We move onto Southwest Florida for our regional previews.
TOP FIVE “BIG” SCHOOLS (CLASS 7A thru 5A)
Winter Haven (Class 7A, Region 3, District 9)
Re-classification took the Blue Devils to Class 7A but are they will be favored to come out of this re-vamped region. Taking a cue from the NBA, this group is relying on a “Big Three” to take them on a championship run. Dylan James, a 6’8 senior and Georgia commit, has all kinds of potential for the next level. With his size and skill level, he is a true inside/outside threat. James scores off drives, perimeter shots, in transition, and on frequent putback. Long and athletic, he is a versatile defender. Isaac Celiscar, a 6’6 junior, plays as much at the point as he does off the ball. His motor always runs at a high level and he is continually in attack mode. His perimeter shot is satisfactory at this juncture (could be better) but his ability to slash to the basket and finish in a crowd is what sets him apart. He is another versatile defender. Jamie Phillips, a 6’4 junior, can also be found running the offense at times. He has a high hoops IQ, doesn’t force the action and will score when called upon. Kjei Parker, a 6’2 senior, comes over from Bartow and will provide a proven scorer, additional ball-handling, and a highly competitive mentality. Tyrese Mayo, a 5’10 junior, and Matt Vaughn, a 6’2 senior, are the leaders of the supporting cast. Winter Haven will play a challenging schedule. They have a high bar for expectations.
St. Petersburg (Class 5A, Region 3, District 10)
This team should be very interesting to watch this upcoming season. Tristan Gross, a 6’5 senior, will have the ball in his hands a lot. He shoots the ball well from the perimeter but also scores creatively at the basket. Dylan Kramer, a 6’6 senior, is effective around the basket, getting a lot of stick back points as wells scoring on cuts into the lane. He is an “X-Factor” for St. Pete. Marquis Curry, a 6’0 senior, pushes the pace on offense and provides ball-smothering defense. Sam Duckworth, a 6’1 senior, provides a little bit of everything at both ends of the floor. The rest of the squad knows their respective roles and plays it to the best of their abilities. Don’t be surprised if this squad makes a strong run in their classification.
Lakeland (Class 6A, Region 2, District 7)
Lakeland is now a heavy favorite in this district after Winter Haven got booted to 7A. Tyler Williams, a 6’5 senior, is the team’s leader. He is also a big-time football recruit. On the basketball court, he plays multiple positions, is a creative passer, improving perimeter shooter, and simply does a little bit of everything to help his team win. Rolijah Hardy, a 6’2 senior, uses his strong frame to overpower defenders to score at the basket or create room to launch shots from mid-range. Younger brother Derajah Hardy, a 6’0 junior, is more sniper than slasher. His range is well past the arc but he won’t hesitate to put the ball on the floor if over-played. Senior Kamaurri McKinley, 6’0, averaged ten points a contest last season and will need to contribute that much if not more. Philip Philgene, a 6’6 senior, will be counted on to help inside.
Tarpon Springs East Lake (Class 6A, Region 2, District 7)
As usual, East Lake will be perimeter oriented and play a unique up-tempo style of play to make the most of their individual talents. Justin Kruszewski, a 6’1 senior, averaged twenty points a contest last season. Henry Hurst, a 6’3 senior, averaged just shy of fourteen points a game. He has the build of a linebacker and will play physically but has a soft touch from deep. Albert Lacey, a 6’0 senior, is another perimeter threat for East Lake. Jace Maples, a 6’7 senior, will provide a needed interior presence at both ends of the floor.
Tampa Wharton (Class 7A, Region 2, District 6)
Wharton carries a strong one-two punch into this season. Chandler Davis, a 6’4 senior, is an athletic slasher and finisher at the basket. He plays bigger than his size thanks to his athleticism and leaping ability. Karmello Branch, a 6’4 senior, comes over from Tampa Catholic. He will provide plenty of perimeter scoring. Should Trent Lincoln return from a transfer to the West Coast, his dynamic point guard play will elevate Wharton to a different level. If not, there are enough role players to do what needs to be done while Branch and Davis look to score.
TOP FIVE “SMALL” SCHOOLS (CLASS 4A thru 1A)
Tampa Catholic (Class 3A, Region 3, District 9)
The team has an elite level one-two punch in 6’3 senior guard Eddrin Bronson and 6’6 junior wing Karter Knox. Bronson is a deadly outside shooter that also has crafty ball skills to get to and finish at the basket. Knox is a high-level athlete with three-level scoring ability. Both are solid on the defensive end as well. Isaiah Campbell-Finch, a 6’0 sophomore, plays beyond his years at the point guard spot. He makes good decisions with the ball, sets up teammates, understands pace of play, finishes drives to the rim and is a reliable perimeter shooter Caleb Gatewood (6’5 junior) and Kenneth Morgan (6’6 freshman) will provide points and rebounds in spurts at various points in the games. The Crusaders have the look of a team that should have realistic Lakeland expectations.
