The Sandy Creek Patriots added a 96-58 win over Cedartown on Friday, and closed out their regular season on Saturday against Central-Carroll with a 92-50 victory. Overall, the program boasts a 22-3 record and sits at No. 2 in the polls behind two-time defending state champion Upson-Lee.
Against Class AAAA opponents this year, they are a perfect 13-0 and their 12-0 record against Region 5-AAAA is another spike of confidence with region tournaments tipping off this week statewide.
Last year’s team crossed paths with Upson-Lee in the semifinals, and fell 52-51 in a heartbreaker to the eventual state champs. It was a game that then first-year head coach Jon-Michael Nickerson believed his team should’ve won.
“We thought we were the better team,” Nickerson told the AJC following the defeat. “That’s what I thought on film. From top to bottom, I thought our depth was better, I thought we had better skill, I thought we shared the ball, were more unselfish.”
The difference according to Nickerson was “They’re tougher than us.”
Seniors Kam Miller (East Georgia State College), Jarred Godfrey (Fort Wayne) and Xavier Brewer (Morehouse) graduated and went on to play in the next level, presenting Nickerson with the task of blending the returning experience with a new group of young and emerging contributors.
Nickerson’s extensive background as an athlete and coach fashioned his offseason formula that the Patriots would use to build off of their final four run.
The 6-foot-6 head coach spent three years pitching in the Minor Leagues before he left the diamond to play basketball for Kennesaw State University. After four years of playing for the Owls, Nickerson began a coaching journey that included positions at Cartersville-based Excel Christian at the high school level, and then Memphis, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) and Faulkner University at the collegiate level. It is this personal understanding that is not only elevating the program, but also preparing and equipping the players to continue their careers at the next level.
“I think what I am teaching them is exactly what they are going to see in most college practices,” explained Nickerson. “You got to be able to defend one-on-one and close out properly and you have to take pride in your one-on-one defense. Because if you can’t keep your guy in front of you, then you are not going to be able to play at the next level. That’s just one of many things. I think just being a college assistant at a really good NAIA school and then at the high-major level at Memphis, and the low major school Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis as an assistant, you are able to see different coaches’ strategies and philosophies and you pick and choose and work on those things you learn and apply them in simple ways to kids at the high school level. It’s going to be hard for them not to improve as long as they are coachable and listen.”
Sandy Creek opened the year against a tough Class AAAAA Fayette County team and fell 74-66, but quickly responded. Cross-classification battles against top programs like Greater Atlanta Christian, Lithonia, Dacula and Westlake packed the schedule, and the Patriots continued to impress.
“Early on, we were so new with each other,” said Nickerson. “We had our young guys that were really good mixed with the older guys. So we had very few people that had actually played multiple years with each other. It took us a good 15-20 games to really figure out who needs to be taking these amounts of shots. I think we are clicking now and starting to peak.”
Much of the program’s ascent this season stems from the outstanding play of T.J. Bickerstaff. The 6-foot-8 Drexel signee is the team’s leader in points (19.9 ppg), rebounds (10.2), assists (4.5) and steals (2) this season. He dropped a career-high 34 points off 13-16 shooting when Sandy Creek faced Cedartown back on Jan. 15 and has made six three pointers in each of Sandy Creek’s last two games. He is shooting 50 percent from beyond the arc on the year and it’s this area of improvement that Nickerson says has led to Bickerstaff’s breakout season.
It’s not just the versatile big man, however, that is providing Sandy Creek with consistent scoring. Senior Julian Alexander (13.2 ppg) and junior Keith Williams III (12 ppg) are also capable of taking command in a game and 6-foot-8 sophomore Jabari Smith is posting 12.4 ppg and 7.2 rebounds per outing.
“We’ve got a great combination of size, talent and skill,” said Nickerson. “We try to do stuff to create extra possessions in the game and we play very well when we are playing fast and it’s not just a methodical halfcourt game. So anything we can do to create extra possessions is great for us. We preach to defend without fouling. That way, even if they do score we can keep the game going and keep them running throughout the game.”
Sandy Creek has long been celebrated for its success on the football field and its hardly surprising with alumni like Calvin Johnson and the school’s trio of state titles won between 2009-12. But despite the school also having highly-competitive basketball teams annually, neither the girls nor boys programs have been able to capture a state title. This year’s team is on a mission to change that.
“There are extremely talented teams in AAAA,” said Nickerson. “You see tough wins on their schedules that show they are legit contenders. Still, I feel extremely confident about our chances as long as we stay healthy and continue playing the same brand of basketball. With our combination of athleticism, decision-making and skill, I think we are definitely one of the top contenders in the state, no matter what the classification is.”