Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Norcross' Lorenzo Carter (22) dunks over defenders of North Cobb during State AAAAAA high school boys basketball semifinals at the McCamish Pavilion in Atlanta Saturday. Norcross defeated North Cobb 59-54.
From the beginning, Norcross boys basketball coach Jesse McMillan knew his team's focus would have to be directed towards the big picture for this season.
With as many as three potential contributors tied up with the football team's run towards a Class AAAAAA state championship until late December and newcomer Terrance O'Donohue needing until after the holidays to rehab a surgically repaired knee, it was a long time before the Blue Devils were able to build any semblance of team chemistry.
But while one of the three football players -- Myles Autry -- never made it back to the team after suffering a knee injury of his own in the state playoffs, Lorenzo Carter and Chris Herndon eventually did join the team.
Combined with O'Donohue's return to health and the lineup, the Blue Devils (26-6) have been at full strength, and on a roll since mid-January, winning their last 16 straight games to put themselves in the state championship game for the sixth time in the last nine years.
But it is a by-product of that team unity that McMillan says is the biggest factor in Norcross having a chance at its fifth title in eight years when it takes on Hillgrove (28-4) on Saturday night at the Macon Centreplex.
"If you look at the way we've been doing it, it's primarily on defense," McMillan said. "We're playing a little slower pace than we've usually played over the years. We've had a lot of games in the 50s and 60s as opposed to in the past, where we'd been blessed with a lot of athleticism and offense.
"This is a very rewarding team for all the coaches. In the past, we've always put emphasis on defense, ... but these guys have really bought into it. You can't teach effort, and one thing I'm not worried about with this group is effort."
Sure, the Blue Devils still have the ability to put points on the board, with senior Brandon Goodwin (15.3 points per game) and junior Andre Chatfield (11.7 ppg) being the main scoring threats.
However, McMillan's assessment that defense is the main key to Norcross' success seems to be spot on.
Through the Blue Devils' first 32 games, they've allowed opponents just 49.1 points per game, an average that falls to 45.2 points per game though the team's current winning streak.
"We pride ourselves on defense. We get angry with ourselves when we do something wrong defensively," said Goodwin, who also leads the Blue Devils with 56 steals, an average of 1.8 per game. "As soon as you walk in our locker room, there's a poster on the wall that says, 'Pride and 45.' We don't want anyone scoring more than 45 points against us."
The Blue Devils have done a pretty good job of accomplishing that ambitious goal by holding opponents below the 45-point line in 12 different games and winning all 12 of them.
But it's the 60-point mark that has become an even more important measuring stick this season.
When Norcross has held opponents under that barrier so far this season, it is 25-1, compared to just 1-5 when opponents manage to score more than 60.
A number of different factors have played into the team's defensive strength this season, including the speed and quickness of Goodwin and junior Khalen Pinkett (1.7 spy) and the length of the 6-foot-3 Chatfield (1.4 spy) on the perimeter.
But it is the Blue Devils' size inside that has helped force opponents out of the paint and into the waiting hands of the guards.
As McMillan points out, it isn't just the fact that the team features as many as four to six players standing between 6-5 and 6-7 see regular minutes on the floor.
It's also how strong those players are, such as the 6-6, 220-pound Carter (5.7 rpg, 1.3 bpg), the 6-4, 218-pound Herndon, the 6-7, 220-pound O'Donohue (3.4 rpg) and the 6-6, 200-pound Ricky Madison (4.5 rpg), that gives the Blue Devils as strong physical presence in the lane.
"In the past, we've been blessed with a lot of shot blockers around the rim who were real long and tall," McMillan said. "We (stlll) have some good size, but (this year) it's more physical guys who are really working in the weight room and putting a lot of strength into their bodies.
"Even our guards, if you look, you have guys like Brandon and Khalen, who are both about 6-foot, but very strong kids. Then Chatfield's about 6-3, and he's probably the thinnest of the group. Our defensive sets in the halfcourt make (opponents) really have to work."
The Blue Devils also have plenty of confidence in their defense moving forward into Saturday's championship game.
And while Hillgrove's perimeter shooting, led by junior wing Kyle Castlin, presents a challenge, Goodwin says the game plan will remain similar to what it has been -- using the team's size and strength in the halfcourt to force the Hawks into lower percentage shots.
"They're some big dudes," Goodwin said of Norcross' post defenders. "We might be small at guard, but we're quick. We've defended a lot of really good, top-100 (rated) players this season. There's not much we haven't already seen, so we're ready."