The Tornadoes are improving as the season progresses.
Puppies grow into full-sized dogs within a year or two, depending on the breed.
Booker High boys basketball coach Markus Black hopes the process goes faster for the players he calls his pups.
The Tornadoes are a year removed from a roster with 13 seniors, six of whom are now playing in college, and two years removed from a trip to the state's Final Four, where they lost by a point (62-61) to eventual state champion Leesburg High. The departures forced Black to call for a program reset. Not only does Booker now have just four seniors on its roster, but the team lacked varsity playing experience. Only the team's captains – senior Noah DuBose and junior guards King Winkfield and Paul McLeod – got much time on the court last season.
Combine that with a schedule ranked the fifth-most difficult in Class 4A by MaxPreps, and the Tornadoes were destined to get off to a rocky start. They have, going 3-10 in their first 13 games. Over the past few weeks, though, Black can see his team starting to get it together. The Tornadoes are starting to play like dogs – tough, and with no fear of anyone.
"They are playing a whole lot more physical and practicing a whole lot more physical," Black said. "All the guys come in with different [shooting] sleeves and pieces of gear. That stuff has holes in it by the time they leave practice every day. They get court burns [from diving for balls] and there have been a few bloody noses, not from anything malicious but from competing. They are competing every single practice and now they are starting to see the work that they are putting in translate to the court, even though we have a ways to go."
The Tornadoes came within 10 seconds of toppling Lakewood Ranch High, which reached the 8A state championship game last season, on the road in a hostile environment Jan. 7. Treyvon Hinson, a junior forward, collected three offensive rebounds in a row and got a shot to fall to give Booker a 54-53 lead before Lakewood Ranch senior Christian Shaneyfelt converted on an "And-1" layup with three seconds left to give the Mustangs the win. King Winkfield led the Tornadoes with 17 points and nine steals, and junior Jason Palavra added 15 points.
The physicality Black wants was on display, as Booker bruised Lakewood Ranch on the boards and forced them into contested shots. It also highlighted the things Black believes the team still needs to fix, namely ball control and decision-making. A few times, Booker players looked for a foul call that wasn't there, only to be slow getting back on defense and allowing a Mustangs basket or being forced to foul themselves. Those things will come, Black said. He knew this team would not be an instantaneous contender like his last two. He has had to go back to teaching basics, which he said has been a fun challenge.
The game against Lakewood Ranch made an impression on the opposing coach.
"They are a team that is significantly better than their record," Lakewood Ranch coach Jeremy Schiller said. "They have played an unbelievably hard schedule. They have battled with everyone and that's why they were prepared for the moment. I mean, they took the lead took the lead with 10 seconds left. We happened to come down and make a game-winning play, but these moments are gonna help them, too. They are going to be the team that gets key rebounds and key stops in the future. I think they have a chance to make a ton of noise in their playoff run because they are really good."
Booker still has a chance to make noise in the postseason, as Schiller predicted. Despite the monstrous schedule, the team's district is relatively weak, with Black banking on the experience gained against tough opponents shining though against lesser ones. The biggest challenge will be Tampa Catholic, which beat national power IMG Academy earlier this season and defeated Booker 73-57 in Tampa on Dec. 3. But the Tornadoes have grown since that meeting. If another matchup occurs in the district tournament, which begins Feb. 11, expect a closer final score.
And no matter what happens, expect Booker's dogs to improve their bite.