TAMPA — Forgive the prognosticators for not giving Tampa Catholic's boys basketball team much of a chance to reach the state semifinals at the beginning of the season.
At first glance, the Crusaders appeared to be in dire straits. Kevin Knox, a 6-foot-9 forward who was arguably the best player in bay area history, was gone.
Knox graduated in May and is already considered one of the top college players in the nation as a freshman at Kentucky. That seemed to spell doom, and many questioned how Tampa Catholic would do without him.
The answer: just as well.
Maybe even better.
With Knox, the Crusaders went to two straight state semifinals. Without him, Tampa Catholic (27-2) is back in the state tournament, playing Fort Lauderdale University (31-1) in the Class 5A semifinals at 4 p.m. Wednesday at the RP Funding Center in Lakeland.
The Crusaders have become just the seventh area program to make three straight state semifinal appearances, joining St. Petersburg (1931-33), Dixie Hollins (1961-63), Hillsborough (1964-66), Bayshore Christian (1993-95), St. Petersburg Catholic (2004-06) and Tampa Prep (1997-99, 2009-12).
Tampa Catholic did it with a revamped roster.
Besides Knox, the Crusaders also lost Tai Strickland, a Div. I-A recruit who transferred to St. Petersburg. Only three players returned who even scored in last season's semifinals — Tim Carter, Allijah Harrison and Kobe Knox, who is Kevin's brother.
Six of the 11 players on the roster are sophomores. Because of that, Tampa Catholic coach Don Dziagwa was thinking more in terms of the future than the present with this group.
"You want to be optimistic and accentuate the positive," Dziagwa said. "But we have six sophomores, so in all reality the thinking was just getting to the playoffs and not really looking much more ahead than that."
Before, Kevin Knox was the team's savior, night in, night out.
The supporting players had been the beneficiaries of the area's best player, the supporting cast in Knox's high-scoring games that helped the Crusaders start their state semifinal streak.
Tampa Catholic's holdovers knew they would have to fend for themselves with Knox starring as a Wildcat.
The new-look Crusaders have been all over the court and everywhere in the stat sheet, showing up under their own names and in everyone else's line, as well.
The starters, even those on the bench, have been playing at an elevated level.
"I felt like this was my time, and I had to step up," said Carter, a senior who is averaging 13.4 points per game. "We share the ball. It's not a one-guy show. Everybody knows their role."
Opponents have noticed the difference.
"They share the ball so much better than last year, when it was all about (Kevin) Knox," said Community School of Naples coach Kevin Donahue after a loss to Tampa Catholic in the region semifinals. "This year, they just have a lot of weapons to guard. They were definitely the better team."
The Crusaders are in the state semifinals not because they hang on to the coattails of some talented superstar who can bail them out in key situations, but because they have a collection of hardworking players who check their ego at the door and don't mind sharing the load.
"They've all stepped up and really overachieved," Dziagwa said. "It's been by committee. The guys have really embraced the team concept. Last year, Kevin averaged about 28 points per game. We don't have that. We have a lot of guys averaging 10-14 points per game. And that works, too."