Staff Photo: Jason Braverman North Gwinnett's T.J. Howard hits one of his three 3-point baskets during a game against Collins Hill.
Tuesday night's important Region 7-AAAAAA boys basketball contest between North Gwinnett and Norcross at North features one team trying to maintain the identity it has built for itself, and another still searching for its own identity.
The host Bulldogs have blended a young (only one senior), undersized (only four players standing 6-foot-3 or taller) squad into one that currently stands just a half-game behind Peachtree Ridge for the region lead at 7-1 (13-3 overall).
Buoyed by sophomores T.J. Howard and Kam Calhoun, who gained valuable experience starting as freshmen a year ago, plus juniors Ahmad Caver and Owen Lewis, plus other contributors, the Bulldogs have found their niche.
"I think our guys have great chemistry," North coach Zach Smith said. "But (Norcross has) a lot of tradition, and … they haven't had all their pieces until now. They're not anywhere as good as they're going to be, but they're still very good."
Indeed, the Blue Devils (10-6, 6-2), who are currently a game and a half off the lead and in third in the region, have had to await important pieces to their puzzle — due to the success of the Norcross football team and injuries to other key players — throughout the season.
And with all the new faces added over the past month or so, such as forwards Lorenzo Carter and Terrance O'Donahue, to a lineup that includes veterans like Brandon Goodwin, it has been a struggle to keep things consistent.
The Blue Devils looked like they had turned a corner by winning five of six games since the holidays, but suffered a setback with last Friday's loss to Mill Creek.
And though they don't play again for another week after Tuesday, a jam-packed schedule the rest of the month — which includes a stretch of four games in five nights next week — doesn't give coach Jesse McMillan much time to find the right mix.
"Friday (against Mill Creek), we had extremely poor ball movement and a lack off communication on the defensive end," McMillan said. "We took a big step back. We're hoping to try to make some adjustments in practice (Monday), but January is a brutal month. There's not a lot of time to fix things in practice.
"(North has) they advantage at pretty much every position right now. … They're a far superior team right now. I'd just like us to respond. We're just fighting to stay relevant."
One way Norcross might be able to respond is by trying to slow down some quick North guards and use a size advantage the Blue Devils, who feature several players 6-5 or taller, enjoy.
But the Bulldogs have faced bigger teams plenty of times this season, and Smith said they'll stick to what has worked for them so far against Norcross.
"We're undersized in pretty much every game, so that's not a novelty for us," Smith said. "It just takes playing team defense and gang rebounding. If we don't do that, we're going to get beat.
"Shooting from the perimeter is also important for us. When we have (shot well), we've been pretty tough."