After the Lakewood Ranch High boys basketball team flicked away Venice like a fly on Jan. 3, beating them 72-46 while playing bench players much of the second half, senior Evan Spiller was unimpressed.
There’s a long way to go before Feb. 16, when postseason play begins, he said, and that’s good, because the team has a long ways to go before it will be ready. Fortunately for the Mustangs, they took a big step in preparation over the holidays when they competed in both the City of Palms Classic in Fort Myers and the Kingdom of the Sun tournament in Ocala. Those are two of the most prestigious high school tournaments in the country.
To give an idea of the competition level, the Mustangs lost to Tennessee’s Memphis East, ranked No. 1 in the nation by MaxPreps, 76-58 in their first City of Palms game. The team is coached by former NBA star Penny Hardaway and features five-star players Chandler Lawson, Johnathan Lawson and James Wiseman (the second-ranked recruit nationally), and four-star players Alex Lomax and Malcolm Dandridge.
Spiller said the experience helped his team improve in maturity.
“Going into that type of atmosphere, a college arena, and seeing the crowd and playing against top teams, you have to be focused,” Spiller said. “You have to be locked in (to the game). We all have the ability, it's not a question of that. It's making plays when you have to make them."
In order for this year’s team to become state title contenders, Mustangs coach Jeremy Schiller knew his players had to be tested. Outside of seniors Spiller, Damien Gordon and Jack Kelley, the Mustangs are inexperienced facing elite competition at Lakewood Ranch.
The new players need to learn to battle, Schiller said, both physically and mentally. Thus, the scheduling of those tournaments was intentional, and yes, Schiller knew his team might lose a few games, but it was the only way to learn some valuable lessons before the playoffs.
“I think what happens when you lose, or you put yourself in an ultra-competitive environment, is you learn how you handle adversity and you grow through it,” Schiller said. “When they're faced with that level of competition during, hopefully, a playoff run, you're prepared for whatever happens. If you don't ever challenge yourself, you'll never know that."
The Mustangs sit at 10-3, equaling the number of losses they suffered last season (27-3) when they fell one game short of the state title game. Schiller believes the rough schedule's benefits started showing up by the end of the Kingdom of the Sun tournament in which Lakewood Ranch took third place by beating Rockledge High 84-79 on Dec. 30.
“We haven’t come close to maximizing the potential of this group,” Schiller said.
Against Venice, the Mustangs dominated. Spiller had 12 points and eight rebounds, Kelley added 15 points and Gordon had 11 points in their limited minutes. Junior Mark Caraher scored nine points off the bench.
Schiller isn’t satisfied yet, though he's happy with how the team responded to the challenging tournaments. It’s cliche, he said, but he believes his team has to improve in all areas of the game if they want to make their dreams a reality. That forecasts a lot of intense practices in the team's future.
“We haven’t come close to maximizing the potential of this group,” Schiller said. “I stay up at night trying to to figure that out (how to do so) all the time. We have a lot of great pieces and unbelievable character. We have a plan in place to work hard. Everything is about the next day and getting better.”