The LaGrange Grangers and Troup Tigers will hit the hardwood tonight for a key region showdown, and a packed house at Troup High will be there to take it all in.
Last season, Troup and LaGrange played four times, with the Tigers winning three times, including a 71-68 victory in the Region 6-AAA tournament.
Today marks the first meeting of the two rivals this season.
LaGrange (12-3 overall) is 3-1 in Region 5-AAAA, while Troup (8-5) is 2-2 in the region.
For the Tigers, only one starter, senior guard Lakeithin Buckner, is back from last year’s 19-8 team.
Buckner is the leading scorer for the Tigers, and he has been aided by the emergence of a host of younger players, including guard Demetrius Trammell.
Veteran Daryl Dunlap, the only player other than Buckner who saw significant playing time last season, is also back and playing well.
LaGrange has plenty of weapons, including senior guard Justyn Olson, high-flying forward Kwame Brown, sharp-shooting guard Rudra Kissun and a host of other players.
LaGrange does appear to have the edge in the paint.
While Troup doesn’t have much size, LaGrange has a solid group of inside players including 6-foot-5 Joe Sanders, 6-foot-6 Don Leak, 6-foot-4 Demarcus Turnbough and 6-foot-3 Drew Moody.
“I wish I knew something that we could do to negate that size, but I don’t know anything,” Troup head coach Thermond Billingslea said. “I know we can’t do anything about what they do. They’re a good team. We have just got to get in there and play and try to control the tempo if we can.”
Billingslea added that “with their size and their ability, it’s going to be tough. Even if you do everything well, I think their ability will override some of that stuff. We still have to execute.”
Billingslea, who is seeking his 500th high school coaching career, said if his team matches up in any area with LaGrange, it may be with speed.
“In spots, yeah in spots we can,” Billingslea noted. “Overall, they probably are a little quicker than we are. If we have a shot of anything close to being equal, it would be quickness, I guess.”
Meanwhile, LaGrange coach Mike Pauley isn’t taking Troup lightly.
On the contrary, his team has been working hard to prepare for Troup, and especially Buckner, who has shown the ability to put the team on his back.
“I’m real impressed by their team,” Pauley said. “This is one of the better teams he’s (Billingslea) put together in terms of teamwork. They’re real unselfish, they play well together, they’ve got a good plan. I like this team he’s got. They have my total respect and we are working hard to prepare for this game.”
While LaGrange may appear to have the edge because of its experience, Pauley knows all bets are off when it comes to a rivalry game like this.
“It’s high-school basketball and just about anything can happen,” Pauley said. “There is no question we have the more experienced team, we have more people back that started games and so on paper, we probably are the favorite.
“But it’s a cross-county rival game and it’s being played at their place and they’re playing for their coach to get his 500th win. I think those kind of things, I think what they do is equal out any kind of advantage people have.”
Pauley also said it helps to have an explosive player like Buckner in your corner.
“They have one senior, Buckner, who is one of the best players in the region,” Pauley said. “Anytime you’ve got guys like that on your team, you’ve got a chance to win.”
Pauley said he wants to create a fast-paced game.
“If they end up controlling the tempo, it would be in our best interest to find different ways to pressure, get the tempo up, to create some full-court kind of stuff that forces them to get down the floor a good bit and test conditioning,” Pauley said. “We do want to be able to control the tempo some and hopefully we’ll be able to do that with some of the ways we pressure the ball.”
Billingslea has lamented his team’s lack of defense at times this season, but Pauley isn’t buying that.
Pauley said that the Troup coach is just being humble, and in reality, is a master tactician when it comes to defense.
“One thing he always does is grind out the defense,” Pauley said of Billingslea. “Their defense is fantastic. We just hope can withstand their defense pressure.”
Pauley is also looking for better outside shooting from his team.
“We have the ability, but we haven’t demonstrated it on a consistent basis,” he said.