For a breakdown of Jefferson’s state finals game with Pace Academy Thursday (March 5), Jackson Herald reporter Ben Munro talked with one of the most recognizable high school basketball observers in the state, Kyle Sandy. Sandy operates sandysspiel.com, a state-wide website for high school basketball coverage. Sandy gives his take on both Jefferson and Pace Academy, and how he sees Thursday’s (March 5) Class AAA title game unfolding.
Munro: Just talk about what makes this Pace Academy team so good in your opinion. Obviously, Matthew Cleveland (a 6-7, highly-ranked shooting guard) is outstanding.
Sandy: Pace Academy has been the team to beat all season. When Matthew Cleveland transferred in from Cambridge in the offseason, they immediately became state-title favorites. Cleveland's length and skill on the perimeter is a lot to handle at the Class 3A level. Outside of Cleveland, Cole Middleton is an issue inside and will likely draw some time defending Jacob Radaker. Middleton missed pretty much all of last year with knee issues but he's come back strong and has been an elite rebounder and inside scoring presence. The Knights have prepared themselves for a deep run. They played a very difficult non-region schedule and stood toe-to-toe with some of the best teams in the state.
Munro: What are your impressions of this year’s Jefferson team? This is one of the most balanced teams I’ve seen in Northeast Georgia in recent years. Six different guys could lead the team in scoring on any given night.
Sandy: I knew going into the season that Jefferson could be really good this year, I just wasn't sure how good. They played a tough non-region schedule and took some lumps early on. At 4-5 to start the season and already in an 0-2 hole in Region 8-AAA, they had some work to do. I saw them against Franklin County in a 71-63 loss and since then, they've only lost twice. Their balance is incredible. Every single night you can count on at least three players to score in double figures, anywhere from 10 to 16 points, which makes them difficult to game plan for. The Dragons really do have a complete team if you break them down position-by-position. Jacob Radaker has blossomed into one of the most polished big men in the entire state, and the Parker twins provide constant effort on both sides of the ball. Kam Robinson is a lightning quick guard that can play up tempo while Malaki Starks is a strong athlete that can match up with anyone and, of course, Spencer Darby provides floor spacing with his 3-point shooting.
Munro: What are your thoughts on the trajectory of Jefferson’s program? It has gone from just four wins three years ago to reaching the state title game in its third year under Kevin Morris.
Sandy: Coach Morris has done a tremendous job and he's won a lot of games everywhere he's been. Any coach will tell you, to win a lot of games you need good players and coachable kids. He has both this year and has gotten the most out of his roster. Losing three starters is tough for any program to replace, but with the culture that Morris has created, I expect Jefferson to be very competitive and to contend for region titles long after this special 2020 class is gone.
Munro: I guess I’m putting you on the spot, but how do you see this Class AAA finals game playing out?
Sandy: I think Pace Academy is just too powerful, and their star power will be too much. The Knights will be favored by everyone outside of the Jefferson community, which is a good thing for the Dragons. Jefferson should come in feeling loose and knowing that all the pressure is on Pace. Jefferson is scorching hot, and I think their wins over teams like Hart County and Central-Macon should give them confidence against a team that will have length across the board. For Jefferson to win, I think Jacob Radaker needs to control the game inside both offensively and defensively, something he is capable of doing.