Norcross point guard Derrick Herbert (22) advances the ball up court against Peachtree Ridge guard Benny Johnson (11) during Friday night's game at Norcross.
It's easy to look at the Norcross boys basketball team's current 2-4 record and think the defending Class AAAAA state champion is struggling so far on the young 2011-12 season.
But as the Blue Devils head to Spartanburg, S.C., for the Fourth Annual Upward Classic beginning Tuesday, they have only to look back a year ago at this time to realize it is far from time to panic.
Faced with a brutal non-Region-7-AAAAA schedule and some internal strife, Norcross limped out to a 5-8 start, before winning 19 of its last 20 games -- including the last 17 straight -- and rolling to its fourth state title in the last six seasons.
Blue Devils coach Jesse McMillan only needs to point to veterans like senior guards Derrick Herbert and Nate Sims to soothe any doubts the younger players may have.
"We do ask some of our juniors in the program last year to remind the kids we can improve," McMillan said. "But it's a little different this year. We have a very large number of young kids. We have seven underclassmen -- freshmen and sophomores -- and it's been a difficult challenge getting them acclimated to the speed and intensity and decision making of the (varsity) game.
"The challenge is kind of different this year. Last year, it was more of a case of getting used to each other and developing chemistry. This year, we're having to do more teaching and learning. We have some goals in mind. We'd like to use around mid-(season) as a point where ... we want to make lot of improvement, and I think we're on pace for that."
Indeed, the Blue Devils are already beginning to see tangible signs of improvement by winning their opening two region games behind the contributions of seniors Herbert, Sims and Jason Croom, plus juniors Brandon Goodwin (leading scorer at about 14 ppg) and Harold Givens, after starting this season 0-4.
And this week's Upward Classic will provide a major test to see just how far the team has come.
A win in the opener over co-host and South Carolina power Spartanburg (6-1) would put Norcross into a second-round matchup with Bishop O'Connell, one of Virginia's top teams.
The field also includes three other strong teams from Georgia -- ranked teams Whitefield Academy (7-1, No. 2 in Class A) and Chattahoochee (8-0, No. 3 in AAAA), plus McEachern -- as well as other formidable foes from throughout the Carolinas.
The Blue Devils will have to take that test without one of its best players as Croom, who has committed to a football scholarship to Tennessee -- will be playing in the Offense-Defense All-American Bowl football game in Arlington, Texas.
However, McMillan said he is looking forward to seeing how some of younger players will react trying to take up the slack for the 6-foot-5 senior's absence in the low post.
"This tournament is big for us," McMillan said. "Derrick Herbert and Brandon Goodwin are both playing well, and Jason Croom really began to play well the last two or three games. It will be tough for us without Jason, and we have to find a way to match his intensity on defense and on the glass.
"Hopefully, some of the younger players will step up. We're asking some of these kids like (6-5 junior) Kevin Barnes, (6-5 freshman) Ricky Madison and (5-10 sophomore guard) Jalen Davis to step up. The audition is over."