Eastside’s boys basketball team was probably the best team in the county last year. The Eagles had a 15-game winning streak at one point and finished the season with a 23-4 record before falling flat in the region championship and the first round of state.
The Eagles lost their six leading scorers from that team in players like Treyvon Francis, Anthony Henderson and Daniel Oduah. The 2014-2015 team is younger and Eastside head coach Gregory Freeman – who has helped the program to 55 wins in three years – is trying to instill a tough, grit and grind DNA in the team to circumvent some of the talent he’s lost.
“We lost guys that had been in the varsity system for two years and we lost the region 8-AAAA player of the year, a second team-all state guy. What you do, you don’t replace those guys. You plug guys in to keep playing and we’ve got some pretty good young players,” Freeman said.
“We coach on expectations over here. We expect our guys to do it the right way,” Freeman said. “It’s something that probably has never been placed on them before. It’s going to be interesting to see how they transition from the JV level to the varsity level as 10th graders going into a region with the defending state champs. It’s not going to be easy, but we wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Freeman had his team play a rigorous summer schedule to prepare them for the real season. Over the summer the Eagles went up against some of the tougher teams in the state such as Tucker, Lithonia, Carrollton and Douglas County.
“We played teams that are probably more advanced than we are right now in order for us to get better because we understand the region that we’re going into,” Freeman said.
Some of Eastside's players aren’t with the team right now, as Freeman has some of his varsity players that are playing football. When the season starts the Eagles will rely on players like Isaiah Miller, Marquis Sims and Joshua Cammon.
Freeman says he plans to use the athletic stretch fours he has in players like J.J. Saxton and Ratayvious Jackson, but despite the slight lack of size – the Eagles do have a couple big guys – Freeman wants his team to play tough basketball.
“We’re not trying to be pretty. We’re trying to win. I always ask my guys, ‘What’s on your resume?’ If you don’t have a championship resume, you can’t strut your stuff like a champion until it actually happens. We have to make it happen,” Freeman said. “We just want more and we’re going to always want more. Always. We’ll never play satisfied basketball. These guys are hungry. They’re going through it right now, they have to pay a price in order to be out here. I think we work harder than anybody.”
What they don’t have in talent, Eastside will try to maximize in effort Freeman says. In practice Freeman challenges his players as a team and individually. If you screw up, he won’t hesitate to call you on it. But, he also will tell you why you did what you did wrong and how you can get it right.
“Get it right. Don’t accept doing it wrong,” Freeman told his team as they worked on plays in practice.
The nasty taste of last year is still in Freeman’s mouth. You can tell from the way the team practices.
During five-on-five scrimmages at practice the Eagles look like they’ll be a fast team, and defense will be their mainstay. They pressure the ball, but they can play zone too. The guards are fast and sneaky, so steals will be a recurring theme. And the forwards have long arms to disrupt the passing lanes and crowd the paint.
Decision-making will be key in how Eastside’s offense performs. The way the system is set up, many times Eastside’s players were in position to take an open shot, but players would either drive or pass it up instead of taking the shot. If the players start taking and knocking down those shots, the team could have the right balance every team needs to compete for a state championship.
“Our goals are always to make the state playoffs in whatever capacity we can make it and try to advance in the tournament. That’s the goal,” Freeman said.
“I understand that you’re supposed to have a distinct advantage if you’re No. 1 or No. 2. We’ve been No. 2 the last two years and have not advanced. I do believe they believe in what they’re doing and it’s evident in how hard they work. As long as we keep that work ethic where it is, I think we’ll be ok.”