Favorite: Miami Norland
It has seemingly been awhile since Norland last appeared in Lakeland but really it has only been since 2015. Lawton Williams continues to produce teams that are solid on the defensive end and patient when they have the ball. The Vikings have a pair of bigs in 6’8 senior Reece Wilkenson and 6’7 junior Kris Spenkuch that can play inside with anybody in the classification. There is no “star” in the backcourt but Norland has had success with a “by committee” approach along the perimeter before. No doubt Williams and his squad will get challenged by the likes of Oakland Park Northeast, an always-strong Dillard squad, and district rival Miami Central. However, Norland has the pedigree and tradition to get through to Lakeland and take home another state crown.
Regional Favorites: Pensacola HS (Region 1); Daytona Beach Father Lopez (Region 2); Lehigh HS (Region 3)
Admittedly we’ve been enamored with P’Cola since 2016 when a sophomore-dominated team made a run to Lakeland. The got knocked off last year by a young Choctaw squad, and those two teams should be primary contenders to make it out of the region. When in doubt, go with the team that has the best player. Father Lopez has that in 6’10 senior Collin Castleton, a Michigan signee. New Smyrna Beach looms as a challenge in the district and Port Orange Atlantic and Deltona will always be tough. Auburndale lost a key player to transfer earlier in the year and the schools in Tampa and Pasco County that make up the rest of the region have little history of success. In Southwest Florida. Lehigh returns enough talent from last year’s final four team to make another run. Programs such as Largo and Port Charlotte will pose a challenge.
Best Player: Collin Castleton, Daytona Beach Father Lopez
We like to think we were early on the Castleton bandwagon after watching him last season drop 30+ during the MLK event at Port Orange Atlantic. Measuring 6’10 with skills, Castleton “blew up” this past July and his recruiting took off into the high-major level. He chose Michigan, whose offensive style is seemingly a good fit for his skills. Castleton can post up inside, step out and make open jump shots to the three point line, and put the ball on the floor for a couple of dribbles and score.
Pre-Season All-State: Castleton, Shawndarius Cowert (Pensacola HS); Diante Smith (Fort Walton Beach Choctawhatchee); Reece Wilkerson (Miami Norland); Christian Miller-Caldwell (Gainesville HS)
Cowert is a 6’3 senior and athletic combo guard that will be called upon to lead P’Cola. He’s strong, quick, scores in a variety of ways, and puts in work at the defensive end. Smith, a 6’6 junior, led Choctaw in all of the major statistical areas last year when the team got to the regional final. The nucleus of the team returns but Smith is still the straw that stirs the drink. Wilkerson is a solid post presence for Norland as he has good hands, nice footwork, and a variety of scoring tools around the basket. Miller-Caldwell was last year’s Player of the Year in the Gainesville area. The 6’4 senior has a nice stroke from deep, rebounds well for his size and finishes above the rim.
Better than Advertised: Oakland Park Northeast
Pretty much a group of athletic guards that are always on the attack, this could be a special year for Northeast. Led by 6’5 senior Angel Smith, Northeast should make it out of a three-team district and into the regional playoffs. Getting by Norland will be a challenge but if they do, the team’s playoff run could end with a title.
Don’t Sleep On: Bershard Edwards, Lehigh
The 6’2 guard was a complementary player on last year’s final four team. He proved this spring and summer that he has the talent to be the main contributor with his jack-of-all-trades skills.