Breaking down boys basketball contenders by classification in the Orlando Sentinel Varsity coverage area:
Osceola and Oak Ridge | 9A
State champ Osceola (30-2) and Oak Ridge (24-5), arguably the two best big-school teams of 2016-17, are state favorites. But only one can win Region 2 and make it to Lakeland. They’re on a collision course.
The Pioneers had Emmitt Williams when they beat Osceola in a fall league game with a veteran cast that includes Emmanuel Adedoyin (6-2, Sr.), Kaleb Coleman (6-4, Sr.). Oak Ridge adds and football record-setter Marcus Taylor (5-9, Sr.) and touted ninth grader Raheem Sanders (6-2) to the mix.
“My guys talk about seeing (Osceola) again, but it’s a long way away,” said Kowboys coach Nathan Alexander, who landed the job at age 27 and is 127-44 in seven seasons.
He doesn’t have a senior in the rotation, but Osceola’s young guys have played the big games.
In Region 1, it’s Apopka’s time to shine for Scott Williams in his 25th year as a head coach. The Blue Darters (16-12) return top scorer Nathan Louis (6-4, Jr.) and plenty of support with senior guards Rodney Lubin and Jai Clark, who is back from a knee injury.
Wekiva (26-5), state runner-up last season, has senior starters Ronderick Perry (6-1, Sr.) and Jeremy Johnson (6-3, Sr.) and touted 6-4 ninth grader Michael James.
West Orange, with K.J. Simon (6-3, Sr.), and Evans round out rugged District 3.
District 4 champ Boone (21-8), which lost an overtime region semifinal to Wekiva, still has savvy PG Sean Halloran (6-0, Sr.) and hopes for big things out of De Kevias Bracy (6-8, Sr.) and Marlon Allen (6-5, Jr).
Orlando University (19-10) follows up a breakthrough season with a new-look team.
Seminole County has another balanced race, but Seminole (22-7) is now the team to beat with leading scorer Marquis Drummond (6-2, Sr.) and point guard O’Shae Baker (5-10), who was a force as a freshman.
DeLand (17-11) should ascend to the top of District 1. The Bulldogs have Wyatt Hollmann (6-8, Sr.) surrounded by experienced guards.
Edgewater Aims high | 8A
Edgewater (23-9), last season’s 7A state runner-up, is up to 8A. The Eagles graduated scoring machine Anfernee Simons but have a big, fast athletic team ready to make another run for Lakeland. Robert Allen (6-8, Sr.) and sophomore guard Michael Eads (6-4) lead the way.
Ocoee (14-14), which won its first district title, is restocking for the future with a very young but talented group.
First-year Windermere High is new to the game, but has a veteran coach in Mark Griseck and a good building block in Dakota Rivers (6-6, Jr.), formerly of West Orange.
In District 6, Hagerty (18-12), the runner-up to Melbourne last season, has five senior starters with the experience of more than 250 varsity games, collectively. Joe Conley (6-9, Sr.) will be one of the area’s best big men and the Huskies can always shoot it.
Castleton counts for Lopez | 7A
District 5 champ Deltona (16-11) lost man-child Blake Hinson (6-7, Jr.) to Sunrise Christian of Kansas so the Volusia County race is wide open. The Wolves did return Jalen Monroe and picked up Marlon Bradley from Deltona Trinity.
Father Lopez (11-16) has one of the area’s elite seniors in 6-11 Michigan recruit Colin Castleton and added key players, including athletic A.J. Jackson (6-3, Jr.) and former Oviedo point guard Devon Knaub (5-8, Sr.).
New Smyrna Beach has Embry-Riddle signee Nick Heard (6-4, Sr.).
Port Orange Atlantic (24-5) is rebuilding with young talent.
Leesburg streaks into season | 6A
Leesburg (23-6) carries an 18-game winning streak into the season but the schedule is not built to protect that. The Yellow Jackets play West Oaks Academy on Saturday at Oak Ridge and could face six 2016-17 state finals teams – including Osceola – in the regular season.
Bishop Moore (17-7), with one of the area’s best juniors in guard Hunter Cattoor (6-4), is eager to reach region play for the first time since 2007. Eustis (17-10) stands in the way.
