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Boys state hoops coaches share common bond in quarterfinals

Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Greater Atlanta Christian's Isaiah Wilkins (21) takes a jump shot over his teammate Eric Jamison (2) and Spencer's Kamani Bush (24) during the second round of Class AA state boys basketball playoffs in Norcross Saturday. GAC defeated Spencer 88-56.

Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Greater Atlanta Christian's Isaiah Wilkins (21) takes a jump shot over his teammate Eric Jamison (2) and Spencer's Kamani Bush (24) during the second round of Class AA state boys basketball playoffs in Norcross Saturday. GAC defeated Spencer 88-56.

Unlike some of Gwinnett County's girls participants in the quarterfinals of the state high school basketball tournament, the county's five remaining boys teams won't have to travel all that far for their Elite Eight games tonight.

Four of those teams will play inside the county, and even the one outlier, Peachtree Ridge, won't have all that far to drive across the metro area to take on Wheeler.

But two games involving three Gwinnett teams will take place roughly five miles apart, though it is more than just their proximity to each other that makes them close.

A half-hour after Eddie Martin's Greater Atlanta Christian (26-3) team tips off its Class AA quarterfinal game against Manchester, two of his former assistants will guide their teams against each other when Jesse McMillan's Norcross (24-6) boys play host to Berkmar (18-12), coached by Greg Phillips.

It's not the first time the two former, who were both on Martin's staff when he led Norcross to three straight Class AAAAA state titles from 2006-08, have sent their teams against each other, with Phillips' Patriots defeating McMillan's Blue Devils in last year's opening round.

And while both coaches admit there will be few secrets between the two of them, they also agree that they are trying to make tonight's game more about the players than themselves.

"It does present a unique challenge," McMillan said. "I respect him and his staff very much. They're probably more familiar with the way we do things than most other coaches, and maybe you start playing mind games. But it should be a very evenly matched game. It should be fun.

"(Berkmar's) ability to put some size on the floor with (6-foot-11) Tim Rowe to alter some shots is a big concern. They're a little smaller on the perimeter, but extremely quick. But we're prepared for that."

In addition to having sent his team against his former boss' team a year ago, Phillips, who spent a year as McMillan's assistant before taking the head coaching job at Berkmar in 2009, has also faced a coaching opponent even closer to him.

He's faced his own brother, Roswell's Ty Phillips, in two of the last three seasons, including a 60-47 Patriots win over the Hornets in this year's opening round a week ago.

"It's exactly the same way (as with Ty)," Phillips said. "It's probably more stress on Jesse and I than on the kids, but both of us will probably treat it like any other game. He's watched film on us and I'm watching film on them. It's really more our families (that will concentrate on it)."

In a way, that includes Martin, who has maintained a friendship with both McMillan and Phillips since he left Norcross to take over GAC's program in 2008, and admits it's impossible to choose which team to pull for.

"I'm very proud of both of them," Martin said. "Jesse didn't let anything fall off (at Norcross), and kept it rolling, and I'm tickled to death about that. And Greg has gotten Berkmar back (to statewide prominence), and I'm excited for him, too. I'll think about it when it's over with."

Indeed, Martin has a game of his own to concern himself with as the Spartans -- like McMillan's Blue Devils -- face the team that ousted them from last year's tournament when Manchester comes to the Long Forum.

And like Norcross, Martin said the Spartans are walking a fine line between using last season's loss as motivation, while not losing focus on the current task at hand.

"We've got a lot of different kids with us this year who didn't play much last year in the game," Martin said. "And other kids have stepped up for them. It's not so much about getting revenge on Manchester as it is about winning the game and getting to the Final Four."

The other two Gwinnett teams in action tonight face a similar task.

Buford (24-6) will try to post their 21st win in the last 22 games when the Wolves play host to Woodward Academy at 7 p.m. tonight.Meanwhile, Peachtree Ridge (21-9) already took down one state power on the road with its win at Shiloh in Saturday's second round.

And the Lions go for another when they travel to east Cobb County to take on Wheeler at 7 p.m. tonight.