.
“We just don’t have the personnel to score in bunches. We do have the personnel to lock people down, rebound and then consistently score. We’re just not an explosive offensive team. … I would rather be a team that is consistent rather than a team that one day scores 100 and the next day scores 20. We’re consistently around 50-60 points a game. If we hold them under 50, I think we have a great chance to win.”
That will be easier said than done.
Jefferson averages 70 points per game, and it has been held below 50 just once all season in a 48-45 loss to Hart County. The next time those teams met, Hart County again scored 48, but Jefferson racked up 65 points.
One of the things that makes defending the Dragons so tough is their balance. In the region championship game, Jefferson had five players score 12-15 points. That didn’t include sophomore Malaki Sparks — the Power 5 football recruit Disbrow mentioned — who ironically will be going up against Adairsville’s Malachi Gardner, a Savannah State football signee.
Each of those six players is capable of scoring 20-plus on a given night, as well. Probably the most potent scorer, though, is Jacob Radaker — the senior committed to Navy. At 6-foot-9, 200 pounds, Radaker will be a fascinating matchup against Jaxon Welchel, who also stands 6-9 but is listed at 235 pounds.
“At this time of year, it’s all about matchups,” Disbrow said. “I feel like we can match up with them. They’re obviously very, very good. I mean, they’re a region champion. But I still feel they’re beatable. We just have to play well.”
In a lot of ways, Adairsville enters Friday’s game in a great position. The Tigers have the belief that they can beat a team that isn’t all that different from themselves, all the while knowing they aren’t expected to win.
At this point of the year, that’s about as advantageous a spot as an underdog could hope to be in.
“If we have defensive lapses, we’re not going to win,” Disbrow said. “This season, we’ve had a quarter where we scored zero and a few where we’ve scored two-four. If we have one of those, we’re going to lose. But if we play like we’re capable of playing, … it’s going to come down to the buzzer, and anything can happen.
“There’s no pressure on us. They’re a No. 1 seed; they’re expected to win. We’re going to go into their house and play with no pressure. We’re just going to enjoy the moment and all the hard work that has paid off to let us play in the state tournament.”