Where’s big Balsa for Lakers? | 5A
Windermere Prep (19-10), the Region 2 runner-up to Villages Charter, picked up 7-1 junior Balsa Koprivica in Florida’s summer of free agency. But because his name was mentioned in reports on the FBI probe into college basketball recruiting corruption the Lakers are holding him out until they get word that he is cleared.
If the skilled Euro big man can play his presence alongside freaky athlete Shaquan Jules (6-7, Sr.) and cat-quick guard Rahsaan Lewis (5-10, Sr.) makes the Lakers a handful.
Lake Highland Prep (15-13) was oozing with optimism until Jaxson Strates (6-8, Sr.) suffered a season-ending knee injury in fall-ball. New head coach Ben Fratrik still has a backcourt that can carry the Highlanders a long way. Jasen West (6-1, Sr.) returned from Trinity Prep, where he averaged 22.1 points per game last season, to rejoin PG Nick Honor (5-11, Sr.), who averaged 21.7.
The First Academy (26-2), up from 4A, sent Chaundee Brown (Wake Forest) and Malik William (Clemson) to the ACC and will have to reload quickly to be one of two region qualifiers. The Royals did gain guards Elwood Tomlinson (6-2, Sr.) from Timber Creek and Greg Gallon (5-6, Sr.) from Master’s Academy.
Jones (11-16), which adds touted freshman Roderick Henry (6-3), is a factor in coach Willie Anderson’s second season.
The region path for any of those teams will again run through state runner-up Villages (28-3), which has one of Florida’s top juniors in 2019 prospects in PG Tre Mann (6-4, Jr.).
Mastering the game | 4A
Master’s Academy (19-9) drops from 5A and becomes a sleeper team to watch in the 4A final four picture. Guards Jose Placer (6-2, Sr.) and Joe French (6-3, Sr.) are veterans for a team that added two impact additions. Connor Doobay (6-6, Jr.) transferred in from Lake Nona and Emanuel Hernandez (6-5, Jr.) arrived from Puerto Rico and could emerge as one of the best players around.
Orlando Christian Prep rules | 3A
Orlando Christian Prep (27-4) beat down seven postseason opponents last season by an average of 29 points per game, including a 78-48 state final blowout of Deltona Trinity Christian. And the Warriors were team just getting to know each other.
OCP’s depth is off the charts with Bahamian import Kai Jones (6-10, Jr.) and developing sophomore Kyler Rodman (6-9) added to the mix.
Mount Dora Christian (18-8) could be one of the better 3A teams with new additions to a lineup led by guards Taylor Trudeau (6-2, Jr.) and Joseph Martz (5-9, Sr.). Trudeau poured in 43 points in a preseason win vs. Miami Monsignor Pace.
Trinity (22-9) rebuilds with four key transfers, including Taybion Singleton (6-4, Jr.) from Father Lopez.
CFCA challenges | 2A
Central Florida Christian Academy (23-6) lost a region final 45-40 at Florida Prep of Melbourne, the state runner-up. With heady Army point guard recruit Dante Treacy (6-0, Sr.) running the show and Evans transfer Jordan Preaster (6-6, Jr.) at small forward the Eagles figure to get another shot at the Falcons.
Wildwood wants it | 1A
Wildwood (27-4) lost the state final to West Gadsden – which is no longer in 1A — and has the motivation and manpower for a return trip. Reigning 1A state player of the year Darion Wilson (6-1, Sr.) and highly-rated sophomore Marcus Niblack (6-2) lead a team that will test itself with games against larger-class powers, including Leesburg (twice) and Villages.
Flame is hot| SIAA
West Oaks Academy (18-3), which was ranked as high as No. 18 nationally last season, a No. 32 national ranking, is a proven commodity among schools that play outside FHSAAjurisdiction in the wide-open Sunshine Independent Athletic Association. The Flame are again built to run with a backcourt including returning starter P.J. Person (6-0, Jr.) and newsomers Tyrell Jones (6-2, Jr.) Ben Tal (6-0, Sr.) and Tyrieke Blakeney (6-0, Sr.).
DME Academy of Daytona Beach is in its second SIAA season. Inspire Academy, coached by former Orlando University coach Billy Owens, is new this year.
Downey Christian can’t threaten the top SIAA teams but Julian Newman will continue to pile up stunning stats. The sophomore, entering his sixth season of varsity play for a team coached by his father, averaged 28.6 points and made 198 3-point shots as a ninth grader.