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Ask around and you’ll hear about how this is Jesuit High School’s year.
The boys basketball team is loaded with battled-tested seniors big and small, steered by a terrific point guard in Devin Harris, its desire forged by last year’s 41-point loss in the region final.
In 27 games, the Tigers have lost just once, and none of those other 26 games were decided by fewer than 10 points.
But the Tigers are only the cherry on top of a tall local boys hoops sundae.
Jesuit has a tough road to the final four, and while most expect the team to reach state, expectations are also high for others.
Last year, five Tampa Bay boys teams advanced to the state semifinals in Lakeland, tying a benchmark set in the 2000 season. This year, we could see more.
“I think there’s a lot of teams that have more experienced kids in the higher grades this year,” said Tampa Prep coach Joe Fenlon. “These teams are not overnight sensations.”
Fenlon’s Terrapins are expected to make it back to Lakeland, thanks to their experienced crew, namely point guard Josh Heath.
Of the five teams that advanced to Lakeland last year, Tampa Prep was the only one to win a championship. And the Terrapins have made state the past four seasons.
With the playoffs tipping off Thursday night, here’s a look at some of the area’s best bets.
Wharton (21-4) is the only team ranked (No. 9) in its region. The Wildcats have been knocked out of the playoffs the past two years by a total of four points. But their two best players — forward Sir Patrick Reynolds and point guard C.J. McGill — are seniors, as are the majority of other key contributors. This could be their year.
Beware: Sarasota Riverview has four players taller than 6 feet 5, and Treasure Coast has won 11 straight.
St. Petersburg, Chamberlain, Wiregrass Ranch and Seminole are in the same region, so whomever emerges will be just one win from the final four. The Green Devils advanced last year, but Chamberlain may be poised to break through. And in another 7A region, East Bay, which beat West Port in 2011 for its only playoff win since 1968, and Brandon try to make history.
Beware: Stuart Martin County (23-3) is ranked No. 6, and point guard Jermohn Queen scored 37 in a 77-76 region championship loss to St. Petersburg last year. If he and Chamberlain’s Reggie Hart meet up, buy extra bulbs for the scoreboard. As for East Bay and Brandon, No. 2-ranked Bartow is likely standing in the way.
Another region thick with local teams (five of the eight). Sickles (24-4) is the best bet to emerge, unless Largo wins its appeal of Jonathan Crawford’s suspension (for two technical fouls in a district semifinal). The Packers have won 12 straight but struggled with ball-handling in their first game without Crawford. Armwood, Mitchell and Land O’Lakes are also in the mix.
Beware: Winter Haven is 19-10 and the most formidable obstacle. But the Blue Devils have lost to Jesuit, Brandon and Gibbs this season.
Is this Jesuit’s year? As dominant as the Tigers have been, it’s hard to see it otherwise, but the path to Lakeland is treacherous with games against Boca Ciega, probably Gibbs, then either Lake Wales or Auburndale. But the Tigers are built for this moment.
And either Wesley Chapel or Nature Coast, a state semifinalist last year, is almost certain to reach the regional final. Both have strong aggressive inside games, so you can't rule out either in that game, regardless of who awaits them.
Beware: All of it. This region has the No. 1- (Jesuit), 2- (Auburndale) and 3- (Lake Wales) ranked teams in the class. One of them is your likely state champ. And Wesley Chapel or Nature Coast would be considered an underdog against Palatka (23-4) or Bartram Trail (20-6), the two district champs in the other half of their bracket.
Berkeley Prep and Tampa Catholic, teams without a strong senior presence, appear headed for a second-round rematch. Berkeley lost four straight heading into districts then pulled out a pair of one-point wins. Tampa Catholic hasn’t played a team that didn’t make a district final since December. To say both are battle-tested is an understatement.
Beware: Bishop Verot’s 16-11 record is deceiving, as 6-foot-9 star Ricky Doyle just returned from injury and scored 31 in the district final. The Vikings are 6-1 with him.
Tampa Prep’s path to a repeat is harder than last year, but we still expect the Terps to safely — with a nervous moment or three — navigate their bracket. In another region, St. Petersburg Catholic and Shorecrest — a final four team last year — are hoping for a second-round rematch of their district final.
Beware: Tampa Prep could face Melbourne Florida Air, which would be 28-1 if they met in the region final. And SPC and Shorecrest will both have to get past Cardinal Mooney (23-3) just to reach the region final.
We’re not sure what to make of Tampa Bay Christian, which just lost its coach and is under investigation by the Florida High School Athletic Association (recruiting allegations). Either way, despite a 20-1 record and the presence of 6-foot-10 center Dan Manzi, getting to the state semifinals will require a Herculean task.
Beware: Pay no attention to its 16-7 record; Orlando Christian Prep has won four state titles and 20 straight postseason games since 2008.