Things get so clear cut come district tournament time. You win, you're in. You lose, you cruise. It's as simple as that. Single elimination tournament play can be a cruel way to end a long and successful season, but there's nothing like it to separate the men from the boys.
Take Bloomingdale. The Bulls are 23-4, ranked No. 8 in the Class 4A poll, two-time National Division champions, and seeded first in the eight-team Class 4A, District 5 tournament. But one mistake, one off-night, and the Bulls' marvelous season will be history.
"We started talking about it a couple weeks ago," Bloomingdale coach Phil Zimmerman said. "I said, "Hey, the season's over guys. We're 0-0, just like the other 120-plus (4A) teams in the state. We've been trying to treat every game like a district game."
Here's a look, site-by-site, at the five district tournaments either underway or beginning today:
Class 4A, District 6 at Chamberlain: Anything other than a second straight championship for Chamberlain would be a huge surprise. The Chiefs are that good, that respected, and that adept at surviving the pressures of post-season play. And it doesn't hurt having the home-court advantage.
Chamberlain (seeded No. 1) and King (2) have first-round byes. In today's action, Jefferson (4) and Leto (5) meet at 7 p.m. and Hillsborough (3) and Gaither (6) collide at 8:30 p.m. King, Hillsborough and possibly Leto are the teams that could give the Chiefs (24-3) a tussle, but all three have been inconsistent this season.
The Lions, however, have a little bit of motivational fodder. With ninth-year King coach Henry "Shake" Washington having already announced his resignation, the Lions might be fired up to win one for the Shaker.
"I think my kids might play a little harder because of that," said Washington, whose Lions (11-8) won five of their last seven.
"I'm close to these kids. But it's going to be a tough road. We're the underdogs. Chamberlain has to have the advantage. And with a player like (Chiefs forward) Jesse Salters, you know he's going to rise to the occasion. Great players always do."
At mid-season Leto was 9-9 and thought to be on the rise. Instead, the Falcons dropped their final eight games and haven't won since Jan. 12. If Leto is to get to its third straight 4A-6 title game, it'll have to get by Chamberlain first.
"Losing eight straight is not exactly the way we wanted to head into districts," Falcons coach Don Dziagwa said. "I'm not going to tell you we're on a roll right now. But, anything can happen."
Class 4A, District 5 at Lakeland-Lake Gibson: If all goes as planned, this eight-team tournament should for the second straight year come down to a Bloomingdale-Plant City final. But there are ways for that scenario to run aground.
If the Raiders and Bulls do meet, history favors the Raiders. Plant City upset Bloomingdale in last year's 4A-5 title game and won their only meeting this season, 90-87, behind Russell Evans' 43-point explosion.
After a three-game mini-slump in late January, the Raiders (20-5) have rebounded with six straight wins. With six wins in a row themselves, the Bulls haven't exactly limped into the post-season.
"For someone to beat us they're going to have to play well," Plant City coach Pete Weronik said. "We're doing things the way I hoped they would be done."
Brandon (4) versus Armwood (5) might be the best of today's four opening games. The Hawks have won nine of 11 after a 2-8 start and split two games against the Eagles (13-12).
The Polk County team that everyone fears is Lake Gibson (14-12), which plays an up-tempo game that can really roll when it's on. Plant City, which will likely meet Lake Gibson in Friday's semifinals, caught a break when the tournament was moved for Friday-only to Lakeland Senior.
Class 3A, District 8 at Lake Wales: Jesuit had the top seeding of this nine-team tournament within its grasp, but lost to Plant 41-36 on Saturday, sliding to the fourth seed in the process. Still the Tigers (21-8) are probably has most realistic title shot among the county's four squads.
"It happens," said Tigers coach Neal Goldman philosophically. "That's what's great about basketball. We let it get away."
