Perhaps the season's best turnaround is taking place at Pinellas Park under first-year coach Larry Murphy.
The Patriots were a 2-6 afterthought entering January. Then senior-laden Pinellas Park began getting a better grasp of Murphy's pressure defensive schemes. The result: The Patriots have won eight of their past 10 games, improving to 10-8 and establishing themselves as a major threat come playoff time to Class 5A, District 11 favorites Boca Ciega and Clearwater.
"Defensively, we've gotten much better," said Murphy, who came to Pinellas Park in July after six seasons as the junior varsity coach at his alma mater, Dixie Hollins. "We're doing a lot of things differently than Pinellas Park is used to. We're pressuring the whole game."
Five seniors have led the way: point guard Jermaine Jenkins, shooting guard Ray Thomas, small forward Keon Jenkins (a transfer from Gibbs), power forward Eddie Brady and center Zarko Krkeljas.
"To tell the truth, I expected to start out a little better since we're a senior-dominated team," Murphy said. "It just took a little while to learn."
Jermaine Jenkins' comeback has been critical. The gritty point guard has sustained a torn ACL in each knee, the second coming before his junior season. Shinsplints hindered him early this season, but he's on track now, as evidenced by his five three-pointers in Pinellas Park's 72-70 win over Clearwater on Jan. 28.
"It helped their confidence knowing they beat a good team," Murphy said.
ON THE RISE, II: Countryside, the alma mater of NBA big men Andrew DeClercq and Matt Geiger, had fallen on hard times in recent years, bottoming out with a 2-23 record last season.
However, the Cougars, like Pinellas Park, might have upset potential in the 5A-11 playoffs. Countryside is 8-4 in its past 12 games and has evened its record at 9-9.
The dynamic senior backcourt of point guard Kenny Huertas (19.5 points per game) and shooting guard Hank McWhorter (15.2) is combining for almost 35 points a game. Both Huertas and McWhorter have been getting looked at by some smaller Division I colleges, coach Randall Leath said.
"I consider (McWhorter and Huertas) the best guard combination in the area." said Leath, who is in his fourth season at Countryside. "We're reaping the benefits of consistency. We've got three seniors who have been in the program for years and running the same system."
The third senior, forward Brandon Moore, has provided the intangibles.
"His leadership ability has been a key to this whole thing," Leath said.
ON THE WEB: Not getting enough of Pinellas County boys basketball? A new Web site provides an outlet for your passion.
www.pinellashoops.com, the brainchild of Shorecrest boys basketball coach Travis Hill, debuted Jan. 27.
Though still in the developmental stages, Hill said the site, through word of mouth, has received more than 1,000 hits.
Among its many features are transcribed interviews (this week, Clearwater coach Rudy Coffin) and a message forum. Several people, including Plant coach Mike Phillips and Clearwater Central Catholic assistant coach Al Braithwaite, already have made a posting in the forum.
Judging by a few other postings, some lively cyberspace debating over which teams and players are the best in the county is destined to occur.
GETTING BETTER: Indian Rocks Christian improved to 14-11 with a 48-46 win Tuesday over Northside Christian, its first-ever win over the Mustangs. This season, they also earned their first win against Keswick Christian. The IRC program began in 1992-93.
_ PETE YOUNG