Clearwater Calvary Christian (Class 3A, Region 3, District 10)
This isn’t a group with great size but their tenacity and will to win should make them quite successful this coming season. Leading the way is 6’1 junior Daniel MacGregor and his toughness with the ball, vocal leadership, and ability to make and create shots for himself and teammates sets him apart. Ace Taylor, a 6’6 senior, provides Calvary with a potent inside/outside threat. Dom Sarigumba, a 5’10 senior, keeps defenses honest with this three-point shooting along with some drives to the rim after being overplayed for the shot. The rest of the team should be effective in the roles designated by the coaching staff.
St. Petersburg Gibbs (Class 4A, Region 3, District 10)
It was a bit of a shock when Gibbs reached the final four last season, especially when starting a pair of freshmen in the backcourt. Gibbs now goes from hunter to hunted, but with four of five starters returning from last year’s team, it shouldn’t make a difference. Sophomores Jacob Daniels (6’0), and Mathis Roberts (6’0) have great chemistry on the court and are very quick with lots of basketball savvy. Senior Marcus Calvin averaged double figures last season and senior Carmine Thomas was just short of that.
Fort Myers Evangelical Christian (Class 2A, Region 3, District 11)
Another young group, it seems like it is Evangelical’s turn to be the top small school team in Southwest Florida. Austin Leslie, a 6’5 sophomore averaged a team high 13 ppg last season. He was impressive at various events this fall. Gavin Williams averaged ten points a contest as a freshman and certainly will be called upon to increase that number. Noah Gergley, a 5’9 senior, can also put points on the board. While it may not be a team with much size, it certainly is one that can shoot the three and keep games interesting.
Lakeland Victory Christian (Class 2A, Region 2, District 8)
When you have a player like 6’2 junior Lorenzo Cason, a team’s expectations and opportunity for success greatly increase. Cason averaged 27 ppg last season but it wasn’t a selfish twenty-seven. He’ll give up the ball to a teammate with a better scoring opportunity. Jordan Lanier, a 6’3 junior, transfers in to give Victory Christian a potent perimeter scoring threat. Mike Andino, a 6’0 junior, averaged fourteen points a game last year and should take some of the scoring pressure off of Cason.
Top Five Players
Dylan James, Winter Haven: The 6’8 senior is committed to the University of Georgia and played every bit like a top 100 national recruit this spring and summer. A combo forward that can play inside and out, he has a reliable perimeter shot, decent handles, and quick bounce off the floor for boards and blocks. He is too big for smaller players inside and too quick and skilled for bigger players on the perimeter.
Karter Knox, Tampa Catholic: The 6’4 junior is considered one of the better players nationally in the 2024 Class. He won a gold medal this summer as part of Team USA that won the FIBA under eighteen world championships. He was also impressive playing for the Florida Rebels on the EYBL circuit. He was a top ten scorer in the 16U division before being pulled up to play for the 17U squad at the Peach Jam, where he averaged 17 ppg. A three level scorer and dynamic athlete, Knox has the talent and tenacity to play at a high level.
Jason Jackson, Sarasota Riverview: The 6’4 senior is ultra-athletic and uses his speed, quickness and leaping ability to great effect on the basketball court. His perimeter shot continues to improve but it is his ability to get past defenders, into the lane, and finish above the rim that is most concerning to the defense. He committed to Texas Tech early in the spring.
Eddrin Bronson, Tampa Catholic: The 6’3 senior was a bit quieter than expected on the summer circuit but was still made quite the impact when we saw him play. He has seemingly become much more athletic and as a result is getting to the basket and finishing much better. Bronson is a dangerous jump shooter, especially when coming off ball-screens. He is also an active defender both on the ball and in the passing lanes.
Kjei Parker, Winter Haven: The 6’2 senior has moved to Winter Haven and will be a key cog in their quest for a state title. He plays under control and never seems to get rattled. Parker has a nice mid-range shot, craftily gets to the basket, makes good decisions, and defensively is active and alert for any opportunity to swipe the basketball.
#1 Senior: Dylan James, Winter Haven (see above)
#1 Junior: Karter Knox (see above)
#1 Sophomore: Joshua Lewis, Tampa Blake: The 6’6 wing had an impressive freshman year at Blake and built on that with solid performances this spring and summer with the 15U Florida Rebels. Athletic, long, and skilled, Lewis is very versatile, plays inside and out, and has a very high ceiling.
#1 Freshman: Ken Morgan, Tampa Catholic: At 6’6 with a solid frame, Morgan already is a step ahead of most freshmen. A bit raw in the skills department, he will certainly earn his keep grabbing rebounds, challenging shots, and making the most of his opportunities around the basket.
Senior Sleeper: Marshall O’Hearn, Sebring: Toiling away in near invisibility, O’Hearn woke up the masses with a 30+ point performance at the Mosaic Shootout at the end of last season. A better-than-expected athlete, O’Hearn can fill it up from deep or take the ball strong to the basket and score in a crowd.