Play began Wednesday night as Robinson (8) met Haines City (9). Today's four games include Tampa Bay Vo-Tech-Auburdale at 2 p.m., Plant-Lake Wales at 3:30 p.m., and Jesuit-Bartow at 6:30 p.m. Top-seeded Lakeland Kathleen (21-8) draws the Robinson-Haines City winner at 8 p.m.
Class 2A, District 11 at Tampa Catholic: Normally, Tampa Catholic is a factor in this five-team district. Normally. Little about this season has been normal for the Crusaders (3-23). Entering play today with a 16-game losing streak, Tampa Catholic is looking for one shot of redemption against fourth-seeded Clearwater Central Catholic (13-12).
"We are kind of circling the wagons, so to speak," Tampa Catholic coach Kevin Anello said. "All we need to do is win one game, because our kids really believe that we can beat (top-seeded) Sarasota-Cardinal Mooney. We want to go down swinging."
Palmetto (3) is the two-time defending 2A-11 champion.
Class A, District 9 at Bayshore Christian: Play began Tuesday in this 11-team tournament. Top-seeded Bayshore (20-4, ranked No. 10 in the state A poll) faces Riverhills Christian (13-9) in the finale of today's four games.
Tampa Prep, Berkeley Prep and Temple Heights are the other county squads still alive.
Class 4A, District 6
Jefferson (4) vs. Leto (5), 7 p.m.
Hillsborough (3) vs. Gaither (6), 8:30 p.m.
King (2) vs. Hillsborough-Gaither winner, 7 p.m.
Chamberlain (1) vs. Jefferson-Leto winner, 8:30 p.m.
Final, 7:30 p.m.
Class 4A, District 5
AT LAKELAND-LAKE GIBSON
Armwood (5) vs. Brandon (4), 2 p.m.
Winter Haven (6) vs. Lakeland-Lake Gibson (3), 4 p.m.
Plant City (2) vs. East Bay (7), 6 p.m.
Bloomingdale (1) vs. Lakeland (8), 8 p.m.
AT LAKELAND SENIOR
Winter Haven-Lake Gibson winner vs. Plant City-East Bay winner, 6 p.m.
Armwood-Brandon winner vs. Bloomingdale-Lakeland winner, 8 p.m.
AT LAKE GIBSON
Final, 8 p.m.
Class 3A, District 8
AT LAKE WALES
Robinson (8) vs. Haines City (9), night
Tampa Bay Vo-Tech (3) vs. Auburndale (6), 2 p.m.
Lake Wales (2) vs. Plant (7), 3:30 p.m.
Jesuit (4) vs. Bartow (5), 6:30 p.m.
Lakeland Kathleen (1) vs. winner game 1, 8 p.m.
TBV-T-Auburndale winner vs. Lake Wales-Plant winner, 6 p.m.
Jesuit-Bartow winner vs. Kathleen-game 1 winner, 8 p.m.
Final, 8 p.m.
Class 2A, District 11
AT TAMPA CATHOLIC
Tampa Catholic (5) vs. CCC (4), 8 p.m.
Palmetto (3) vs. Sarasota Booker (2), 6 p.m.
Sarasota-Cardinal Mooney (1) vs. winner game 1, 8 p.m.
Final, 8 p.m.
Class A-District 9
AT BAYSHORE CHRISTIAN
Riverhills Christian (8) 69, Lakeland-Beacon Prep (9) 52
Berkeley Prep (7) 77, Tampa Baptist (10) 40
Tampa Prep (6) 84, Lake Wales-Vanguard (11) 56
Temple Heights (4) vs. Lakeland Christian (5), 2 p.m.
Lakeland-Pathway Chr. (3) vs. Tampa Prep, 4 p.m.
Lakeland-Santa Fe (2) vs. Berkeley Prep, 6 p.m.
Bayshore Christian (1) vs. Riverhills Christian, 8 p.m.
Winner Santa Fe-Berkeley Prep vs. winner Pathway-Tampa Prep, 6 p.m.
Winner Temple Heights-Lakeland Chr. vs. winner Bayshore-Riverhills, 8 p.m.
Final, 7:30 p.m.