Multi-school events tip off prep basketball season

The Georgia High School Association’s official basketball season tips off Saturday, and if you live for the smell of varnish on hardwood in the morning (or afternoon, or evening …) or the sound of a basketball hitting nothing but net, there are lots of opportunities to get your fix.

A handful of events in Metro Atlanta offer a little extra value. The inaugural Battle on the Mountain (possible alternate title: Basketball and Barbecue) at Stephenson High School features a slate of four boys games and four girls games. The Elite 8 Tip-Off Classic at McEachern features five boys games with some high-profile Georgia teams taking the floor.

We talked with Stephenson girls coach Dennis Watkins Jr. and McEachern boys coach Mike Thompson about the advantages of having the events and what they’re looking for from their teams.

Stephenson girls coach Dennis Watkins Jr.
What do you have in mind when you put together an event like the Battle of the Mountain?

We wanted to start a new tradition, Try to come together and put some good quality teams in here. It helps get ready for the region and everything. It’s our first year. We tried to give it a little pizzazz naming it battle on the mountain since we’re right here at Stone Mountain.

Other than your own, what team in the event are most interested to see?
All of the girls teams. I’m just a fan of basketball and good friends with a lot of them. We’re just excited about it. It’s been a while since we’ve played these schools. It’s just exciting to see these teams back in action, so we’re looking forward to it.

Thoughts on your team entering the season?
Our expectations are high. Made it to the elite 8 last year. I tried to challenge the girls, we want to get back to the elite 8 or even further. We’re playing against McEachern. They’re four-time state champs and they’re loaded. I’m interested to see what I need to do to make adjustments.

The Battle on the Mountain schedule
Shiloh vs. North Forsyth girls, 11 a.m.; Cumberland Christian vs. Central Gwinnett boys, 12:30 p.m.; Westlake vs. Sandy Creek girls, 2 p.m.; Hapeville Charter vs. Arabia Mountain boys, 3:30 p.m.; Norcross vs. Greater Atlanta Christian girls, 5 p.m.; Drew Charter vs. Dawson Christian boys, 6:30 p.m.; Stephenson vs. McEachern girls, 8 p.m.; Stephenson vs. Heritage boys, 9:30 p.m.

McEachern boys coach Mike Thompson
You guys were unbeaten until state semifinals last year. How would you describe the disappointment from that?

I think we had quite a bit of disappointment with it, because we … I don’t know, you just get on a roll like that and you get a feeling that you’re not going to lose. You win 29 games in a row you think, hey we’re doing things right. we’ve just got to keep it going. I think being young and having a team that hadn’t been in that kind of situation before, you know we were just stunned. I don’t know that it was that we were disappointed or just stunned. We just weren’t prepared for that.

What do you have in mind when you put together an event like the Elite Tip-Off Classic?
I think in today’s basketball world those one-day type events are becoming more and more popular. I think they’re good for fans because fans can see multiple good teams without having to go all over the place. It’s a basketball junkie’s dream, really, to have things like our event, HoopsGiving, things like that, people can see a lot of good basketball in one day. Some good players, both in the state and the country if you bring teams in from other states.

On inviting out-of-state teams
That’s always a little dicey. You don’t know if they’re going to bring a lot of fans with them, but sometimes if they’re quality teams, the basketball people want to see those teams play and they’ll come and see them. The kids like playing the best teams. They don’t like to play games that are easy games. They want to be challenged. They want to play tough teams and see how they measure up.  I think that’s another reason to have the event.

Other than your own, what team in the event are most interested to see?
Because Norcross is in our class and I think they’ve got a really good team, they become interesting to look at. It gives us a chance to see them.

Going into season opener, what things are you evaluating on your own team?
Probably a couple of things would be where are we defensively as a team. You see yourself playing a good team. You defend that team and make a judgement of, where are we defensively? What do we need to go back and look at?  Secondly would be depth, guys that are going to be betting into the game, the seventh, eighth, ninth and 10th players into the game, how do those guys play? Are they going to be able to fulfill that role, are we going to have to find somebody else to do that? Third part – [post players] Babatunde Akembola and Jared Jones are both about 6-9. How do we look with them in the game together? Are we better off with both of them in the game, or one of them in the game?

Elite 8 Tip-Off Classic schedule
Shiloh vs. KIPP Atlanta, 12:30 p.m.; Heritage vs. Lincoln Academy 2 p.m.; (Scrimmage) Rocky River (N.C.) vs. Hamilton (Tenn.), 3:30 p.m.; Meadowcreek vs. Tift County, 5 p.m.; Miller Grove vs. Norcross 6:30 p.m.; McEachern vs Wheeler, 8 p.m.

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